In pursuit of the tortoise smugglers

a ploughshare tortoise, photographed by Tim Flach

Stuffed in suitcases or strapped to passengers’ bodies, more and more rare species are finding their way on to the black market. But a radical new wave of wildlife detectives is on the case.

In February 2016, Richard Lewis, a wildlife conservationist working in Madagascar, was contacted by a veterinary clinic with an unusual request. “Someone went to a vet and said: ‘Can you take a microchip out of a ploughshare?’” Lewis recalled. “So they called us.”

The ploughshare tortoise is one of the rarest tortoises on the planet: with fewer than 50 adults thought to be left in the wild, each one is worth as much as $50,000 on the global exotic pet market. Like gold or ivory, their very rarity is part of what drives smugglers’ interest. Lewis runs the Madagascar programme of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which operates a captive breeding site where ploughshares are reared for more than a decade before being released into the wild. Both buying and selling ploughshares, or keeping them as pets, is illegal, and the breeding site is heavily defended, with barbed wire and round-the-clock armed security. As a further measure against smuggling, the organisation implants every ploughshare it encounters with a microchip. Anyone hoping to remove the microchip is likely to be involved with tortoise trafficking.

The Durrell Trust’s staff vet met with the man a few days later. It turned out that he had five ploughshares in total. As soon as the vet told him that what he was doing was illegal, he disappeared. But the very next day, alerted by staff at Durrell, an off-duty police officer was on hand at another clinic when the man tried once again to have the microchip removed.

For Lewis, what happened next was deeply dispiriting. “The person was arrested, went to court, was found guilty, and given a fine of 15,000 ariary ($5)” said Lewis. “I remember the minister [of the environment] saying ‘This is ridiculous’,” Lewis said. “This is somebody en flagrant délit – caught in the act – and gets a couple of dollars’ fine. Something’s wrong somewhere.”

Tortoise populations in Madagascar have plummeted in recent years. Another species, the radiated tortoise, was once one of the most common animals in the spiny forests of southern Madagascar. “When you talk to people about visiting the south 20 years ago,” said Lewis, you hear them say “‘You couldn’t drive down the road without stopping to avoid squashing tortoises – they were everywhere.’”

Yet in the past five years, according to the herpetologist Ryan Walker, the number of radiated tortoises in Madagascar has dropped by more than half, from roughly 6.5m to 3m. “We worked out that about a half a million tortoises are being taken every year,” Walker said. “That gives you an idea of the scale of the problem.”

Behind this population crash lies a mixture of political and environmental factors. In 2009, a military-backed coup and protracted political crisis followed a deep drought. Another drought followed from 2013 and 2016, pushing hundreds of thousands of people to the edge of famine. As farming failed, people turned to the bushmeat trade in large numbers. In the poorest corner of one of the poorest countries on the planet, it didn’t take much for poachers to find men willing to climb on board an open truck and pick an area clean of radiated tortoises in the space of a few hours.

As poaching of radiated tortoises reached an industrial scale across southern Madagascar, smugglers in the north-west zoomed in on Baie de Baly National Park, the only place in the world to find ploughshares. “What we witnessed, starting at the end of 2015, and into 2016, was an exponential increase in tortoise poaching,” Lewis said. “It just went off the scale. We’d never seen anything like it. It was almost as if everybody was trying it on,” Lewis said. In one case, a family on their way to China gave a bag of ploughshares to a police officer to spirit through airport security for them, whereupon the bag split and the tortoises spilled out on to the floor in front of the other passengers at the gate. At the end of 2015, the Durrell Trust was forced to stop releasing captive-bred tortoises into the wild out of fear that they would be poached.

Smuggling of rare frogs is also a problem in Madagascar.
Smuggling of rare frogs is also a problem in Madagascar. Photograph: Miguel Vences/TU Brunswick Handout/EPA

The problem goes well beyond tortoises. Some four of every five animal species in Madagascar are unique to the island, and many are critically endangered – which only makes them more valuable to criminals looking to sell them abroad. At Ivato international airport, the country’s main port of entry, customs agents have discovered trunks full of chameleons packed in takeaway food containers, and little plastic souvenir boxes containing solitary frogs. (The chief customs collector at Ivato airport, Haja Rakotoarimalala, has led recent efforts to crack down on customs officers who abet trafficking. “There are lots of public servants involved,” he said. “Otherwise, it couldn’t work.”)

In a country where corruption is rife, laws protecting wildlife can be little more than theoretical. All exports of Malagasy rosewood, for instance, have been prohibited since early 2010 – but some of Madagascar’s loggers and exporters also hold seats in parliament. Enforcing the ban is a different matter.

Madagascar is consistently near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, a global survey of public corruption. If you ask the locals, they will tell you it’s a place where everything has a price, from passports to university admissions to jobs in the civil service – and, of course, the favour of powerful officials. Over the course of 2016, the agency that investigates public corruption in Madagascar demanded the arrest of more than 150 people on corruption charges; as a result of political pressure, fewer than 20% were actually detained.

“The example comes from on high,” said Ndranto Razakamanarina, who chairs a coalition of environmental advocacy groups known as AVG, based in Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo. “If people see that they’re doing it at the top,” he said, “everybody else will follow suit.”


As the underground trade in tortoises exploded, Lewis and his colleagues at Durrell resolved to find a way to fight back. Their first target was a person who appeared to be selling ploughshare tortoises on Facebook. The day before Christmas 2015, someone with the username “Atsila Ratsila” had posted a photo of six adult ploughshares huddled together on a parquet floor. Several of the animals, Lewis observed, bore engravings on their shells that confirmed that they were, in his words, “our animals” – reared in captivity and stolen from the wild.

Lewis and his team hired a former police officer, who had spent a decade working on counter-terrorism, corruption and organised crime, to investigate. Within a few weeks, through his connections in law enforcement and by piecing together the user’s social media activity, he had identified the suspect. Andriamanalintseheno Tsilavina Ranaivoarivelo, alias Atsila Ratsila, was an unemployed 27-year-old from a small market town south of the capital, with a business degree that he had earned online. Ratsila also appeared to have extensive contacts in south-east Asia. Banking records showed that he had received money transfers from Thailand, where many of Madagascar’s smuggled tortoises end up as pets.

But Durrell is a wildlife conservation organisation with no powers of enforcement: there was only so much they could do on their own. It was around this time that Razakamanarina, the environmental campaigner with AVG, suggested joining forces with a group called Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement, or Eagle.

Eagle specialises in building cases against poachers and traffickers in places where wildlife laws otherwise go largely unenforced. The group aims to develop cases so airtight that there is no room for corruption to undermine the process. The strategy, first developed in Cameroon in 2003, involves supporting the entire chain of people needed to bring a successful prosecution – from potential informants who see something suspicious, all the way to the wardens responsible for making sure prisoners actually serve out their sentences.

A ploughshare tortoise being marked to deter smugglers.
A ploughshare tortoise being marked to deter smugglers. Photograph: Tim Flach

Eagle’s approach was developed by Ofir Drori, an Israeli army veteran and former freelance journalist with a keen appreciation of military discipline and the importance of media exposure. Whether the target is the ivory trade, or the trafficking of great apes or amphibians, Eagle trains up local NGOs who agree to follow the group’s operations manual, and to meet its benchmarks: one trafficking arrest a week, and a news story on wildlife crime every single day.

Rather than relying on testimony or circumstantial evidence – which could be disputed or thrown out on a pretext – Eagle’s standard is to conduct video-recorded stings that produce incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing. Cameroon passed its most important wildlife law in 1994. Ten years later, a top forestry official observed, the baseline was still “almost no prosecutions” of wildlife crime. Eagle’s approach resulted in the successful convictions of 500 wildlife traffickers between 2006 and 2013. Funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service gradually allowed Eagle to expand into eight more countries in Africa. In Madagascar, Eagle’s partnership with AVG was given the name Project Alarm.

Ratsila’s Facebook page – with photos taken in a Bangkok airport and friends whose avatars were tortoises, chameleons and snakes – hinted that he might be part of a wider wildlife smuggling network.

Razakamanarina first met a representative from Eagle in February 2016, and asked for their help in tracking the people connected to the Facebook account. The task of setting up a deal with Ratsila in person was given to a Dutch volunteer based in Madagascar, who had connected with Eagle while backpacking through Africa. The volunteer (who agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity) told me that, as a rule, foreigners have an easier time putting on a convincing act as would-be buyers: smugglers have less cultural context to judge their behaviour undercover, and they fit the profile of someone with the resources to engage in international smuggling.

Ratsila proved an easy mark. He was unguarded: back in early 2016, being caught and punished for smuggling tortoises was unheard of. The most noteworthy prison sentences related to Madagascar’s flora and fauna in recent years had gone not to rosewood traffickers, who had exported hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of illegally harvested timber, but to the environmental activists who had denounced them. Just a few months earlier, Razakamanarina had been summoned to police headquarters in Antananarivo and accused of defamation for giving a press conference in which he suggested that politicians were involved in rosewood trafficking. (Charges against him were never filed.)

In September 2016, the undercover buyer arranged to meet Ratsila at a swanky bistro in a renovated colonial train terminal in Antananarivo. He and a silent companion joined the buyer at a table outside, far from other diners. Ratsila, who was slight, with a paunch and a pockmarked face, seemed uncomfortable at first, sitting down without ordering anything to drink. He spoke limited English and avoided eye contact, but he agreed to meet again the following week to show his merchandise.

A few days later, the buyer went to an address near Ivato airport. Ratsila opened the door to a villa that was empty except for seven large suitcases, each overflowing with radiated tortoises. The buyer took photos to send to his supposed boss. They agreed on a price of $250 a head for 200 tortoises – a total of $50,000 – and set a rendezvous location for the next morning.


Vague arrangements for the sting had been worked out ahead of time, but, following Eagle’s protocol, the specifics were withheld from law enforcement until the last possible moment. That way, they could minimise the risk that sensitive information would leak to anyone who might sabotage the group’s efforts. The police only learned of the timing and location of the operation at 8am on the appointed day, over a cup of coffee at a nearby hotel.

A trio of representatives from AVG and Eagle showed the police officers how the raid was going to unfold and what their roles would be, using a hand-drawn floorplan for the hotel where the arrest would take place. The vagaries of public funding being what they are in Madagascar, it was up to AVG to make sure the officers had petrol in their vehicles, and enough phone credit to communicate with one another leading up to the sting.

At 8am, the man posing as a buyer left AVG’s offices. He had an hour to get to his meeting with Ratsila, but traffic was at a standstill. Antananarivo is a warren of steep hills and narrow streets that are constantly clogged with tiny pale yellow Renault taxis and, as you move further from the centre, the occasional herd of oxen. That morning it quickly became clear that crawling along in a taxi would mean missing the appointment. The buyer would have to go on foot.

A pair of AVG’s investigators trailed Ratsila’s car to the rendezvous point, updating the rest of the team on his progress via WhatsApp. At the Hotel Radama, where the buyer claimed to be staying, Ratsila unloaded three large suitcases and followed the buyer to a room on the second floor. A few minutes later, five plainclothes officers burst through the door with guns drawn, while a lawyer working with AVG followed behind, filming the raid on a mobile phone. In the footage, you can make out muffled cries of “What the fuck!” from the fake buyer, as three officers struggle to pin him behind the door. Ratsila submitted far more quietly, face down on the bed with a knee on his back.

A suitcase full of smuggled tortoises seized in a raid in Madagascar.
A suitcase full of smuggled tortoises seized in a raid in Madagascar. Photograph: Courtesy of Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG)

Ratsila’s suitcases, full of radiated tortoises, were unzipped on the floor. A few tortoises, piled high on top of one another, poked their heads out of their shells to look around, or waved their limbs, trying for a foothold. The whole thing was over within minutes. Ratsila was taken into custody, and AVG had video footage of 198 radiated tortoises (two short of the agreed amount) crammed into suitcases.

The tortoises were quickly delivered to the Turtle Survival Alliance, a group that maintains a safehouse of sorts in the capital, where captured animals are checked by vets and quarantined before being flown to the southern end of the island to be released into the wild.

Ratsila and the undercover buyer were taken in handcuffs to the nearest police station. On the way, Ratsila offered the police officers $6,000 in exchange for his freedom. “Not to worry,” Ratsila told the undercover buyer. “I have friends at the presidency.” If the buyer could put up the cash, he said, he could call someone at the presidential palace – just a block away, as it happened – to help secure their release.

For Lewis, the arrest was bittersweet. It looked as though the six ploughshares from the Facebook photo that sparked the investigation had long since been sold overseas. Still, they had their man.


A week after Ratsila’s arrest, halfway across the country, a forestry official riding in a crowded jitney near the port city of Vohémar noticed an odd smell that seemed to be coming from a fellow passenger’s baggage and got in touch with the police. When the vehicle was stopped on arrival in the city, officers discovered a bag of 56 grilled lemurs destined to become secret off-menu delicacies at exclusive hotels along the coast.

The lemurs were believed to come from Loky Manambato, a protected area farther north, famous as home to the world’s last remaining population golden-crowned sifakas, an extremely rare species of lemur. Malagasy law prohibits all lemur trapping and hunting, and even keeping them as pets. The law calls for a penalty of up to five years in prison, but another lemur poaching case two months earlier had ended with a fine. In this case, prosecutors requested a sentence of eight months. More than a year later, the suspect is languishing in jail, but the case hasn’t been decided. If the usual problem is a verdict that yields no punishment, punishment without a verdict is hardly a solution.

Tombotsoa Raharijaona, a lawyer for AVG, explained why judges often use their discretion to let smugglers off easy. “When you read the law, people don’t understand why you should punish someone just for a little tortoise,” he said. The courts seldom seem to see wildlife crime for what it is – a robbery from Madagascar, a crime against future generations. “It’s a matter of fostering a different culture in the justice system,” he said hopefully.

Soft-spoken and earnest, Raharijaona works out of a small home office a few blocks from Madagascar’s supreme court. Before working on environmental issues, he spent five years as a legal advisor to an organisation that combats child slavery and human trafficking. “There’s no equity,” he said. “You see, there are cases here in Madagascar where a man steals a chicken and gets sentenced to four months.” In other cases, meanwhile, people who are caught red-handed with endangered species are released on bail and disappear. Once they have vanished, the cases against them wither away. “How can it be that we give them temporary freedom when their guilt was never in doubt?” asked Raharijaona.

The case against Ratsila was as solid as a prosecutor could hope for. After his arrest, which had been filmed, Ratsila had given a signed confession to officers specially trained in wildlife crime, working with the environment ministry. Photographs on his mobile phone appeared to show how Ratsila had hidden small tortoises inside big boxes of cookies before sending them to Asia via DHL. Within the previous year he had made trips to Hong Kong, China and Thailand. There were even Facebook messages in which he explained to a customer that he sometimes hid the tortoises inside pairs of socks in his luggage. Finally, there was the trail of money: nearly $5,000 in advance payments via Western Union, all coming from Thailand, and all within a few weeks.

A ploughshare tortoise
A ploughshare tortoise. Photograph: DEA/ C. Dani/ I. Jeske/De Agostini/Getty Images

As we left Raharijaona’s apartment and walked downstairs, I glanced towards a small patio outside his neighbour’s front door. There on the ground were the unmistakable, sunburst-like shells of two radiated tortoises being kept as pets, nibbling on shards of wilted lettuce. Raharijaona made a grimace and shrugged. “You see,” he said, “that’s not allowed either.”

The trial of Ratsila and five accomplices was held in November 2016, and the verdict came just six weeks after the sting. Five men were each sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, along with fines totalling $60,000. The sixth, the caretaker of the villa where Ratsila had shown off his wares, was sentenced to 10 months.

But it was not long before the backsliding began. A few days before Christmas, barely a month into Ratsila’s 30-month sentence, an appeals court granted him bail. It proved impossible to get an answer from the justice ministry as to why, but to the lawyers at AVG it seemed likely Ratsila had finally secured an intervention from well-placed friends, just as he had promised the undercover buyer after their arrest. AVG held a press conference to try and stir up some unfavourable headlines. Razakamanarina called the justice minister himself, to no avail. The team had no choice but to move on to their next case.


There is perhaps no better sign of the difficulties facing wildlife protection in Madagascar than the fact that even a successful project can quickly fall apart. Although AVG’s partnership with Eagle was highly effective – putting more than a dozen convicted tortoise traffickers in prison, sometimes over the objections of high-ranking politicians who intervened on their behalf – it lasted only nine months.

From the start, there had been tension between law enforcement on the one hand, and AVG and Eagle on the other. During one sting, a police officer with the environment ministry refused to allow AVG and Eagle staff to attend a search of a suspect’s house after the arrest. AVG investigators deferred to the policeman’s role as an agent of the government. But Eagle’s representative insisted that they be allowed to follow along on the search, and they were. Afterwards, the police officer complained to a prosecutor, who summoned AVG lawyers to her office to tell them “what we can and cannot do”.

But the conflict that ultimately led to the end of Project Alarm was between AVG and Eagle. Over time, staff at AVG began to chafe at Eagle’s requirement that one of its representatives be present at every stage of an investigation. “Eagle accused me of lying, said I encouraged the team not to follow Eagle’s guidance,” said Joély Razakarivony, AVG’s coordinator for the programme at the time, who soon left in frustration. “To work with someone who doesn’t trust you? It doesn’t make sense.”

Luc Mathot, an activist with Eagle who helped set up the program, told me via email: “We were not satisfied by [AVG’s] respect of our methodology.” Mathot took issue with AVG’s accounting, alleging that money from Project Alarm had been diverted to pay other salary costs. Razakamanarina admitted making changes without Eagle’s approval, but insisted it was justified, and offered to repay the difference. Still, the damage had been done. Eagle suspended the project in May.

It didn’t take long for the positive results of AVG and Eagle’s collaboration to unravel. Two months later, Annie Rajeriarison, a lawyer who had worked for Project Alarm, took me to Antanimora prison, a hilltop penitentiary where conditions are so bad that prisoners suffer from malnutrition and even periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague. Rajeriarison had got to know the place well on recent visits, occasionally gleaning useful tidbits for ongoing investigations when she brought inmates blankets and medicine. But when I visited on 2 August, only two of the 20-odd smugglers caught under Project Alarm were still there. Even the pair that remained – young men who had been found with tortoises taped to their bodies as they boarded a plane to China – were protesting their innocence. Their lawyer, they assured me, had told them they would be out soon.

Western donors have spent almost $1bn on conservation projects in Madagascar since 1990. Project Alarm was a relative bargain: less than $100,000 all told, to compile a string of convictions unmatched in the history of fighting poaching in Madagascar. Over the autumn, AVG aimed to show to potential donors that they were capable of replicating Project Alarm’s successes without support from a foreign NGO like Eagle. In October, the group broke up a trafficking ring in Mahajanga, a city near the national park where ploughshares make their home.

Now, Mamy Rastefano, the investigator coordinating AVG’s ongoing detective work, has his sights set on bigger quarry: a “kingpin”, he said, rather than footsoldiers. Through Project Alarm, AVG had gleaned evidence that seemed to tie the traffickers to far more powerful people: generals, judges, and leaders of Madagascar’s national assembly. “For the time being, we haven’t been able to unmask the people who call the shots,” Rastefano said. “If we can manage to catch just one high-ranking trafficker – like a minister or a deputy [in parliament] – I can tell you, it will make the others think twice.”

SOURCE: theguardian