Two Denver Zoo workers are heading to Madagascar to help rescue roughly 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises that were found living amid their feces and urine while crammed inside a home.
On April 10, local police were tipped off that a home was housing the rare tortoises, which are only found in Madagascar, said Denver Zoo’s Brian Aucone, senior vice president for animal sciences. The house was void of furniture. Instead, tortoises were found wall to wall in every room. There was no access to food or water.
Initially, rescuers confiscated 10,976 radiated tortoises, according to Turtle Survival Alliance, a U.S.-based organization that was called in to help. Hundreds of tortoises died from dehydration, malnutrition and illness. Two days after the raid only 9,760 tortoises were still alive. Three suspects have been apprehended in connection with smuggling, according to the group.
Aucone said poachers likely stole the animals from the wild. Radiated tortoises, which have star patterns on their shells, are taken fairly regularly and sold on the food market in southeast Asia or thrown into the pet trade.
The tortoises were in varying stages of health. Rescuers are focusing on stabilizing the animals and making sure they are eating and hydrating.
Turtle Survival Alliance reached out to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums for help in the rescue efforts. Several zoos have sent funds, people or both, Aucone said. Other zoos involved include the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, and Utah’s Hogle Zoo.
The Denver Zoo is sending Max Maloney, a keeper, and Sean Ploysa, a carpenter in the maintenance department. The two leave Thursday and return June 2.
The eventual goal is to release the tortoises back into the wild but it’s a hefty task, Aucone said.
The tortoises were moved from the house, on the southwestern coast, to a temporary shelter. They will eventually be released in the dry forests in southern Madagascar, which is where the species lives.
But re-entry into the wild is a hefty task. If the animals were released directly, the tortoises would roam and roam and roam, attempting to find their original homes, Aucone said. They wouldn’t focus on foraging and would be easy targets for predators.
Instead, rescuers are creating acre-size pens to hold the tortoises, Aucone said. The tortoises will stay in the pens for six month, free roaming and foraging. Once the tortoises settle down, they will be released. At this point, they no longer go on giant roaming paths, he said.
Radiated tortoises are endangered species. There were about 10 million of the animals 10 years ago. Since then, that number has dropped to 4 million or 5 million. The steep decline comes from a loss of habitat and poachers.
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