The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) staff had recently conducted a survey in southern Madagascar, and found that around ten or more bullock carts each filled with a maximum of 100 tortoises were leaving the Mahafaly Plateau every week. These tortoises include the radiated tortoise and the spider tortoise, which are endemic in the spiny forests of southern Madagascar. These reptiles are victims of the illegal bushmeat trade, deforestation, and the exotic pet trade. These tortoises are considered a delicacy among Madagascar's ethnic groups, particularly the Vezo and Antanosy people who consume them during special events such as Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day. Between 2001 and 2010, some 7,855 live tortoises and more than 4.8 tonnes of meat were seized. This seizure represented that around two percent of 600,000 reptiles have been illegally gathered during that period. A survey by WWF's Tiana Ramahaleo showed that the area of Toliara was among thirty communities in the Mahafaly Plateau where the illegal collection of tortoises for public consumption is still rampant.
In addition to that, deforestation has also threatened the lives of these reptiles. In 2008, a study by Conservation International showed that the levels of deforestation increased to four percent annually between 2000 and 2005 from 1.2 percent between 1999 and 2000. The prominent issues that constituted to such dramatic increases include slash and burn agriculture, bush fires, and charcoal production for the towns of Toliara and Fort Dauphin. A wildlife trade network known as TRAFFIC, has recently reported that these tortoises are openly on sale as exotic pets in Thailand and Indonesia. The program had also made reports on occasions when people have been busted for illegal possession of the animals in their luggage. A recent example occurred earlier this year when two Malagasy women were the first to be charged and convicted for the crime after Malaysian authorities uncovered 374 tortoises. Apart from Southeast Asia, Madagascar's international airport in Ivato has also seen a number of such seizures.
According to Tiana Ramahaleo, Conservation Planning and Species Program Coordinator for WWF, Madagascar has been active in the conservation of the spiny forest eco-region since 1999. The nation has seen a drop in deforestation at a rate of 27 percent, and the raising of awareness for the conservation of the tortoises. Several villages cooperated with the authorities, in turn putting a stop to the illegal poaching of the reptiles. This year, the town of Toliara celebrated the Year of Biodiversity with a conference focusing on the tortoises. The objective was to raise awareness among the population and vivify them to protect the species. However, on that same day, participants at the conference received breaking news about a gang of poachers arrested outside of Toliara with 1,475 live tortoises and dried tortoise meat. I sure hope that the people of Madagascar will stand shoulder to shoulder with WWF and other global wildlife organizations in the battle to save these endangered tortoises in peril. Otherwise, as Ramahaleo pointed out, both the reptiles will disappear in less than fifty years if no serious action is taken.