For World Turtle Day, we must celebrate all the movements led by everyday people, working individually or together, to protect turtles and their environments. Dr. Goodall, as usual, offers a perfectly inspiring tale of the tortoises of Madagascar (specifically the ploughshare tortoise, one of the most critically endangered in the world) and their potential salvation, from her book Hope for Animals and Their World (Get the book here). From these ancient beings, once believed to carry the world on their backs, we can learn so much about stillness, the relativity of time, and the treatment we should provide all creatures – especially ones of such a gentle and vitally important nature.
The Angonoka or Ploughshare Tortoise (Geochelone yniphora)
My friend Alison Jolly, a renowned primatologist and author, first told me about the angonoka or ploughshare tortoise, which lives in a remote area of northwestern Madagascar known as the Soalala peninsula. It was called the ploughshare (or plowshare) tortoise because part of the lower shell sticks out between the front legs like a plow.
“They are marvelously funny animals,” Alison told me. “The males joust with the long ‘plowshare’ spur on their lower shell that sticks forward under their chins. The goal is to tip one’s rival over on his back. They are big, like soccer balls. The one on his back rocks wildly as he struggles for a foothold to turn over again.” Although for the losing male it is, without doubt, a very undignified situation and not funny at all!
These tortoises live within a six-hundred-square-mile area of bamboo scrub forest and open savanna. Without the dedication of a group of conservationists, it seems almost certain that they would have slipped over the brink into the abyss of extinction. The tortoises were not hunted for food, but irresponsible dealers were taking many for sale to collectors in the international trade for rare species. And the angonoka’s habitat was being overrun with bushpigs, imported from Africa. The local people believe tat keeping an angonoka with their chickens will sustain the bird’ health–strangely, people in south Madagascar keep a closely related species, the “radiated tortoises,” with their poultry for the same reason. Maybe there is some truth in it.
In 1986, the Durrell Widllife Conservation Trust (DWCT) launched project Angonoka in collaboration with the Malagasy government and with support from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)…
The first large-scale release took place at the end of 2005, when twenty young angonoka were released into large temporary enclosures in the forest. The event is described in a newsletter of the British Chelonia Group (BCG), an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of tortoises and turtles that raises money for conservation projects worldwide.
“We got to the village at dusk to a tumultuous welcome from the villagers who led us to a special palm thatched shelter decked out in greenery and flower chains,” wrote Richard Lewis, the conservation coordinator for the Madagascar Programme of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. After speeches and an all-night dance (for those up to it!), the team and the toritoises finally set off for the forest the next morning. Everyone gathered at a small field station built at the edge of the forest. A spiritual leader offered a prayer, asking for the goodwill of the king and the ancestors. One of the elders went into a trance and spoke as the king accepting the effots being made by the conservation team.
Finally the twenty young tortoises, oblivious of all the hard work, planning, and celebrations, were taken into the forest and put in groups o five in outdoor enclosures. There they stayed for a month, getting familiar with the new habitat before being released, equipped with radio transmitters stuck to their shells with glue.
Over the next few years, more angonoka will be released into the wild…And it is a program that will not be sustainable without the continuing goodwill of the local people.
My Childhood Tortoises
Writing this story brought back memories of my own two tortoises (not ploughshare!), which I had as a child. We had no knowledge of the pet trade that was endangering them in the wild, or the terrible conditions of their transport. The male, Percy Bysshe (because, with schoolgirl humor, he was “shell-y”), was the first to arrive.
One day, despite searching everywhere, it seemed he had escaped for good. To our amazement he turned up about six weeks later-followed by a female! How on earth he had found her, I cannot imagine, since tortoises were not very common in our area. I named her Harriett, and they became an all-but-inseparable pair. I suppose when she was receptive, he would follow her closely; when he got close behind, he withdrew his head and lunged forward to bump her shell with a loud crack.
It seemed that he always became particularly amorous when my grandmother was entertaining in the garden at tea-time. Then, when she failed to divert their attention, the little group of ladies, despite their Victorian sensibilities, would be riveted as, again and again, Percy struggled to mount the impregnable wall of his beloved’s shell, only to fall back as she, fed up with the whole procedure, simply walked away from under him. It’s a hard life, being a tortoise!
My son rescued two females, with damaged shells, from the last shipment imported into England. When one died, the other seemed listless, and we thought she might die, too. To our amazement, she was befriended by the small black cat from next door. Day after day we would see him, curled up beside the lonely tortoise in her hutch. Eventually, she went off to a colony in Chester Zoo, where she has adapted well.