Notes from the Field: OKC Zoo's Josh Lucas Documents Tortoise Rescue Efforts in Madagascar

On April 10, 2018, nearly 11,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises were discovered by local police in a private residence in Toliara, Madagascar. Almost every room in the house was filled with tortoises without access to food or water. It is believed that the tortoises were collected for the illegal pet trade, possibly for shipment to Asia where the tortoises’ highly-domed shell featuring a brilliant star pattern makes them highly prized. The Turtle Survivor Alliance (TSA) in partnership with more than 20 institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, including the Oklahoma City Zoo, are sending medical supplies, team members or funds to care for the sick or injured tortoises.

Joining the rescue effort from the Oklahoma City Zoo  is Josh Lucas, senior herpetologist. Josh arrived in Madagascar on Sunday, April 22 and will depart on Friday, May 4. He will provide notes from the field documenting efforts to treat the tortoises along with conservation related observations and lessons. In addition to sending Josh to help care for the rescued tortoises, the OKC Zoo sent $2,300 in medical supplies with Josh and $5,000 from the Round Up Emergency Fund to help TSA expand their facility in Madagascar to accommodate the rescued tortoises.

This page will be updated with Josh’s reports.


I arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar. It’s 6:25am on Sunday. WiFi is limited so I don’t think I’ll be able to send large files remotely. We are traveling to Ifaty today where the bulk of the tortoises are and should have WiFi there. Monday we are going to break into two teams, a vet team in Ifaty and a husbandry team moving to Itampolo, the tortoise sanctuary locations. About 750 of the healthiest tortoises have already been moved to Itampolo where the TSA has a large fenced in area of habitat. The husbandry people will be spending a week or more in Itampolo building pens within the fenced areas. The village is very remote and takes 10 hours to get to from Ifaty, I likely will have no access to WiFi or the outside world the entire time I am there.

There are also wild radiated tortoises and pyxis (aka spider tortoises) in Itampolo. TSA’s goal is to build a full-fledged facility in Itampolo with keeper areas, and even a clinic. This will take a while to accomplish as it takes a long time to get construction materials out there.

Tomorrow we are going to work to separate out the healthiest, most robust animals to be sent to Itampolo with the other healthy group. Today there were only 14 deaths, which out of 10,000 dehydrated little animals is great.


Today was day one, it was HOT and hectic. There’s absolutely 10,000 tortoises here and it’s insane. Radiated tortoises are some of my favorite animals so it’s exciting to see so many but also humbling and tragic in the same moment.

I will spend the next six days at the triage area. After receiving soaking/other treatment, the healthy tortoises are being relocated to a TSA-owned fenced-in area. Most of the tortoises are sub-adult juveniles (some not too much bigger than a yearling). So far, there are 750 animals there with hopefully another 1,000 going Friday and another 1,000 on Tuesday.

The other husbandry technician from Dallas Zoo and I spent the day tracking down 750 tortoises that arrived here from the first wave. They were housed in a HUGE pen so it took a very long time to count, soak and assess each individual animal.


Some caretakers and I spent all day surveying pens for dead animals and soaking over 1,000 animals who had not seen water since before the confiscation. The vets and vet techs worked on triage efforts of the sickest animals (meds, exams... etc.).

Today, a third husbandry technician, Clint from TSA, arrived to help. We spent the day splitting the large pen into 4 smaller pens for different size classes of tortoises. We used lumber and hand made stakes (from trees) as well as huge rocks to anchor the temporary walls.

The color markings on the tortoises’ backs represent different things. Blue markings mean the tortoise is part of the 11,000 tortoises confiscated. Red/pink indicates whether or not the animal has been soaked. 


This morning around 7:30am, 813 more Tortoises arrived from Ifaty to their future home here in Itampolo. We unloaded, inspected, soaked and released every single one with the help of the local community. Everyone made the trip safely and was in very good health!

Then at 10am, a large supply truck arrived with construction supplies for new fencing and buildings at the site. We unloaded it and then left the site to make our way to Anakao for the night.

Tomorrow, I catch a boat in the early morning for Ifaty, Wednesday a plane back to Antananarivo and Thursday start my long series of flights home.

I also got to walk in the hot desert sun of Madagascar for 3.5 miles from the tortoise site to our lodging in Itampolo. Oh and walked in loose sand, not on a road or anything. No shade... just brutal sun. I've been applying sunscreen at least 8 times a day here.


Wrapping up this awesome adventure in Madagascar, I am ecstatic to have been part of such incredible work with outstanding people. My head is still spinning and I can't quite put it all into words yet... more stories and lots of video footage to come.

A couple of highlights:

  • It was both completely exciting and horribly sad to see more than 10,000 radiated tortoises in one place and at one time... something I don't think many people will ever be able to say but at such a grave cost to a magnificent animal.
  • I participated in a special ceremony in a rural Madagascar community. We worked with them to secure permission to use their land as a permanent site for the care and security of these confiscated animals. It's something I will never forget in all my life. After the ceremony, myself and two others on this project were taken into a sacred cave that NO ONE outside the community is ever let into (it's forbidden)... just, wow. Their commitment to protecting these tortoises and securing the success of this project was awe-inspiring. Local involvement is the key to long-term conservation success and I was honored to have been a small part of this process.
  • I got to meet the world's largest known radiated tortoise, a 55lb female, a BEAST
  • Thanks for everyone’s continued support: from friends and family, to the Zoo, to my coworkers who were stretched thin in my absence! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

For the full story, visit‚Äč. To support the radiated tortoise rescue efforts in Madagascar, donate to the Turtle Survival Alliance Foundation online at Additionally, the Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT) has launched a fundraising campaign supporting the Turtle Survival Alliance’s rescue efforts. Every dollar donated through AZVT’s website will be matched up to $5,000! Click here to donate and check the box for “Other Amount – Conservation Donation.”  Donations can be made through PayPal or via a credit card. 


-Josh Lucas, senior herpetologist

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