Hoarding is bad. Animal trafficking is bad. Jamming almost 10,000 endangered radiated tortoises into a house so small that they are crammed shell-to-shell and covered in their own excrement so that one can sell them within the illegal pet trade?
Astoundingly morally bankrupt.
The scenario described above was discovered one week ago by Madagascan police and environmental agents responding to a tip-off about a rancid smell emanating from a two-story house in the southwestern coastal town of Toliara.
According to a National Geographic report, the team was shocked, upon entering the premises, to see radiated tortoises covering the floor of every room. Three suspects, including two men who were burying dead tortoises outside when the officials arrived, were arrested, and efforts to transport the tortoises to a wildlife rehabilitation facility were quickly initiated.
While loading the tortoises into trucks late through the night and into the following morning, the team counted a total of 9,888 live and 180 dead animals. In the week since the rescue, 574 tortoises died from infection or dehydration sustained while they were at the house, per a veterinarian who is now caring for them.
Endemic to the southern tip of Madagascar, radiated tortoises have been in decline for decades due to habitat loss and poaching for bushmeat or the pet trade. The species’ beautifully marked shells make them highly desirable for reptile collectors, even though it has long been illegal for civilians to possess or sell them thanks to a Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species agreement that has been signed by 183 nations.
Approximately 40 percent of wild radiated tortoises had already been lost by 2008, according to the IUCN Red List update from that year, and an overall population reduction of 80 percent was forecasted in the future, when the full impacts of reduced reproduction from the current generation can be quantified.
Sadly, the tortoises’ status is likely to be even more dire than the IUCN estimate, following a period of political chaos that erupted on the island nation in 2009. With the local economy shattered, people desperate for sources of food and income turned increasingly to poaching. Though the country’s financial outlook is improving, the trafficking of potentially valuable animal and plant species remains a serious issue.
According to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), over 1,802 radiated turtles were seized from would-be smugglers in 2015 alone.
Experts from TSA are now helping to care for the around 9,300 surviving turtles rescued from last week’s raid.
Thanks to the high risk of being poached yet again, the rescued tortoises will probably not be returned to the wild, meaning that zoos and other wildlife organizations will need to take them in – quite a commitment given that the species can live up to 188 years.