Endemic to Madagascar, the ploughshare tortoise is a victim of its exotic appearance. Its high domed golden shell is much sought after by collectors and rare-animal enthusiasts whose demands drive an illegal trade that has pushed the tortoise to the brink of extinction in the wild.
In spite of the highest level of protection status at national and international levels, the wild population of ploughshare tortoise is now thought to be less than 600 adults – all occurring in the Baly Bay National Park. Poaching is seen as the main threat to species survival, although bush fires are also a threat.
The trade chain for the ploughshare tortoise is a familiar one. Animals are taken from the park opportunistically, or to order, by locals who then pass them on to traffickers who arrange their illegal shipment out of the country. Smugglers also come down from the regional town of Mahajanga and enter the park clandestinely. Amongst other activities, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust established community patrols, recruited from some of Madagascar’s poorest communities, to give much needed support to national authorities to protect the critically endangered ploughshare tortoise.
The poaching and wildlife trade problem
Species affected Ploughshare Tortoise Astrochelys yniphoraProducts in trade
Live animals for the pet trade
Overview of the problem
Ploughshare tortoises are poached for the illegal pet trade as their shells make them highly desirable to reptile enthusiasts. Local people will sometimes take individuals from the wild and give them to smugglers, who take them internationally to supply demand. Poaching is predominantly carried out by young men with poverty a contributing factor. There is also a lack of local, regional and national law enforcement for wildlife crimes.
The price of a tortoise jumped massively from 2010 ($22) to 2016 ($650) but the exact reasons for this were not identified. By mid-2017, poaching of the species had led to its removal from 3 of 5 sub-populations in the Baly Bay National Park and Angonoka habitats.
The anti-IWT initiative
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) have been working to protect the ploughshare tortoise for several decades, with established community patrols and livelihood programs. A project ‘Breaking the chain: combatting illegal trade in ploughshare tortoises’ specifically sought to bring all partners working on the illegal trade chain of the species together.
Specifically, the project aimed to:
Improve the coverage and efficiency of community-park ranger patrols in BBNP
The aim of this output was to improve patrolling in BBNP to reduce poaching of ploughshare tortoises. Activities included making patrolling more difficult to predict by poachers, more effective communication to report on signs of poachers and to introduce SMART anti-poaching software to be able to measure the effectiveness of patrolling efforts.
Identify the role of local community members in poaching
Communities in the project area of Madagascar are extremely poor and this output aimed to understand community attitudes to poaching and to see who was involved in order to develop the most effective responses.
Madagasikara Voakajy (Mavoa) led this output and undertook over 800 interviews, finding poaching of the species to be a very sensitive topic. This is because the incentives of poaching tortoises outweigh the barriers – locals find it a quick way to make money and have historic negative attitudes towards the park as they receive little benefit from it.
Understand the trade chain between Madagascar and SE Asia and foster greater international collaboration
This output aimed to develop a close relationship between partners working to monitor the illegal trade from Madagascar to Southeast Asia in order to result in seizures of tortoises.
Improve law enforcement both regionally and nationally to break the trade chain
This output aimed to increase capacity to improve tortoise seizures, arrests of poachers and smugglers, support successful prosecutions and promote the message that tortoise poaching/smuggling is not tolerated in Madagascar.
Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour
The project involved over 150 patrollers from two teams, 1. those coordinated by Durrell working in the core tortoise habitat and 2. those coordinated by Madagascar National Parks and working in the entire BBNP. Local community patrols were from the main villages in Baly Bay. Patrols were active every day of the year with coverage on average around 60% of the park.
Community patrollers received wages and meals, as well as extra income for information. Village elders help the DWCT to choose suitable candidates, which both strengthens community support for the patrols, and gives the rangers a degree of respect from their villages.
Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife
While villagers in the bay area have been identified as the first link in the illegal trade chain, local communities are also the key to better protection. Engaging with these communities, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has built a trusting relationship over 20 years that is the foundation of today’s community participation in protecting the tortoise.
As part of wider activities and working with 18,000 people in 52 villages, the DWCT has helped to raise living standards and develop opportunities for income. Durrell has built 47 wells, supplied 1,500 fishing nets, and improved education for 2,000 children by building 7 schools and renovating 21 schools. In addition, over 500 farmers were helped to improve agricultural productivity, 8 irrigation pumps have been added and 50 demonstration plots established to train farmers.
Has the initiative made a difference?
The success of the project was hampered by a serious spike in poaching at the start of implementation, which led to changes in activities in order to deal with this increased pressure on the ploughshare tortoise. The cause of this spike remains unclear although project partners suspect that rumours relating to the possible extinction of the species could have driven up demand and prices.
The patrol efforts in BBNP identified over 128 signs of poaching, with poachers apprehended by authorities. However, overall the patrol efforts didn’t contain or massively reduce poaching pressure on the species and the tortoises have nearly been extirpated from the wild. The project had intended to have village patrols from all villages in Baly Bay but in the end only 14 of 28 villages were involved. This was because capacity was needed elsewhere.
Interviews and focus group meetings with community members led to enhanced knowledge and understanding of why communities engage in tortoise poaching. This research did identify incentives and barriers towards poaching but it did not identify the numbers of people involved in poaching.
What works and why
A well-defined partnership structure was key to the success of the project.
A trusting relationship, based on a long term and permanent presence of partners in the project area, is pivotal to engaging local communities
Factors for success
Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision
Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities
What doesn’t work and why
M&E activities found that patrollers needed better incentives and more training to be more effective. Fear of reprisals by poachers has been a disincentive for some communities to engage in the programme.
The biggest problem the project faced was the overwhelming surge in poaching in the first year. This meant that many activities had to be re-thought to deal with this escalating crisis, which had a knock on effect throughout the project’s duration.
Organisers, donors and partners
This project was funded by the UK Government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund as part of UK Aid with co-funding from Jersey Overseas Aid.
Project partners include Madagascar National Parks, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Alliance Voahary Gasy, Madagasikara Voakajy, Turtle Conservancy, UK Border Force, Wildlife Conservation Society, Government of Madagascar.
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