Study reveals illegal turtle harvesting in Madagascar

Up to 16 000 of the world’s rarest turtles are being caught every year by villages in just one part of Madagascar, a year-long survey has revealed.

The study is the first direct assessment of the level of exploitation of turtles in Madagascar. Until now, measuring information on the small-scale turtle catches in the most remote areas has been tough, because of difficulties accessing these regions.

“Because turtles are an endangered species, it’s important for us to know what’s going on in the region so we can work with the local community to find a sustainable way forward,” said Annette Broderick of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, who led the latest survey. The harvesting of turtles is illegal in the region, but the ban is not enforced for various cultural and practical reasons.

Broderick’s team trained villagers to monitor turtle catches in Toliara, part of a remote south-western region of Madagascar. In 12 major villages along 60km of coastline, locals collected biological and fisheries data and photographed each catch. In total, they documented 699 marine turtle landings. The majority of these were green turtles, the commonest species in the water, but the catches also included the more endangered hawksbill turtle.

“When we contextualise our data with those of previous studies elsewhere in the region, we conservatively estimate that the annual turtle catch in the southwestern province of Madagascar is between 10 000 and 16 000,” wrote Broderick in a paper published in the journal Animal Conservation.

Even this estimate is likely to be on the low end, Broderick said. “In reality it’s likely to be much larger than that. We don’t have a good handle on how the in-water populations have changed over the years.”

Declining population
All species of marine turtle have experienced population declines in recent years and are included in the IUCN red list of endangered species. In Madagascar, all marine turtles are protected from domestic exploitation by presidential decree but the laws are not enforced because of lack of capacity for implementation along the enormous length of the coastline, and also the cultural history of turtle harvesting.

Frances Humber of Blue Ventures Conservation said that catching turtles for meat is an important part of Malagasy culture in many coastal populations. “But the villagers also understand the importance of ensuring the future of this resource. This study is a great way of involving communities in the process of finding a sustainable way forward. Obviously we can’t be sure every turtle catch is reported, so we view the figures from this study as a conservative estimate which is still nevertheless very valuable for informing policy.”

Stopping the decline in turtle numbers would be a matter of working out where the harvested turtles are being used. “The important thing is whether the harvest is for subsistence use or for commercial exploitation,” said Broderick. “If it’s for villages for subsistence use, it’s quite a different management issue. It’s very difficult to tell people that they’re going to have to stop using a certain source of food, especially in developing nations where it’s an important source of food. There’s a danger with these kinds of harvests that these turtles are being taken to larger markets and possibly being exported out of the country.”

Humber added that Madagascar should not be singled out in harvesting turtles. “We’d expect similar harvests in many countries in the tropical coastal developing world, so this isn’t an isolated issue, but clearly it is a cause for concern when dealing with endangered species. It’s possible the model for this study could be used elsewhere to get a better idea of numbers. Until we get more details, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about what is sustainable and how we can find solutions. Clearly making turtle fishing illegal hasn’t worked, so we need to work with communities to promote sustainable practices.” –

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