Creature of the Week #12: Radiated Tortoise

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Everyone’s heard of the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, and global recognition was given to the sad passing of Lonesome George earlier this year, the last of the Pinta Island subspecies. But there’s another unique group of island tortoises even more endangered than the giants of Galapagos, many of which are starting to recover. The four species of tortoise on Madagascar are all threatened with extinction, completely obliviously to most of the wider world. Among them is this week’s creature, the Radiated Tortoise Astrochelys radiata.

Before man’s arrival on Madagascar several thousand years ago, Madagascar’s tortoises included giant individuals akin to those on Galapagos, filling the niche of large, grazing mammals in the Island’s unique ecosystem. Nowadays, smaller species survive in tiny fragments of what natural habitat is left, and in the Radiated’s case these are the spiny scrub forests at the Southern tip of Madagascar. There, they’re tiny, constricted populations are vulnerable to exploitation by local people. Not only they are a very tasty prospect for the pot, but good money can be earned by exporting them illegally for the pet trade. As one of the poorest countries in the world, this would be an enticing offer for any poor Malagasy person trying to get a bit more by to feed their family.

These photos were taken in the garden of a hostel I stayed at one night in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. It seems very likely they would have come from this illegal trade, so whilst it was fascinating to get so close to them, I feel more guilty looking back on it. However, a monitoring programme is being developed that will provide local people with an alternative income, protecting rather than trading in the tortoises, whilst organisations such as Durrell and the Wildlife Preservation Society maintain insurance populations bred in captivity.

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