Engaging local people in Madagascar to protect critically endangered tortoises

17 July 2018

WAGENINGEN, Netherlands (Landscape News) – The Mahafaly semi-arid plateau and adjoining seascape in southwestern Madagascar is home to some of the most unique animal species in the world.

The red-shouldered vanga (Calicalicus rufocarpalis), the giant striped mongoose (Galidictis grandidieri) and lemurs (Propithecus verreauxi; Lemur catta) are native to the area.

Perhaps the most iconic creatures of all are the critically endangered terrestrial radiated and spider tortoises (Astrochelys radiata; Pyxis arachnoides), on the brink of disappearance largely due to habitat loss, poaching for bush meat and the commercial pet trade.

For many years, local communities in Mahafaly considered the terrestrial tortoises as “fady,” a local term for taboo. Tortoises were left unharmed in keeping with cultural traditions to refrain from engaging with them in any way. That meant the reptiles remained safe in the Mahafaly spiny forest and tropical woodland habitat.

But in recent times, circumstances have changed, said Domoina Rakotomalala, a land and seascape manager with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

In part, this is due to a significant increase in the level of illegal collection and trafficking of radiated tortoises to supply the high-end pet trade over the last five years, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are widely believed to be the most beautiful of all tortoise species and a favorite among exotic pets, which is thought to be one of the main reasons for their demise, explained Rakotomalala.

Tortoise wildlife trade is banned in Madagascar under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is also an offence to remove them from their native areas.

On the sidelines of a recent landscape governance course organized by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Rakotomalala said that “tortoise smugglers come to Mahafaly because of the incentive of the market in wildlife trade internationally.”

“I started working with reptiles a long time ago before joining WWF,” said Rakotomalala, a biologist and herpetologist who has spent many years studying the reptiles.

“During my studies, I evaluated their population and the threats facing them,” she said. “I am now involved in an action plan designed by the WWF to reduce traffic of the tortoise in the area,” she added.

Rakotomalala named the radiated tortoise as the most desirable due to its high cost in the market. For some communities outside Mahafaly, these animals are a part of the daily menu.

OVERTURNING TABOOS

Rakotomalala and her community are working hard to change the situation to save these tortoises. “We work with different levels because the traffic is intensive and has a big value chain. Some people are making their lives through this trade, so it is quite challenging to halt it. But we are doing our best,” she told Landscape News in an optimistic tone.

The initiative was brought forward to try to persuade the Mahafaly community to protect biodiversity in the area.

Since the tortoises were regarded as taboo, local people were not very concerned about them. Rakotomalala and her colleagues had to find a suitable way to garner their interest.

Her team intervenes at different levels. They work with local people as informants as well as by encouraging people to manage their local resources and maintain their forests.

Through these activities we are not addressing the tortoise specifically because that method does not work effectively since the creatures are considered taboo, she said. We ask local people to protect their forest. In that way, they automatically safeguard the species inhabiting the woodlands.

Through its land use planning and environment departments, justice tribunals and the regional anticorruption office, the government of Madagascar is also involved in the conservation process.

According to WWF Madagascar strategy 2016-2020, the country is home to 5 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, and 80 percent of them are not found elsewhere.

The tortoises were found in the whole southern part of Madagascar, but now they are only restricted to protected areas such as wildlife facilities.

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