The rise of the tortoise mafia

Posted on 15 May 2014

Made homeless, buried alive and illegally eaten in their millions: as if life as a tortoise in Madagascar wasn’t hard enough, they now face a new threat – the tortoise mafia. Aaron Gekoski travelled to the sacred forests of southern Madagascar to witness one plodding animals’ rapid march to extinction.

The Madagascar tortoises’ habitat is destroyed on a daily basis

‘Tortoises make people smile,’ Dr. Christina Castellano explains. Pint-sized Dr. Castellano of US conservation group The Orianne Society is a self-confessed tortoise nut who has been studying them for the last 15 years. She’s hit the nail on the head; despite their wrinkled grumpy faces, tortoises take us to a happy place. Perhaps it’s their unhurried and simple way of life; they graze, they sleep, they fornicate. Very. Slowly. And if this all becomes a bit too much for them, they retreat into their shells and hide. I’d like to come back as a tortoise. If only their future didn’t look so grim.

An endangered, radiated tortoise looks over a cliff in Madagascar

I was off to Madagascar, Africa’s tortoise hot spot, to investigate the crises facing these unique reptiles. Scientists believe Madagascar’s tortoises are experiencing unparalleled declines. Of the country’s five endemic species, all are critically endangered. Populations of radiated tortoises have, for example, decreased by around 50% over the past 10 years alone.

Tortoises are often killed by farmers

Several complex factors are contributing to this demise. Years of extreme drought have sucked the moisture from these once lush plains. Madagascar’s remaining forests are being systematically cleared for the charcoal and rice industries, and for cattle pasturage. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of its original forest, the tortoises’ natural habitat, remains. Pushed further afield in search of food, tortoises caught grazing on farmers’ crops are killed, often with an axe, or buried alive. And although protected under Malagasy law, their meat is increasingly offered as ‘the special’ in restaurants throughout the country.

Tools for slaughtering tortoises. Photo by C. Castellano

But perhaps the greatest threat facing the species is an all too familiar one: poaching. Madagascar’s tortoises are being shipped by their shell loads to Asia, the hub of the exotic pet trade. Here, they are then re-exported to collectors around the world. Less fortunate tortoises’ are sold on markets, their body parts used to create aphrodisiacs. Tortoise smuggling is huge business in Madagascar; it is whispered that government officials are involved in the trade.

The industry is controlled by a ‘Mr Big’, an Asian businessman based in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city. His name is not widely circulated as he has a reputation for brutality.

‘The tortoise smuggling industry is getting out of hand. It’s a hugely worrying situation,’ Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), who have a programme in Madagascar, told me. Rick proceeded to explain how armed poachers are invading villages and wiping them out of tortoises. One recent battle left a poacher, and the village king’s son, dead.

Given that most Malagasy live on less than $2 a day, the monies involved are astronomical. A large ploughshare tortoise can fetch up to $40,000 on the black market. This demand has reduced their numbers to less than 600, rendering them the world’s rarest tortoise. In order to maximise profits, poachers stuff the animals en masse into suitcases. Many suffocate to death in transit. There was, however, one shipment of 146 radiated tortoises that failed to make it to its final destination.

Confiscated tortoises

I arrived into the capital Antananarivo to meet up with Dr. Castellano and her colleague Rick Hudson of the TSA in Fort Worth, USA. With its French colonial architecture and fringed by rice-growing valleys, Tana is not without its charms. Yet in many ways it’s a classic African capital: a frenetic, litter-strewn, overpopulated assault on the senses. This was our meeting point before heading off into Madagascar’s remote southern villages and the epicentre of its tortoise trade. On our way, we would be releasing the confiscated tortoises into the sacred – and wonderfully named – spiny forest. I was joined by my good friend, film-maker Chris Scarffe who would be creating a community education video.

A grizzled looking turtle grazes on some grass

We picked up the tortoises from the TSA’s office in downtown Antananarivo. It was my first encounter with one since playing with a friend’s pet tortoise as a child. I remembered why tortoises, turtles and terrapins were all the rage at school. Despite possessing one of nature’s greatest defence strategies, there’s something incredibly vulnerable about them. They can be picked up, prodded, played with and kicked. Somehow, these animals need protecting.

After feeding and watering all 146 tortoises, we packed them into crates and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Fort Dauphine. From here we picked up our 4×4’s and began our unique mission into Madagascar’s spiny forest…

Stay posted for part 2

Follow Aaron on Twitter: @AaronGekoski

To see more of Aaron’s work please visit



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