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Editor’s note: Staff veterinarian and herpetologist extraordinaire Matt O’Connor reports on the challenges and rewards of Shedd’s participation in an international tortoise rescue in Madagascar. His training prepared him for the medical emergency; nothing could prepare him for the magnitude of animals in urgent need.

Salama! Or “hello!” in Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar. As a member of Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Team, I recently spent two weeks in Ifaty, on Madagascar’s southwest coast, helping provide emergency medical care to more than 10,000 endangered radiated tortoises.

The animals had been illegally collected by wildlife traffickers and were living in squalid conditions when they were discovered and confiscated. Truckload by truckload, the rescued tortoises were carefully moved a short distance to Village des Tortues, or Turtles Village, a 17-acre private wildlife facility operated by SOPTOM, a French not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of Madagascar’s endangered endemic turtles.

Dr. Matt holds a radiated tortoise, about the size of his palm, in Madagascar.
An endangered rescued radiated tortoise in Madagascar sits in a sandy pen awaiting its turn for a check-up.

It was here that Shedd Aquarium offered its support. I was part of a second wave of responding veterinarians, veterinary technicians and turtle husbandry experts from Association of Zoos and Aquariums member organizations, including San Diego Zoo, Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society and El Paso Zoo, as well as international partners such as the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), which has a Madagascar office, and Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, Cambodia.

Not only did many AZA facilities and individuals donate their time and money, but many institutions sent enough medical supplies to take care of these tortoises for the foreseeable future. Any donation, no matter the amount, goes a long way toward performing life-saving work in a developing country like Madagascar.

“Any donation, no matter the amount, goes a long way toward performing life-saving work in a developing country like Madagascar.”

Dr. Matt O'Connor, staff veterinarian

Have D.V.M, will travel

The tortoises were approximately 9,360 miles from Chicago. Getting to them involved a 23-hour, one-connection flight to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, and another hour by plane (instead of 17 hours by car!) to Ifaty. Once there, we were assigned to either the medical or the husbandry team, depending on our area of expertise. Some husbandry team members were sent on to Itampolo, a town farther south, where TSA is building a new facility to care for and house most of the rescued tortoises long term. I stayed in Ifaty and joined the medical team.

By the time the second wave of responders arrived, the situation had improved. Tortoises are hardy creatures, making them easy targets for animal trafficking operations because they can survive horrific treatment long enough for the poachers to sell them and get paid. Local Malagasy staff and the first-wave responders had worked tirelessly to get the dehydrated, starving reptiles set up in temporary habitats, soak them and provide fresh greens twice a day.

Most of the 10,000 tortoises rebounded once they were properly cared for, and only 300 to 400 sick animals remained. That’s still probably as many tortoises as I’ve treated in the 10 years since I graduated from veterinary school.

Clinique de La Tortue is a boxy two-story building with a large sculpture of a tortoise sitting atop an overhang over the front door.
The entrance to Village Des Tortues, a dirt track leading into short, scraggly brush trees in Madagascar.

SOPTOM graciously let us use their facilities at Village des Tortues to house and care for the confiscated tortoises. “Tortoise triage” was the name of the game. The animals under treatment were kept either in a sick pen (for the moderately affected) or in the hospital’s makeshift ICU (for the severely affected).

Every day we began by performing exams and treatments on tortoises in the sick pens. The husbandry team often identified new cases in the general population, and these were brought to us for evaluation. To prevent cross-contamination, we treated the sickest tortoises in the hospital at the end of the day. In addition, any deceased tortoises were necropsied by one of the veterinarians to determine cause of death and help guide our treatments for the ones still alive.

Working with the tools at hand

One of the challenges of providing veterinary care in a foreign country is that you must be flexible and work with the tools at hand. One of the antibiotics we commonly use in reptile medicine is refrigerated to extend its shelf life. If you are working somewhere with no power—and therefore no refrigerator—that’s not going to be your first antibiotic choice.

When I teach reptile medicine to veterinary students or residents, I tell them, “Reptiles do everything slow.” That includes their physiological processes. We used that to our advantage as we cared for hundreds of patients. Many of the antibiotic treatments at our disposal could be administered once every three days, which allowed us to space out some of the treatments, reduce the handling of the animals and make the workload more manageable.

Dr. Matt O'Connor applies a green marking to the shell of a radiated tortoise while on a rescue mission in Madagascar.
SOPTOM workers stand at a table crowded with bottles, towels and papers, each taking measurements or painting color-coded notes onto the shell of a radiated tortoise in Madagascar

A typical physical exam consisted of checking the tortoise’s eyes, mouth, skin and shell for signs of infection and evaluating its demeanor and body condition. The biggest issue we faced was poor body condition; tortoises that died had zero fat stores and felt like empty shells when you picked them up. Medically, we mainly encountered mouth infections, weakness, lack of appetite, eye injuries and some shell damage.

Tortoises with mouth infections were another illustration of tortoise triage. At Shedd’s animal hospital, we would have sent out blood work, taken radiographs (X-rays), cultured the lesions, collected biopsies and run tests to determine the cause of the lesions. In a remote corner of Madagascar, we made due with microscopes to assess cytology of the lesions and a few blood smears to evaluate the tortoises’ immune responses.

With these limited resources, we were unable to identify the cause of infection. This is where our experiences working with reptiles in managed care situations like Shedd Aquarium paid dividends and allowed us to apply what we’ve learned to devising treatment plans for these wild tortoises. To provide some relief, we opted to gently remove some of the mouth lesions, treat with antibiotics and pain medications (anti-inflammatories) and assist-feed a liquid formula-based diet to those that had been unable or unwilling to eat.

Color-coded progress

We kept records of tortoises under more intensive care and marked their shells with paint pens to keep track of treatments. All confiscated tortoises were marked with blue chalk. Healthy tortoises being moved to the Itampolo facility were marked with white chalk. All treated tortoises were assigned a number, written on their shells, and then further marked with various color dots and Xs to indicate what antibiotic treatment they had received. Tortoises that finished treatments and were deemed healthy were marked with green chalk and moved back to the general population.

A radiated tortoise held in the palm of a researcher's hand, its domed shell marked with various daubs of colored paint to indicate various points of interest to researchers.

Marking a tortoise “green” was the highlight of the Animal Response Team efforts. It’s rewarding to see a severely compromised, hospitalized tortoise transition to a healthy, active tortoise mowing down leafy greens. Toward the end of my trip, I had an opportunity to assist the husbandry team during the afternoon feeds. The tortoises practically stampeded us for the fresh greens, and after all were fed, you could close your eyes and peacefully listen to thousands of tortoises happily chomping away. [Editor's note: See video below, and turn up your speakers!]

Long-range hope

How did we get here and what can we do about it? Few people are aware that the illegal wildlife trade is the third most-profitable international crime, after drug smuggling and human trafficking. The 10,000 tortoises were destined for the illegal pet trade in Asia and had a total street value between $20 million and $30 million.

Radiated tortoises are especially in demand because of their beautifully patterned shells and, ironically, their endangered status. International trade in the species, except for carefully reviewed scientific or public display purposes, has been prohibited since 1975, and special permits are required to legally export the tortoises from Madagascar as well as import them into another country.

Animal Response Team

When wildlife are in urgent need, Shedd’s Animal Response Team is ready to help, working with conservation partners around the globe to rescue and rehabilitate animals.
Read More , on the Animal Response Team page

“It’s rewarding to see a severely compromised, hospitalized tortoise transition to a healthy, active tortoise mowing down leafy greens.”

Dr. Matt O'Connor, staff veterinarian

Madagascar is a biological hot spot: 95 percent of the island’s 300 reptile species, including radiated tortoises, are found nowhere else in the world. (In Ifaty, I shared a hotel room with three endemic species of day geckos and a Madagascar ground gecko—along with wild Madagascar hissing cockroaches.) Due to this unique biodiversity, the Madagascar government has enacted laws to protect its wildlife, but on the large, developing island nation, enforcement can be difficult, both at the local and international levels.

Historically, radiated tortoises have been protected in their native range due to a “fady,” or taboo, against harming them. But people from northern parts of the country do not share the same belief system and have relentlessly poached the tortoises in recent years. Efforts to show the value of tortoise conservation to local communities and people are underway, implemented by institutions like TSA, SOPTOM and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Dr. Matt O'Connor lies on the sandy ground surrounded by radiated tortoises in Madagascar
Two radiated tortoises sit in the sand of an outside enclosure at a rescue facility in Madagascar. The tortoises have daubs of different colored paints and small paper notes affixed to their shells to help caretakers identify and care for them, and are chowing down on some greens with enthusiasm.

It was surreal to see so many tortoises in one place, and for the sake of the species, I hope I don’t again. At the same time, it was gratifying to witness 10,000 radiated tortoises beginning the long road to recovery, thanks to the efforts of so many people and organizations. I was lucky to play a small part in this effort, and I’m extremely grateful to Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Team and fellow Chicagoans for helping support my participation in this relief effort.

After my return, Shedd veterinary technician Rachel Parchem traveled to Ifaty to assist with general medical care, followed by senior aquarist Michael Yuratovec, who provided expert husbandry care. Shedd Aquarium will continue to be involved for the long haul, assisting organizations like the Turtle Survival Alliance to make sure the rescued tortoises are well cared for.

All the surviving tortoises are now at the TSA facility in Itampolo. Due to current safety concerns and the risk of poaching, the tortoises will reside in Itampolo and form an assurance population to make sure this charismatic, beautiful tortoise species is around for future generations. But the long-term goal is to release the tortoises back into the wild.

I have left my two rescue efforts, in the Philippines and in Madagascar, with a feeling of hope, from witnessing the international response to these crises to working with amazing local veterinary and keeper staffs. The foundation is there to protect our wild places and the flora and fauna that we share planet Earth with. Reptiles are resilient—they have outlived the dinosaurs, after all—and with a little bit of a helping hand, these species will thrive like they’ve done for hundreds of millions of years.

You can help with a donation to Shedd Aquarium to support future rescue efforts. Shedd will continue to provide high-level medical care for the animals within and beyond our doors and, through these endeavors, spark compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world.

—Dr. Matt O’Connor, Animal Health