This week, a veterinarian from Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Team flew to Madagascar to provide on-site medical care and relocation assistance for nearly 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises. The tortoises were discovered by authorities in a private residence, where it is suspected they had been for weeks with no access to food and water.
Prized for their ornate shells, the reptiles were likely meant for the poaching or illegal pet trade. It is estimated that radiated tortoise populations in the wild have declined more than 80 percent in the last 30 years. At that rate, they could be functionally extinct in the wild in less than two decades.
While in Madagascar, Dr. Matt O’Connor’s days are currently consumed with assisting the Turtle Survival Alliance examining individual tortoises to look for signs of dehydration, malnourishment or illness. Many of the animals are thin and lethargic, due to the desperate conditions in which they were held. Some have eye issues, while the sickest have oral plaques – painful lesions – on their tongues and in their mouths.
Despite this, Dr. O’Connor shared that the mortality rate is remaining fairly low for the time being. He will remain on-site for two weeks working to nurse the tortoises back to health and provide his expertise wherever possible. For now, due to fear of continued poaching, the future of where the recovered tortoises will go is unknown. That decision will be made by the government of Madagascar.
Shedd is still considering its capability to send additional staff and supplies to further assist the triage effort, which could take months or longer.