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Back to the wild: Zoo Knoxville to return endangered tortoises to the wild after $50,000 grant

In 2018, 10,976 tortoises were rescued from a single home in Madagascar — the largest confiscation of endangered tortoises ever.
Thousands of critically endangered radiated tortoises were confiscated from a home in Madagascar. A Zoo Knoxville herpetologist is part of the international effort to save them

Tortoises aren't the fastest animals, especially when it comes to recovering. Nearly two years after Zoo Knoxville helped save 10,976 endangered radiated tortoises from a home in Madagascar, some are starting to return to the wild.

On March 9, the zoo announced that it and the Turtle Survival Alliance was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to return 1,000 tortoises. The grant was given through their SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction grant program.

The tortoises were rescued from wildlife traffickers in 2018 in the largest global confiscation of tortoises ever, according to a press release from Zoo Knoxville. They were taken from a single home in Madagascar and treated by medical teams.

"Now we have the funds to properly monitor them post-release," Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance, said in a press release. "Reintroduction is an intensive process, and with 25,000 tortoises in our captive centers, it is imperative that we develop a model for transitioning them back into the wild to restore depleted populations."

Credit: Zoo Knoxville
Herpetology lead keeper Stephen Nelson during his time in Madagascar helping to care for the confiscated Radiated tortoises working with the Turtle Survival Alliance.

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The zoo and the Turtle Survival Alliance needed to take several steps before the tortoises could be completely released. 

First, teams needed to find a good release site in Madagascar, where the tortoises can reenter the wild safely. Then, teams will need to build "soft" release pens to hold the tortoises until they are more established in the new environment.

Wildlife professionals will also use radio transmitters to track the tortoises' locations as they venture out into the wild. A coordinator from the Turtle Survival Alliance will also work with residents to protect the endangered tortoises from poachers.

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