Radiated Tortoise Project

The spiny forests near the village of Lavavolo in southwestern Madagascar is one of the last strongholds of the critically endangered radiated and spider tortoises, known to the Malagasy as sokake. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium's Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership and Conservation Fusion have formed a coalition to engage the community of Lavavolo in protecting their natural heritage. The poor economic conditions of southern Madagascar leave many desperate to provide for their families. Poaching of these tortoise species for bushmeat and the illegal pet trade is rapidly driving them toward extinction. Illegal sokake hunting camps operate year-round businesses in Madagascar and Asia. These camps harvest hundreds of radiated tortoise individuals to sell on the black market. Confiscations from the camps are reported every year. This is compounded by the slashing and burning of the endemic spiny forest for agriculture and charcoal for cooking fuel. With the current rate of harvesting and habitat loss, wildlife experts predict that the tortoises will become extinct in the wild in the next 20 years.

In response, the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership initiated the Radiated Tortoise Project in Lavavolo - with financial support from the Radiated Tortoise Species Survival Plan and the Turtle Survival Alliance. This project follows our philosophy of combining community development to ease human pressure on the ecosystem along with field research and tortoise monitoring. 

The Radiated Tortoise Project is long-term conservation that utilizes extensive fieldwork and molecular genetic data collection. Fortunately, Lavavolo's permanent residents maintain the local fady (taboo) against eating or harming the sokake. However, this fady has not been respected by outsiders that have immigrated into southern Madagascar to set up tortoise harvesting operations.

In 2008, the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership began an intensive monitoring program of radiated tortoise nest sites at Lavavolo. During the first phase of this study, Malagasy graduate students were taught how to locate the tortoises, collect genetic samples and morphological data, while local field assistants were trained to monitor nest sites throughout the incubation period. The second phase of the project is ongoing and consists of daily nest observation and subsequent sampling of new tortoises.

Ring-Tailed Lemur Project

Utilizing methodology that was field-tested in Kianjavato, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium's Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership and Conservation Fusion are also initiating a number of conservation endeavors in the Lavavolo region.

Like the black and white ruffed lemurs, the equally threatened ring-tailed lemur is a prominent seed dispersing species in this arid region, eating fruit whole and passing the seeds intact. Thus, the ring-tailed lemur is a perfect candidate for a monitoring program and fecal collection efforts for a reforestation initiative in the region. To facilitate this, 10 ring-tailed lemurs from a number of populations throughout the area have been radio-collared, enabling local field assistants and students to study and monitor the lemurs and collect fecal samples.

As with the Kianjavato Education Promoting Reforestation Program (EPRP), the Lavavolo Education Promoting Reforestation Program will result in the production of seedlings that will be transplanted as part of a community-supported reforestation program that will utilize native trees to restore habitat and enable movement of lemur and tortoise populations. Once mature, endemic trees planted will entice lemurs to forage and continue the process of forest regenerations themselves, thus requiring less future human intervention. Additionally, employing local community awareness and support.

This work is coupled with intense community education and outreach efforts that integrate alternative agricultural practices, habitat restoration and species protection, resource conservation, sustainable energy technologies and entrepreneurial opportunities. Additionally, Conservation Fusion is working to build a school in this commune that historically has had little access to education.

Education and Technology Transfer

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium's Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership has been involved in the professional development of Malagasy graduate students and local field teams. This training and employment of local people directly involves them in conservation and encourages them to be advocates of their natural environment.

To date, more than 45 Malagasy graduate students have benefited from the program's mentoring assistance during the completion of their graduate degrees. The Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership also supports more than 75 full-time Malagasy employees as field assistants, project supervisors, office employees, drivers and supporting field personnel. In addition, at least 10 international graduate students have partnered with the program and have since successfully completed their graduate or veterinary degrees. More than two dozen international volunteers have worked with the program, gaining valuable field experience and inspiring many to pursue a graduate degree focused on conservation.

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium's Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership has also had an effect on Madagascar's elementary school children. The Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership's partnership with Conservation Fusion has led to numerous educational outreach activities. In 2007, for example, more than 15,000 conservation-based activity books were distributed to primary school children throughout Madagascar. Students that resided in areas of high biodiversity that was under threat from habitat destruction and hunting were specifically targeted. Following the distribution of these books, we detected a noticeable decline in the evidence of hunting. This indicates the critical role of conservation-based education and community-wide participation in preservation activities are vital for sustained preservation of natural resources and wildlife.