Malagasy authorities arrest smugglers, seize 196 endangered tortoises
Malagasy authorities arrested a local man and an Indian national at Ivato Airport in Antananarivo on Monday morning just before they were to depart for Nairobi. 195 endemic baby tortoises and one adult Ploughshare tortoise were found inside three suitcases which had managed to bypass airport security but were then scanned just in time to allow authorities to make the arrests.
WWF Regional Representative in Madagascar Richard Hughes said “We applaud the government and authorities for the increased vigilance in enforcing the law, as in this case, and encourage that this and other cases be followed through to full and effective prosecution.”
“The Malagasy Transitional Government has recently shown signs of a political will to address trafficking issues, especially for precious woods such as rosewood and ebony” says Ndranto Razakamanarina, WWF Policy Advisor in Madagascar.
“This political will should be extended to the enforcement of Malagasy law and all crimes against protected species endemic to Madagascar such as tortoises. “
Three Main Threats
A WWF survey published last year showed that ten or more zebu carts filled with around 1000 tortoises each are leaving the Mahafaly Plateau in south Madagascar every week, and pointed to ongoing political instability as the driver for the large jump in illegal collection of Spider Tortoises and Radiated Tortoises.
Madagascar’s endemic tortoises face three main threats. International commercial trade in Spider Tortoises, Ploughshare Tortoises or Radiated Tortoises is already banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but they are still being heavily exploited to satisfy demand in Asia and Europe where they are being sold as pets.
WWF estimates that as many as 60,000 tortoises are being extracted from the wild every year.
Radiated tortoises are also eaten by the local population, especially during Easter, Independence Day and Christmas, but with increased poverty and food insecurity consumption is on the rise. Lastly, their habitat is being destroyed because of the ongoing cutting and burning of Malagasy forests.
High risk of extinction
Two species of tortoises endemic to the south and south-east of Madagascar, the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) and the spider tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides), are part of the flagship species of the spiny forest eco-region. They are at a high risk of extinction if the current rate of poaching continues.
Aware of this tragic possibility, WWF MWIOPO (Madagascar and Western Indian Ocean Programme Office) developed an action plan for the conservation of these two tortoise species in 2010.
These actions have already produced encouraging results in WWF project sites. From December 2010 to January 2011, 393 tortoises - 277 radiated tortoises and 116 spider tortoises, destined for international trafficking were seized by forest service officers and members of the police force.
Nevertheless, seizures like the one last Monday show that endemic Malagasy tortoises are still leaving the country illegally and despite the efforts of authorities most are probably going unnoticed.
“It is saddening to see Madagascar’s natural resources leave the country at such a high rate” says Richard Hughes. "The middle-men and traffickers are exploiting the local populations, to the detriment of the country's natural riches."
“The laws are in place, but weak enforcement, penalties out of proportion to the money at stake in illegal trafficking, and opportunities for corruption have rendered them largely ineffective.”
Ndranto Razakamanarina adds “Strong measures should be taken to ensure that the application of penalties is effective and appropriate and that there is no possibility of compromise or exception.”