Q&A with zoo veterinarian Justin Rosenberg

  • In April, authorities discovered around 10,000 radiated tortoises, believed to be destined for the Asian pet trade, in an abandoned house in southwestern Madagascar.
  • The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) took the animals to its rescue center in Ifaty, and soon, veterinarians and keepers from around the world began traveling to Madagascar to help the animals.
  • Currently, between 9,000 and 10,000 tortoises are alive, with around 100 still in need of critical care.
  • Mongabay spoke with a veterinarian who spent several weeks at TSA’s facility about the ongoing efforts.

An international effort is underway in Madagascar to save thousands of threatened tortoises that were discovered in an abandoned house in the city of Toliara in April.

The first descriptions of the bust were shocking — piles of tea-sauce-size tortoises crawling over each other through their own excrement, the smell of which reportedly telegraphed their presence to passersby. Authorities believe the radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata), an IUCN-listed Critically Endangered species that lives only in Madagascar, had been snatched from the wild and brought to the house on their way to pet or food markets, most likely in Asia.

The NGO Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) brought the hungry and dehydrated tortoises to the group’s rescue facility, Villages des Tortues, in the town of Ifaty, but so many animals swamped the center’s staff and resources.

“I don’t think the word overwhelming comes close to describing what the Turtle Survival Alliance is dealing with here,” TSA’s president, Rick Hudson, said in a statement.

Thousands of critically endangered radiated tortoises were found in an empty home in southwestern Madagascar in April. Image courtesy of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Since then, zookeepers, animal handlers and veterinarians from Madagascar and around the world have traveled to Ifaty to help the tortoises. Early on, they worked to triage the surviving tortoises and identify the ones that needed the most care. Now, most of the survivors are out of immediate danger, said Justin Rosenberg, a veterinarian at White Oak Conservation, a wildlife center in Yulee, Florida.

Rosenberg spent several weeks working with the tortoises in Madagascar, and while he was there, he spoke with Mongabay to explain the challenges the tortoises — and their caretakers — still face.

Officials believe that the tortoises were destined for the pet trade in Asia. Image courtesy of White Oak Conservation.

How are you doing? How’s everything going?

Fairly well. There’s a large group of international folks that have come over and have really been the staple of consistency throughout the whole process. [The Turtle Survival Alliance] has done a phenomenal job at getting those animals, working on rehabilitating them and overseeing the entire process. But it’s really nice how the international community has come together, and in Madagascar, there’s no better place that I would rather be working on such a phenomenal effort than right here.

How many animals do you have now?

The original confiscation was somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000, and when you’re dealing with such a large [number] of animals, it’s hard to get a specific headcount. I think the ballpark of 9,000 to 10,000 at this point is still pretty accurate.

There have been several groups of volunteers to help out. Is that right?

Yeah. I’m the fifth wave of folks coming down. The first wave or two really had a lot more mortalities. Now, I’m dealing with a lot of chronic health conditions that are associated with being in that poaching-type situation of malnourishment [and] dehydration. And they’re reptiles, so they are slow to do absolutely everything.

We have them in good medical care right now. They’re getting great diets [and] great treatments. It just takes a while to get their bodies kickstarted and over that proverbial hump.

With so many animals, how do you see their chances of survival?

That’s an excellent question. It’s multifaceted. Right now, there are less than 100 animals under direct medical care. The remainder of the animals have been evaluated by a medical team.
They’ve been cleared and deemed healthy, and so they are essentially just being protected. But [with] the other hundred or so, I’d say less than 10 are in a critical medical condition. [With the others], we’re just dealing with chronic problems, trying to get nutrition in and try to rehydrate them. I think those actually have a pretty good chance.

The first four groups [of volunteers] had their work cut out, physically examining every single animal, whereas what I’m doing now is more of a hospital-type of approach for those 100 sick ones. Anytime the keepers or the husbandry team notice an issue in one of the main pens, they’ll grab that animal bring it to me, and then once it’s better, take it back out the population.

The initial effort focused on triaging the confiscated tortoises to identify those most in need of care. Image courtesy of White Oak Conservation.

It probably goes without saying that with such a threatened animal, I mean every individual counts at this at this point, right?

Absolutely, and a lot of the population are younger animals. The radiated tortoise can get quite large. Most of what we’re dealing with, I would estimate, are somewhere in the 3- to 6-year-old range.

How are the facilities coping?

It’s put a strain on everything from a personnel perspective. [TSA was] at maximum capacity and more than double that comes in. So they’re finding ways to cope and deal and create the infrastructure to support such an effort.

Does TSA have veterinarians on staff?

I cannot speak to TSA as an entire organization, but I have worked with two Malagasy veterinarians. One was involved in the initial confiscation efforts and has since moved operations back to [Madagascar’s capital] Antananarivo and is involved from a distance. The other recently arrived with the tortoises.

I’m curious about your background. Have you ever seen anything like this?

I have not, not personally. I’ve been out of veterinary school coming up on five years now, and I’m in a program to become a leader in the zoo medicine field.

Personally, I never thought I would have this opportunity so early in my career to come to international work with such a large conservation message. But it’s right in line with why I got into this field in the first place, so I am thrilled. I hate, on the one hand, the fact that, because of poaching and the illegal pet trade, we have opportunities like this. But the flip side of that is, I get to come down here. I’m leading a team and getting these animals rehabilitated.

Malnutrition and dehydration are still problems for around 100 of the surviving tortoises. Image courtesy of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

What’s the what’s the outlook from here?

There’s still a need out there [to help] these animals, but my understanding is that the goal is to get the local folks trained and ready to go. TSA has veterinarians of their own, so we’re just trying to get the husbandry staff up to speed so that it can be a self-sustaining operation. But right now, with the sheer inundation of animals with a single event, it just pushed them to capacity, and they still need help. They would still be open to folks coming in [from abroad].

It sounds like there’s still a fair amount of work to be done.

Absolutely. From the veterinary perspective and from the husbandry perspective, there’s still a lot to do.

Is there is there a particular affliction or condition among the tortoises that’s more common?

Thankfully, it’s nothing infectious, so we’re not seeing any bacterial or fungal or viral disease. What we’re seeing is secondary to being in such an overcrowded, malnourished situation. We have animals that are very, very thin with no fat on them at all that are really dehydrated. I would say that’s the biggest thing — just poor management [by the poachers], given the size of the confiscation that the animals were in because there’s no way that animals were getting food and water regularly. We’re just dealing with emaciation, malnourishment and dehydration.

In your experience, how susceptible are reptiles, or perhaps more specifically tortoises, to infections?

Reptiles are fascinating animals in terms of overall pathophysiology and disease mechanisms. They are no more or less susceptible to a number of pathogens compared to other taxa. However, due to their relatively slow metabolic rate, many diseases have different manifestations. There are many bacterial, viral, and fungal infections that can affect reptiles. The earlier waves were tasked with evaluating all of the animals and trying to screen the population. From an infectious disease standpoint, we were concerned that the poor husbandry — [including the] environment, nutrition [and] natural light — given the large scale of this confiscation may have led to an immunocompromised state and resulted in increased susceptibility to disease. Luckily, we have not seen any evidence of “infectious disease” thus far.

Veterinarian Justin Rosenberg holds one of the tortoises at the Turtle Survival Alliance rescue facility in Ifaty, Madagascar. Image courtesy of White Oak Conservation.

How do you dehydration and starvation in a reptile?

That’s the beauty of it. With what I do [as] a veterinarian at a zoo, at a place where we deal with all species, every species is so different. We have to start off with some rehydration. The best way would be if we can get it in orally, so if they’re eating, if they’re drinking, that would be great.

But a lot of these animals are too weak for that, and so we have to resort to gavage feed, or introducing a tube directly into their stomach [through which] we can give small volumes of food and water. We can also do some injections, but the challenge with that is these are animals that are commonly found in the desert, so they don’t have a lot of capabilities to deal with a lot of foods all at once. We have to be very careful about how much food we give them. Again, they’re reptiles, and so the time it takes from them eating something in the front end and passing it out the backend can be days to weeks. We have to really pace what we’re doing with the physiology of the species.

It’s a fun challenge.

So it’s kind of a double-pronged challenge in that these animals need food, they need water, but you can’t do it too quickly because it might overwhelm their systems. Is that correct?

Exactly. That’s spot-on. We have to evaluate the long-term needs but on a short-term basis, because we can’t just cram them full of food and say, ‘Oh, they’re better.’ You give a dog or a cat a meal, and you’ll know pretty quickly if they’re handling that fairly well. With these guys, it can be days to weeks.

Do the turtles have any sort of personality? How is it to handle them and work with them?

They do have personality, and it differs depending on their health. The really sick ones are often too weak, and they can’t retract into their shells. But the way that they naturally work is when they see us coming, or they see a shadow come across them, they pull themselves in, and they hide all of their major structures. They pull their head in, they tuck their tail up so that you can’t really get to them.

It’s really interesting watching the difference between the healthy ones and the sick ones because the sick ones will just lay there. They can’t move in. There much slower, whereas the healthy ones will be cruising around the yard looking for food. Some people may say, ‘Oh, it’s a turtle or tortoise. It doesn’t really move that quickly anyway.’ But there’s a personality change, a night-and-day difference between the healthy and the sick ones.

Radiated tortoise numbers in the wild have declined substantially in recent decades due to poaching and habitat loss. Image courtesy of White Oak Conservation.

Is there anything that we might not understand about the situation there?

The biggest thing is [that] these animals were destined for either the food trade or
likely in the illegal pet market. It’s a species that is certainly at risk due to habitat destruction and climate change, so there certainly is a bigger picture at play.

[One thing] we’ve been talking a lot here [among] a mixed bag of folks with a lot of different experiences — how do you get somebody in north-central Florida to care about tortoises in Madagascar. Or how do you get someone from the backwoods of Tennessee to care about these animals here? It almost seems like an impossible task. But the bigger thing is conservation and just being kind to the environment so that animals like this will have a chance moving forward.

Banner image of a radiated tortoise in Madagascar courtesy of White Oak Conservation.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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