Two critically endangered Radiated Tortoises have hatched at Chester Zoo.
The “golf ball-sized” hatchlings, which are usually found in the dry forests of southern and southwestern Madagascar, are the first of their kind to be bred at the Zoo in seven years.
Conservationists at Chester Zoo have been working to hatch the tortoises after seeing at first-hand the ongoing devastation to their forest home in Madagascar.
After eggs were laid in October by 50-year-old mum, Smoothsides. The Zoo’s new duo emerged on January 16, following an incubation of 100 days. The genders of the hatchlings are not yet known.
Both youngsters are currently being cared for in a climate-controlled behind-the-scenes breeding facility. Radiated Tortoises regularly reach the age of 100. The hatchlings parents are 75-year-old dad, Burt, and 50-year-old mum, Smoothsides. Once old enough, the young duo will join the four male and six female adult tortoises, which range from 10 to 75 years, in the Zoo’s Tropical Realm habitat.
Boasting star-shaped markings on their shells in yellow and black, the Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) is considered one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises and can grow up to half a metre in length. However, they are often victims of their own size and beauty, and conservationists say they are now classed as “Critically Endangered” in the wild.
The number of Radiated Tortoises, like most animals native to Madagascar, is in drastic decline.
Chester Zoo has been caring for the species since 2003 in the hope of creating a genetically viable population, as part of a coordinated European breeding programme. The Zoo is also working closely with field conservation partners, Madagasikara Voakajy, to restore and protect forests in Madagascar.
Deforestation of vital habitat to make way for agricultural land and grazing, hunting for their meat and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade has devastated tortoise numbers. In addition, species introduced to Madagascar by humans, such as rats and pigs, have had further impact as they eat the tortoise’s eggs and babies.
It is estimated that 18 million Radiated Tortoises have already been lost from Madagascar in the last 30 years.
Ben Baker, Chester Zoo’s Team Manager of Herpetology, said, “Hatching is hard work for a baby tortoise and it can sometimes take hours for them to battle their way out of their hard eggshell. They use a special egg tooth to cut the shell open from inside – it’s a bit like an in-built tin opener. Happily, two Radiated Tortoises have hatched successfully and we’re ever so pleased as this is a seriously threatened species.”
“Radiated Tortoises are critically endangered and are faced with a very real threat of extinction in Madagascar. They naturally have very slow rates of growth and reproduction, which means they have little or no hope of recovering unaided from the many threats that have been forced on them by humans – deforestation, hunting, poaching and predation of eggs from introduced species.”
“This is a species that was once seen everywhere in Southern Madagascar. However, an estimated 18 million radiated tortoises have been lost in the last 30 years - a staggeringly high number. Perhaps though this should come as no surprise given that they were once used in great numbers as hardcore under road surfaces. Millions of tortoises can soon be lost when they’re being tossed into huge holes. That’s how little appreciated they were.”
Baker concluded, “It’s vitally important that we promote the conservation of species in Madagascar by engaging local people, as well as ensuring that there are protected areas of forest where they can be safe. That’s exactly what a team of 13 from the zoo has recently been out in Madagascar doing – educating local people about the importance of their local wildlife, fighting to protect the little remaining forest that is left and carrying out vital research to aid the conservation of numerous, fantastic species.”