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Update from the field: Turtle Survival Alliance

I’m Dr. Kate Leach, Associate Veterinarian at Zoo Atlanta. I’m the Quarters for Conservation Champion for the Turtle Survival Alliance: Radiated Tortoise Reintroduction Project, one of the three projects supported in Zoo Atlanta’s 2019-2020 Quarters for Conservation program year. Quarters for Conservation sends 25 cents of every general admission to programs for wildlife conservation.

To understand the background on the Radiated Tortoise Reintroduction Project, rewind to April 2018, when 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises were rescued from wildlife traffickers in southern Madagascar.   

In response, a massive international relief effort was quickly mobilized by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA). Veterinarians like myself, vet techs, husbandry experts, and construction workers from many different zoos and other organizations from around the world set off in teams for southern Madagascar to be a part of the Radiated Tortoise Relief Effort to work alongside TSA’s Malagasy team to treat and care for the rescued tortoises. I was honored and proud to have been a part of this incredible collaboration and outpouring of support for the tortoises.

Sadly, in October 2018, another heartbreaking confiscation of over 7,000 poached radiated tortoises were rescued from wildlife traffickers. TSA has set forth with the Radiated Tortoise Reintroduction Project, headed by Josh Lucas, to see these tortoises returned to the wild. Josh returned to Madagascar earlier this year to continue radiated tortoise field work, working toward reintroduction.

Below is a field update from Josh Lucas, Radiated Tortoise Reintroduction Manager with Turtle Survival Alliance.

“I returned in early 2019 to southern Madagascar, where I spent two months working to develop an effective reintroduction strategy for last year’s confiscated radiated tortoises.

My strategy for reintroducing the confiscated tortoises focuses first on community engagement. This kind of conservation work is not possible without involving the local communities who share the habitat with the tortoises. We have to develop strong partnerships with the communities so that we can educate them on the importance of the tortoises and empower them to protect the species, serving as guardians against poachers. To accomplish this, I camped in these communities and engaged with the local people over food and campfire. To develop this work, it’s important to break down any myths surrounding outsiders. Some of these communities hadn’t seen an outsider in over 20 years! Many of these forests are considered sacred, and for me to be allowed to go there was a sign of great trust.

In these areas, I conducted vegetation surveys and assessed the existing tortoise populations. I worked to involve the communities in my surveys and encouraged their participation as we monitored the plants and tortoises on their land.

This program is the first of its kind in Madagascar. I spent 50 days living in nine separate sites throughout the spiny forest. In that time, I found 802 radiated tortoises, re-encountered 350, conducted 450 vegetation surveys, and identified over 2,800 individual plants and their connection to radiated tortoises. The work was hard, and the days were long and extremely hot, but it was all worth it. We made serious progress towards getting these confiscated, critically endangered animals back into the wild. We are forging a new path in conservation history in an attempt to save an incredible species that’s in dire need.”

Photo credit: Oklahoma City Zoo

Kate Leach, DVM
Associate Veterinarian and Quarters for Conservation Champion, Turtle Survival Alliance Radiated Tortoise Reintroduction Project

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