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Radiated Tortoise

Posted on 14 May 2012 by RE Team

The most beautiful tortoise in the world, Radiated Tortoise, endemic to Madagascar may face extinction soon due to constant exploitation on the species in recent years.

The Scientific Name : Astrochelys radiata

Where is it found?

The Radiated Tortoise is endemic to Madagascar. The tortoises natural distribution is limited to xeric spiny forests on the Mahafaly and Karimbola plateaus of southwestern Madagascar. Historically, the range of the Radiated Tortoise encompassed a 50 km band along Madagascar’s southwestern coast, from northeast of Morombe to the Bay of Ranofatsy. But in late 90s the tortoise population became highly fragmented in the south east and north regions. In 1995 the population of the tortoise was estimated to around 2-4 millions. There were an estimated decline of population by around 30% in 2003 as compared to in 1975. Currently the core-area of the tortoise’s range is the Mahafaly and Karimbola plateaus, from Lake Tsimanampetsotsa to Cap Sainte Marie. The total area spans approximately 10,000-16,000 km2. The core are has a population density of around 2500 individuals per square km. Radiated tortoises live in dry regions of brush, thorn bushes and woodlands. They are herbivorous, feeding on grasses and succulents, including the Opuntia cactus, which was introduced to Madagascar and spread quickly. The native calls this species as “Sokakes”.

How does it live?

The Radiated Tortoise prefers new growth plants rather than mature plants due to the high protein and low fiber content of the vegetation. They graze in the same area for an extended period of time, keeping the vegetation in that area trim. These tortoises don’t prefer warm temperature, drink lot of water to avoid any dehydration. They are diurnal and active during daytime. The mating of the radiated tortoises may become a noisy affair. The male involves into mating after it reaches a size of around one foot (30 cm). They males fight for the females and the winner makes hissing and grunting sound while mating. The female tortoise digs a hole on the ground post mating to form a nest. it normally lays around 3 to 12 eggs. Incubation period for the eggs is long, from 145 to 231 days. The hatch-lings measure between 3 to 4 cm in length and they develop their carapace quickly after hatching. The radiated tortoise makes very shrilling voice at times believed to be scare away any unwelcome enemies. If the tortoise is captures, it makes similar sound which can last upto an hour or more. The tortoise can live upto 50 years in wild, but in captivity they can live way beyond 100 years.

Radiated Tortoise Distribution

How does it look?

The radiated tortoises are considered as the most beautiful tortoise species by many. It has a high-domed dark colored carapace/shell with yellow lines running down from the center of the carapace. The tortoise was named as radiated tortoise because of the radiation pattern of it’s shell. The leg, feet and tail are of yellow color. An adult radiated tortoise may weigh up to 16 kg and can grow up to 40 cm in length. Males have slightly longer tails and more protruding scutes.

What are the threats?

There are three major threats to the Radiated Tortoise, habitat loss, poaching for food and international pet-trade of the species. The wild population of the tortoise has been declining in a very faster rate due to these threats. It is estimated as the populations have decreased by around 50% in the past 10 years. Interestingly, the tortoise’s geographic range is roughly coincident with regions occupied by the Mahafaly and Antandroy, local peoples who have a taboo against touching or eating tortoises. This kept the tortoise safe for centuries in the Madagascar with very little exploitation. The exploitation of the species for pet-trade, food and aphrodisiac started only after the outside immigrant started living in the area. The tortoise smuggling has become one of the most profitable business in Madagascar shipping loads of tortoises to Asia for further exploitation. Another important threat of habitat loss is outcome of various factors. Years of extreme drought in the tortoise region have sucked the moisture. Madagascar’s remaining forests are being systematically cleared for the charcoal and agriculture..It is estimated that less than 10% of its original forest, the tortoise’s natural habitat, remains. many experts predict the extinction of the species in just 20 years, if no drastic measurement has not been taken.

Conservation Efforts

In 1985 A Species Survival Plan (SSP) was established for the radiated tortoise by the American Zoo and
Aquarium Association (AZA). In recent years, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been working towards the survival of the species. International trade in radiated tortoises is prohibited by its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The captive breeding of the species has been successful and it has been also introduced to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius. But due to lack of local political pressure, the trading and habitat loss of the tortoise is still on the way and the species is heading towards extinction.

Conservation Thoughts

The Radiated tortoise is reproducing very well in the wild, so if we can save its habitat and poaching, the population will grow naturally. Local education and awareness for the protection of the species is very necessary. As the species breed well in captivity, tortoise farming can be done to meet the meat and pet demand in the market. Although Madagascar government has laws to protect the Radiated Tortoise, the laws need to be enforced properly and should give strict punishment to the offenders. Cattle grazing and other pet intruders like dogs should prohibited in the tortoise habitat. The cutting of forests in for agriculture or industrial development should be stopped. Instead, the eco-tourism and sustainable development should be encouraged to meet the required growth for the region.

A documentary on Radiated Tortoise conservation

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