OKC Zoo Lead Herpetology Caretaker Josh Lucas shares his most recent conservation field work in Madagascar finding suitable sites for radiated tortoise re-introductions...
I just returned from southern Madagascar where I spent the last two months working to develop an effective reintroduction strategy for last year’s confiscated radiated tortoises.
It has been one year since over 10,000 critically endangered tortoises were found crammed wall-to-wall in a tiny house in Madagascar. Destined for the illegal pet trade, these animals were in serious need of care. The OKC Zoo was part of a massive global effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and care for these animals - and now, one year later, the Zoo is leading the charge to reintroduce these tortoises back into the wild. I am ecstatic to be able to spearhead this effort on behalf of the OKC Zoo, the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
My strategy for reintroducing the confiscated tortoises focuses first on community engagement. This kind of conservation work is not possible without involving the rural communities who share the habitat with the tortoises. We have to educate them on the importance of the tortoises and empower them to protect the species. We have to develop strong partnerships with the communities so that they will serve as guardians against poachers. To accomplish this, I camped in these communities and engaged with the local people over food or camp fire. To develop this work, it’s important to break down any myths surrounding outsiders. Some of these communities hadn’t seen an outsider in over 20 years! Many of these forests are considered sacred and for me to be allowed to go there was a sign of great trust. I also worked to involve the communities in my surveys and encouraged their participation as we monitored the plants and tortoises on their land.
In addition to community engagement, I conducted intense vegetation surveys and assessed the existing tortoise populations. If a population is healthy, there’s no need to reintroduce tortoises, but if it’s unhealthy we have to learn why and, if possible, take appropriate steps to develop the area into one that can house reintroduced tortoises.
This program is the first of its kind in Madagascar. I spent 50 days living in 9 separate sites throughout the spiny forest. In that time I found 802 radiated tortoises, re-encountered 350, conducted 450 vegetation surveys and identified over 2800 individual plant species and their connection to radiated tortoises. The work was hard and the days were long and extremely hot, but it was all worth it. We made serious progress towards getting these confiscated, critically endangered animals back into the wild. We are forging a new path in conservation history in an attempt to save an incredible species that’s in dire need.
-Josh Lucas, lead herpetology caretaker