The radiated tortoise is considered one of the most beautiful tortoises in the world and, in part because of its gorgeous, geometrically patterned shell, one of the most endangered.
But the scene that greeted Madagascar authorities when they entered a house April 10 because of foul smells would have been horrific no matter how significant or charismatic the animals inside.
Almost 11,000 of the reptiles native to the southern portion of the southeast African island were found throughout the structure, and they apparently had been there weeks, if not longer, without food or water, stockpiled in preparation for becoming part of the illegal pet trade, most likely in Asia.
“As soon as I saw that, I reached out to some of my colleagues at the Turtle Survival Alliance to see if they might need some help,” said Dr. Matt O’Connor, a Shedd Aquarium veterinarian.
The answer, as O’Connor knew it would, came back “Yes.”
“Honestly every day there’s probably a confiscation somewhere, but on the order of like 20 to 50 animals,” said the Glen Ellyn native, 36. “But rarely is there one of this size. In sheer numbers it’s the worst one I’m aware of.”
So O’Connor is scheduled to get on a plane Monday morning and fly there, part of a 13-person team embarking on a two-week rescue stint, helping to care for the animals with the hope of eventually rereleasing them to the wild. His travel is being funded by his employer, which has also set up a donations page to help the tortoise rescue effort.
“It’s pretty much all bad and then some,” he said, although the good news is that even under such stresses, turtles are resilient.
O’Connor’s expertise will be especially important because in 2015, he was part of a team that traveled to the Philippines to care for a stash of 4,000 confiscated Palawan turtles. That means he’s done in-the-field triage on turtles, determining which animals merit the most attention.
“The guy the Shedd Aquarium is sending, he’s a veteran of this kind of situation, and we’re really happy to get him there,” said Turtle Survival Alliance President Rick Hudson. “It’s huge getting people that are experienced in dealing with the symptoms you see in these big confiscations” — dehydration, malnutrition and infection, mostly.
“We don’t even have electricity there. We need people that can make judgments without a whole lot of diagnostics,” he said.
Zoos and aquariums have become critical parts of such rescue efforts. Shedd, for instance, has sent animal care specialists to the California coast to aid in seasonal marine mammal rescue efforts.
“Zoos are just critical to our mission,” said Hudson. “They are able to respond to these types of crises and deploy people when the time comes. … Up to 30 have contributed just for this event.”
This one is especially profound, the highest body count in his organization’s almost two decades of existence. “At first we didn’t believe the numbers,” Hudson said. “We thought they had to be an exaggeration.”
Not only are many of the animals in dire straits — the first U.S. volunteer team to respond to the discovery is there now; O’Connor’s will be the second — but getting radiated tortoises ready for rerelease into their dry, thorn forest habitats takes six months of monitoring or more, Hudson said.
“This is a real all-hands-on-deck moment, and it’s not going to be over after two or three waves of people. We’re going to be working these tortoises for a long time,” he said.
The radiated tortoises are found only on Madagascar, which evolution has made into a hotbed of biological uniqueness but poverty has turned into a pressure cooker. The radiateds are prized as pets in Asia, and they are hunted for meat on their home island.
A find of nearly 11,000 animals in one place may suggest abundance to the layperson. But the numbers deceive, Hudson said. The animal is thought to have suffered an 80 percent population decline in recent decades; entire areas where the radiated tortoise once thrived have been picked clean, and a 2010 article in Science had experts fearing extinction within two decades.
“Consider,” said Hudson, “the passenger pigeon and American bison,” species once thought too abundant to fail that disappeared or almost disappeared within decades. “This is what we’re seeing, an analogous situation to the American bison. This was formerly one of the most abundant tortoises on Earth. They’re crashing fast, and it scares the hell out of me.”
Madagascar authorities initially arrested three men suspected of dealing in the protected species, including the owner of the home in Tulear, according to news reports. And just Friday, Hudson said, he got word that the poacher camp believed to have fed this stockpile had been found on the coast, four or more hours south by boat.
Fully grown turtles “were being slaughtered for meat and the juveniles were being taken to Tulear for stockpiling and eventual export,” he said.
Those reproduction-killing demographics are another reason he believes the population is in danger of what happened to its cousin the ploughshare tortoise from the north of the island.
“That species is pretty much gone from the wild. We’re trying to prevent the same thing from happening,” he said.
While the Turtle Survival Alliance knows that caring for confiscated tortoises is dealing with the symptoms of tortoise decline, it’s still an important thing to do while it and other conservation organizations try to address the disease brought on by foreign demand, lax oversight and local poverty.
O’Connor (who is the son of a Tribune editor by the same name)said he is cautiously optimistic about being able to help the animals. About 10,000 made it out of the house alive, and the first team on the ground has already processed close to two-thirds of them, he said.
Turtles’ hardiness makes them appealing to smugglers, but it also improves their odds surviving such terrible conditions. In O’Connor’s Philippines experience, workers saw only about a 10 percent mortality rate, he said, compared with up to half of the animals dying in other types of species confiscations.
He’ll bring a tackle box full of gear and medication, antibiotics, mostly. He has four years of high school French, which he’s hoping will help since that’s one of Madagascar’s official languages; one of the prime goals in these situations is “capacity building,” teaching the locals how to care for animals themselves after the volunteers depart.
Another thing they’ll do is take and analyze blood samples to use this opportunity to try to learn more about the species.
“‘Triage’ is the word of the day,” O’Connor said. “So we expedite our exams, prioritize who needs what.” And it’s something of a hamster wheel, because typically the animals who need medicine are on a three-day cycle: “By the time you finish doing all the tortoises, you’re literally behind on doing all the rechecks.”
He didn’t know how much, or even where, he’d be sleeping. But he’s confident it’ll be worth it. He called the Philippines experience, along with getting hired at his hometown Shedd, a career highlight.
“Getting to watch the progression of these really sick turtles and getting them to a healthy plane and getting to release them, there’s nothing better than seeing that outcome,” he said. “That’s really the ultimate goal of what we do: getting people to care about these animals in their wild settings and help them where they actually live.”