Patterson, of New Ipswich, specializes in painting wildlife, particularly reptiles and fish, and has illustrated several field guides of regional species. This time, he traveled more than 8,000 miles to photograph and study the radiated tortoise.
The radiated tortoise is critically endangered, and its population is currently decreasing. In the 1990s, there were an estimated 12 million radiated tortoises in the wild. Today, there are about 3 million.
“Reptiles and amphibians are my thing,” Patterson said in a recent interview. “Madagascar is such a unique place, and it’s vanishing so quickly, and so are these tortoises, so when I had the opportunity I knew I had to go.”
Invited by the survey leader Josh Lucas, the lead keeper at the Oklahoma City Zoo, who Patterson knows through his work with the Turtle Survival Alliance, Patterson said he knew this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
He originally planned to meet his survey team at the Tortoise Conservation Center in Madagascar, run by the Turtle Survival Alliance. While he originally only planned to spend the day there before heading out to survey wild tortoises, his car broke down and he ended up spending a week camping in the reserve.
Not much of a hardship, he said – in addition to the tortoises, he also got to view lemurs, snakes, chameleons, millipedes and centipedes. Even the plant life, so wildly different from the forested northeast, was a new experience for him, Patterson said.
“It’s so different there,” he said. “The heat, the insects are incredibly loud and even the plants look different. Being able to see these things in person is so different from reading about them or looking at a picture.”
As an artist who specializes in nature, his process has always been to experience the animals within their natural environment, he said.
“It’s hard to get the habitat right if you haven’t been there,” Patterson said. “It’s so helpful to be there, and the paintings are much more authentic compared to just looking at pictures online.”
The center’s tortoises are accustomed to human visitors, which presented an opportunity for a lot of close study.
The center currently has about 8,000 tortoises it’s caring for with the ultimate goal of rehabilitating them for release into the wild. The tortoises have been confiscated from poachers, who catch them for the illegal pet trade and for their meat.
“I think they’re the most beautiful tortoises out there,” Patterson said. “The star patterns are so amazing.”
They’re also impacted by vanishing habitat. The spiny forests, found in a region in the southernmost tip of Madagascar, is one of the only environments the radiated tortoise lives. However, it is vanishing due to logging for charcoal, firewood and construction as well as being clear-cut for grazing land.
After a week at the center, Patterson was able to move onto his real mission, visiting the inner reaches of the spiny forest, assisting with surveying the tortoises in the wild. The team cataloged over 800 over the course of two months, weighing, measuring and photographing each tortoise across nine sites. It’s the largest survey of the species ever conducted.
Patterson assisted at two sites, one where the tortoises were common enough that the first one he saw was simply walked through their camp.
“Seeing the first one in the wild was a cool moment,” he said.
But the second site, they were far more scarce, Patterson said, despite being an area with perfect forest habitat, likely because of poaching.
Patterson said he hopes to spread awareness of the vanishing species through a new series of paintings based on the photographs he took during his trip.
“I don’t think people are aware this crisis even exists over there,” Patterson said.
Patterson said he plans to turn one of his paintings into a limited edition print, the sales of which he intends to donate to the cause of preserving the radiated tortoise.
For more information visit mpattersonart.com.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or email@example.com.