In 2018, there was a stench coming from a house that was so bad nearly the entire neighborhood reported the smell, hoping to quickly resolve the problem. Located in a coastal town in Madagascar, once the neighbors called authorities, the mystery was left up to Soary Randrianjafizanaka to solve. Soary is the head of Madagascar's environmental agency in the Toliara region. What she found in the home was something she could hardly put into words.
A House In The Neighborhood Was Raising Concerns
At first, neighbors were frustrated and disturbed by the smell that was flowing from the two-story house in Toliara. Unlike other homes on the street, this one was not occupied by a family. A few of the neighbors approached the house, but no one appeared to be home.
The problem didn't go away, on its own. In fact, it only got worse. The horrid stench was intensifying and neighbors were baffled by what could be inside the house.
The Smell Was Unbearable
The neighbors couldn't tolerate the stench any longer. Nor did anyone want to go inspect the smell, as it could likely be tied to a dangerous situation. For the stench to be strong enough to carry throughout the neighborhood, there must be something seriously wrong going on inside.
The smell never died down, and it was clear that no one was living in the house full-time. This was a mystery the neighbors were ready to put an end to.
Neighbors Reported It To Authorities, Who Were Called To The Scene
Several reports concerning the house were brought to the attention of police in Toliara, a town in southwestern Madagascar. The country was facing hard economic times and authorities had no shortage of issues to deal with. However, they did not expect to be faced with such a strange problem of this magnitude when they arrived at the Toliara house.
Luckily, the authorities came prepared, as they had backup from both the police and the local environmental agency. Neighbors look on as the event unfolded.
All Of The Agencies Organized
Thankfully, the police and other agencies took the neighbor's calls seriously. They too were concerned about the smell, which could likely be tied to a crime or other serious issue.
The Toliara police organized a joint investigation with the regional environmental protection agency and several other authorities joined the group in case they needed back-up. No one knew what to expect walking into the foul-smelling house. As they later found out, it was a good thing they were all there.
Experiencing The Horrid Stench Firsthand
Soary Randrianjafzanaka, head of the region's environmental protection agency could not believe what she smelled and then witnessed when she arrived at the house to begin the investigation.
Just as the neighbors had described, the stench was unbearable, yet not distinct enough to pinpoint based solely on the foul odor. It was quickly clear both why the neighbors wanted the stench gone and why they were afraid to approach the house.
Finally, Someone Was Attending To The Problem
The neighbors were relieved that someone had actually shown up to help resolve the horrible problem that they've been dealing with for such a long time. Imagine living next to a house that completed wreaked, but you couldn't do anything about it.
Once they arrived, the authorities knew that the situation was serious. Once they got inside though, they had never seen anything like what they saw that day inside the stinky Madagascar house.
The Agency Had Never Seen Anything Like It
Walking into the house for the first time, Soary could hardly put the experience into words. She told National Geographic, "You cannot imagine. It was so awful."
The smell turned out to be the urine and feces of 9,888 live radiated tortoises, along with 180 tortoises that were dead among them. These weren't any ordinary tortoises though, which immediately raised a flag as to why there were so many of them cramped inside the house.
If you've had any type of pet inside your home, you know that the smell can quickly increase if you don't take care of that pet's cage or terrarium. Now imagine that times 10,000! Plus, these tortoises were not being taken care of.
They were sadly living among their feces and other dying tortoises. The stench and the scene were terrible. Authorities knew that they needed to act quickly to save the tortoises.
The Tortoises Were Packed Wall-To-Wall
Soary reported that there were tortoises packed wall-to-wall throughout the two-story house. She said, "They had tortoises in the bathroom, in the kitchen, everywhere in the house."
Malnourished and carelessly packed into the home, it's no wonder that nearly 10,000 tortoises caused the house to expel such a dreadful stench. Soary and her team of colleagues knew that they had to act quickly to deliver the rare tortoises to safety.
Radiated Tortoises Are Critically Endangered
Radiated tortoises are native to southern Madagascar, where they have the biggest populations. They rarely appear outside of this region and have become classified as a critically endangered species, by the IUCN.
The population of radiated tortoises is shrinking due to loss of habitat and sometimes poached for food. However, one of the species' biggest threats remains to be the pet trade, as people capture them in the wild and sell them off.
Critically Endangered Tortoises
As if the situation weren't bad enough, with so many tortoises in need of help, but these were also critically endangered tortoises, which made the situation even more urgent. With only around 3 million radiated tortoises left in the entire world, here were 10,000 that were in serious need of help.
The authorities had never seen a tortoise smuggling operation this big before. This bust was massive and would mean a great deal for the radiated tortoise population.
It's Illegal To Capture Them
As part of their listing as a critically endangered species, the radiated tortoise is listed on CITES Appendix I, which bans catching and the commercial trade of the species.
Although it's illegal, the laws don't stop everyone in Madagascar from wild capturing and trading. As the economy struggles, some citizens have become desperate to make money and see the pet trade as an opportunity. It isn't out of the ordinary for laws to be ignored in the region.
The Smugglers Were Desperate
This particular radiated tortoise operation was on an extremely large scale. There weren't just a few criminals involved in the smuggling, as there is usually a poacher who removes the animal from their habitat, and another who then travels with the animal before putting them into the pet trade.
This operation clearly involved lots of people, as the number of tortoises they had taken and plan to put into the pet trade was enormous.
The Tortoises Were In Every Room
The smugglers didn't attempt to separate or care for the tortoises whatsoever. As Soary and the police attempted to make their way around the house, they found that every room was just as bad as the last.
These tortoises were absolutely packed into the house, wall-to-wall in each room. They were in sinks, tubs, over here, over there, just everywhere. It was an unbelievable sight. Now, they had to figure out what to do about it.
Rescuers Started Counting...
As Soary and her colleagues began collecting the turtles and loading them into the six trucks they drove to the home, they began counting the tortoises. They couldn't believe how many they found.
Nearly 10,000 radiated tortoises were found throughout the home, far more than any the agency had ever come across. In a large-size bust, a typical smuggler is usually caught with between 100 and 200 tortoises. This seizure was beyond anything they had ever imagined.
Thankfully They Had The Help They Needed
It was a big job, but luckily, Soary had enough people and trucks to get it done. All day and night, the team worked to safely get the tortoises out of the disgusting house and pack them into six trucks. The trucks would go back and forth from the wildlife rescue facility all night long, picking up and dropping off the tortoises.
The neighbors were no doubt surprised to see just what was happening in that thouse the entire time!
They Were Brought Back To Health
Against all odds, Soary was happy to report that the tortoises that they saved were doing well. Although likely overwhelmed by the number of animals brought in that night, the workers at the Le Village Des Tortues had good news to report.
The wildlife rehabilitation facility translates to "Turtle Village" in French. With their specialized knowledge, the staff was able to care for the critically endangered species, which included hydrating them and feeding them leaves, fruits, and the favorite food of the species, Opuntia cactus.
Many Of The Tortoises Would Make A Full Recovery
Despite the horrendous conditions that the radiated tortoises had been living in for who knows how long, many of them were making an impressive recovery now that they were in the care of the wildlife rescue.
The criminal act of housing these tortoises the way they did is absolutely inhumane. The smugglers not only illegally removed thousands of critically endangered tortoises from their natural habitat, but they hid them in a way that put them at great risk.
Then, They Lost Some
Unfortunately, after the 9,882 tortoises had been in the care of Le Village Des Tortues for a week, some did not make it through. The wildlife rehabilitation facility regretfully reported they had lost 574 of the radiated tortoises due to dehydrated or infection.
Their hard work did pay off however, as the rest were saved and still contributed a great deal to the endangered radiated turtle population. Instead of being sold in pet trade, they would be protected.
Impressive Work By The Le Village Des Tortues
It's quite impressive that the wildlife rescue facility, Le Village Des Tortues, were able to take on so many animals at once. This is no doubt the biggest influx of tortoises that have ever arrived at one time at the facility.
They did an incredible job to help bring the tortoises back to health on such notice. Although it was bad people who caused the problem in the first place, it's reassuring to know that there are other who are always wanting to step up and do the right thing.
Authorities Went To Work On Leads For Who Was Responsible
For months, the house appeared abandoned while the stench intensified in the neighborhood. Then, neighbors reported seeing people coming and going. Either the house wasn't abandoned after all, or transients had begun squatting in the house and possibly engaging in illegal activity.
As it turned out, it was the latter. Authorities arrested the owners of the home: two men and a woman. In fact, Soary's team had a run-in with the two men.
Smugglers Were There When Authorities Arrived
The Madagascar police and environmental agency arrived at the house to investigate the smell, not knowing what they would find. Not only did they find the source of the stench, but they also caught two of men who were responsible for the crime.
As Soary and her team stepped into the house, two men were in the backyard, burying the tortoises that they could no longer sell in the pet trade.
The Tortoises Can Weigh Up To 35 Pounds
The thousands of radiated tortoises that were found in the house varied in size: small, medium and large. Rick Hudson, president of Turtle Survival Alliance estimated that the large radiated tortoises can weigh around 35 pounds, with shells as wide as 16 inches across.
The larger tortoises would be much harder for the smugglers to conceal as they attempted to bring them out of the country. However, their sloppy operation was what got them caught in the first place.
It Was A Big Smuggling Operation With A Big Boss
Although their careless decision to house 10,000 illegally caught radiated tortoises in one home was what ended up getting the criminals busted, Soary explained that this wasn't a small operation-- there had to be many individuals involved to be able to collect nearly 10,000 radiated tortoises.
She told National Geographic, "We don't know exactly who the big person is, but we know there's a big boss." Radiated tortoise smugglings typically happen at borders and airports, but this case was different.
A Treaty Signed By 182 Countries Bans The Trade
The severity of the crime cannot be emphasized enough, especially for how large of a scale this radiated tortoise smuggling operation was. The treaty banning the removal of radiated tortoises from the forests of Madagascar is signed by 182 different countries, as well as the European Union.
Yet, the crime continues. Starting with the poachers who remove the tortoises from their native habitat, they are then often taken to Southeast Asia or China, where another party will sell them as pets.
The Tortoises Are Quickly Losing Their Habitat
One of the major threats to the radiated tortoise species is their disappearing habitat. This is mostly due to deforestation as the land is developed for agricultural use. The forests of Madagascar are being destroyed at an alarming rate. In the last 60 years, a shocking 44% of Madagascar's natural forests have disappeared according to data from Global Forest Watch.
Among other affected species, the radiated tortoise population dropped from 12 million in the 1990s to six million in 2013. Today, there are estimated to only be around three million radiated tortoises alive. Luckily, these smuggled tortoises were saved.
Radiated Tortoises Have Beautiful Shells
One of the reasons these tortoises are so sought-after is their beautiful and unique shells. The radiated tortoise has the typical body shape of other tortoise species, with a high-domed shell and elephantine feet. However, it's the shell that sets this tortoise apart from the rest.
Its shell design includes yellow lines, defining dark plates that feature patterns that are far more detailed and intricate than most tortoises. If they have a safe habitat they can live to be around 190 years and grow to 35 pounds, larger than some other tortoise species.
They Don't Make Good Pets
Radiated tortoises have incredible longevity. One radiated tortoise was recorded as living for 188 years. Who could possibly take care of a pet with that lifespan? No one, obviously.
It's terrible that these animals continue to be captured in their natural habitat and sold to the pet trade, as they are much better off living their life in the forest. Hopefully, the human population can do a better job at protecting their habitat, too.
Radiated Tortoise Smugglers Were Also Arrested In Thailand
Not surprisingly, the people who illegally bred and sold the radiated tortoises in Madagascar weren't the first to commit this crime. In March 2013, smugglers were caught at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand.
The smugglers had a bag of 21 radiated tortoises and 54 angonoka tortoises, trying to get them past security to sell them as pets somewhere else. Luckily, the smugglers were caught and the tortoises were saved.
Tortoises Taken From Madagascar Were Seized In Mumbai
In another incident, customs officials seized 146 tortoises at the Mumbai airport on March 20, 2016. The tortoises were kept inside a suitcase, which was "left behind" at the airport by someone who had flown in from Madagascar.
A Nepal citizen then picked up the suitcase and tried to get it through customs, where he was caught. Of the 146 tortoises found in the baggage, 139 were radiated tortoises and the others, angonoka.