Lavavolo is a dry spiny forest in southwestern Madagascar. This region is one of the few remaining homes of the radiated tortoise, known to the Malagasy as sokake. The radiated tortoise is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as critically endangered, which prohibits the import or export of the species under most conditions. However, the poor economic conditions of southern Madagascar leave many desperate to provide for their families and many of the laws are largely ignored. Illegal sokake hunting camps operate year-round businesses in Madagascar and Asia. These camps harvest hundreds of radiated tortoise individuals to sell in food and pet markets, confiscations from the camps are reported every year. Additionally, the spiny forests in this region continue to be sacrificed for the production of charcoal. With the current rate of harvesting and habitat loss, wildlife experts predict that the sokake will become extinct in the wild in the next 20 years.
In response, the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) initiated the Radiated Tortoise Project (RTP) in Lavavolo. The RTP has been made possible with financial support from the Radiated Tortoise Species Survival Plan (SSP) and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA). This project follows the MBP’s philosophy of combining community development to ease human pressure on the ecosystem along with field research and tortoise monitoring.
The Lavavolo region was chosen as the initial site for the RTP’s long-term conservation effort based on two criteria. First, by using extensive field work and molecular genetic data gathered, the MBP was able to conclude that Lavavolo’s radiated tortoise population called for priority conservation action. In addition, the people of this community traditionally 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 RTP began with the monitoring of Lavavolo’s tortoise population, creating job opportunities for two local field assistants to collect data from the sokake and their nests. The RTP has recently expanded with the development of radiated tortoise habitat evaluation and restoration along with diet analysis for pristine vs. impacted habitats. Community education programs have also been initiated by the MBP and Conservation Fusion centered around the radiated tortoise as a conservation mascot. Water desalination and biofuel technologies along with the planting of cash and food crops will contribute to community efforts, reducing pressures upon Lavavolo’s forest.
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