Environmental crimes are booming in a Madagascar, plunged in political chaos. Ten or more carts filled with around 100 terrestrial tortoises each are leaving the Mahafaly Plateau in south Madagascar every week, a WWF survey has found.
Poaching of both the endemic radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) and the spider tortoise (Pyxis arachnoids) for the bush meat and pet trade had long been known. But the ongoing political stability is now being exploited to the hilt for wildlife trade. These two tortoises are among only four terrestrial tortoise species found in Madagascar and their range is limited to the unique southern spiny forest.
“The population decline of these flagship species is alarming,” Tiana Ramahaleo, WWF’s Conservation Planning and Species Programme Coordinator in Madagascar said in a statement. “If we don’t manage to halt tortoise poaching and habitat destruction in the South, we might lose both tortoises in the wild in less than fifty years”
WWF recently carried out a survey of 30 communities in the area and found that tortoise collection in the Plateau Mahafaly is still rampant. Tortoises are gathered in this area and sent to the main meat markets such as Toliara and Fort Dauphin for local consumption or smuggled out of the country.
Radiated tortoises are found in the dry spiny forests of southern and southwestern Madagascar. International collection has been documented with Asian smugglers collecting tortoises for the pet trade and for their livers. Radiated tortoise meat is a delicacy for the Vezo and Antanosy ethnic groups in the south and people from the High Plateau around Madagascar's capital Antananarivo during special events such as Christmas. The locals of Mahafaly and the Antandroy don't do anything to the tortoise. It is a taboo against eating or touching tortoises. But large quantities of Radiated Tortoises are gathered by people from other areas of Madagascar who recently moved into this region, or by Malagasy people who are passing through.
The entire tortoise habitat is under threat from of deforestation. A Conservation International study two years ago found an increase in deforestation rates from 1.2 per cent annually 1999-2000 to nearly four per cent annually in some regions in 2000-2005.
Madagascar’s endemic tortoises are highly sought after in exotic pet markets. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade programme of WWF, recently reported radiated tortoises and other threatened Malagasy species openly on sale in pet markets in Thailand and Indonesia. On a number of occasions travellers have been arrested with Malagasy tortoises in their luggage.