Right off the bat, let’s address the title of this field dispatch. The word Tortoise in French is tortue. The particular tortoise we’ll be talking about here, the ploughshare, is known as angonoka in Malagasy.
When I say, “tortoises need no translation,” I was referring to something universal among wildlife biologists: a passion for conservation. This is exactly what I experienced when I visited The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Project Angonoka.
A subadult angonoka goes in for a bite on his much larger friend.
Situated near the village of Ampijoroa, this small, unassuming breeding facility has been leading the fight against the extinction of the world’s rarest tortoise, the angonoka, for over 30 years. In this time, Durrell staff have successfully bred and released 100 angonoka back into the wild and in 2011, celebrated the first wild tortoises born to captive bred animals. In addition to the angonoka, the facility also works to conserve the kapidolo, a small tortoise which is almost as endangered, and the rere, Madagascar’s only endemic aquatic turtle.
A large rere, or side-necked turtle, comes up to investigate the visiting biologists.
Upon arrival I was greeted by Ernest Bekarany, who has managed the facility since 1996. While the threat of poaching looms large around the species here, he provides a much-needed calm and steady presence. Although I knew only a smattering of Malagasy and my français left much to be desired, Ernest was all smiles as he showed me around. I followed along happily and attempted to ask questions using a mixture of broken high school level French and elaborate hand gestures.
Two angonoka, or ploughshare tortoise, with unique engravings on their carapace.
He brought out a few of the angonoka and pointed out the engravings in the tortoise’s shells, an attempt to dissuade potential poachers. Afterwards we checked in on the kapidolo, who were all rather sluggish during Madagascar’s winter, and compared how chelonians in Canada deal with our winters. Ernest even managed to coax one of the large rere from the depths of it’s aquatic holding chamber and I was immediately struck by the similarities to the common snapping turtle found back home. I pulled out my phone and showed him videos of fieldwork conducted this past spring with snappers and Ernest agreed, talking about how their handling techniques were much the same as ours.
A throwback to Wildlife Preservation Canada’s very own Lance Woolaver (left) and Ernest Bekarany (right) handling an adult rere.
Even though few words were spoken, so much was said, all based on a shared set of experiences and a common goal. This passion for conservation is universal among those who care about wildlife, regardless of language, and is something that unites us all in the fight for endangered species.