It’s a story straight out of a horror novel. Neighbors in a small Madagascar village began to notice a foul smell. It’s a peaceful and quiet community.
No one wanted to risk offending their neighbors by mentioning the smell or leveling accusations. As time went on, the smell permeated the neighborhood and became nearly unbearable.
Eventually, they pinpointed the source of the odor. A seemingly abandoned house. They gathered together to decide what to do. No one wanted to brave the smell and go into the home.
Calling the police over a bad odor seemed frivolous. They considered calling the city and reporting the home as overrun, but then they noticed something.
How anyone could live with the stench was beyond them. Still, they were reluctant to call the authorities with people residing in the house. No one wanted to cause any trouble.
Perhaps they felt sympathy for anyone willing to live with such a rancid smell.
Not long after people were spotted coming and going from the home, the strange smell went away. Individuals were still curious about what could have caused such an odor in the first place, but they were no longer concerned. Life returned to normal for a time. However, the story was far from over.
Eventually, the smell came back with a vengeance. It once again permeated the neighborhood, prompting the village to come together again to discuss what should be done. Everyone agreed that the smell was coming from the strange house. Of course, they couldn’t check out the home on their own. No one was willing to risk criminal charges or come face to face with whatever was creating the odor.
Unable to tolerate the smell or the mystery any longer, they made the decision to call the police.
They explained that there was a rancid smell coming from the home, and the police began making a plan to get answers.
Police are accustomed to dealing with strange situations, including mysterious smells. Most often, wildlife is the cause of the odor. However, they couldn’t make any assumptions.
Proper preparation is a key component of keeping themselves and the community safe. In this case, being prepared meant being ready for anything. The authorities assembled a team to investigate the home, including a medical examiner, a wildlife expert, and other specialists.
Soary Randrianjafizanaka was one of the experts called to help investigate. Her wildlife department often worked alongside police in cases where wildlife was suspected.
She had no idea what she was going to find. However, she was a resident of the community herself, and just like the strange home’s neighbors, she was curious to know the source of the smell.
In other areas, foul play would likely be the first suspected cause of such an odor. However, Toliara is a quiet and peaceful coastal village in Southern Madagascar.
Authorities felt the possibility of foul play in the area was low, so they recognized the likelihood that the smell had something to do with animals.
The Environmental Agency had seen its share of strange animal cases working with local authorities in the past. Randrianjafizanaka thought she had seen it all.
However, nothing could have prepared her for what she would eventually find in the home. She was later quoted as saying, “You cannot imagine. It was so awful”.
No one on the team had ever smelled anything like the rancid stench coming when they pulled up to the home.
They had no idea what it could be, but there was only one way to find out.
They were sure the two-story house was abandoned. Surely no one could live in these conditions.
It appeared perfectly normal from the outside, other than the smell, which added to the mystery.
When they entered the home, several members of the team became lightheaded from the strength of the smell. Randrianjafizanaka suggested that the stench was animal waste, even though she had never smelled this particular scent before.
Surely nothing human could produce such a foul odor. Animals trapped within the confines of the house had to be the cause.
The authorities begin investigating the property. No one knew what to expect.
Everyone was on high alert. As the team made their way quietly through the house, they heard a noise. Everyone stopped in their tracks.
They weren’t alone. The house wasn’t abandoned after all. They found the owners of the home, and their confusion and shock only grew. These people were digging holes. They had clearly been hard at work at their task for some time when they were found.
What did these holes have to do with the smell? Why would anyone tolerate such a stench?
As the police began asking questions, the people began acting strangely. Or perhaps continued acting strange given the state the authorities found them in.
The police wanted answers, and the homeowners weren’t providing them. They were clearly hiding something. As the police moved closer, the diggers laid down their shovels and put up their hands.
They were guilty of something, but what was it? The authorities placed them under arrest, assuming rightly that they had done something wrong.
They then went back to the home to determine the cause of the smell that had brought them there to begin with.
Then they noticed that the floor was moving, another twist to the story that no one was prepared for.
Eventually, they realized what they were actually seeing.
The team braved the horrid stench once again. The house was in a shambles inside. There was no light, cobwebs everywhere, debris on the floor. The house certainly appeared unlivable.
It wasn’t the floor that was moving. Instead, it was tortoises covering the floor. They were crowded together so closely that they actually looked like they were the floor.
This was the cause of the smell. The waste from over 10,000 tortoises had a pungent odor that no one present that day would ever forget. They had a difficult time searching the house due to the number of tortoises.
They thought they were prepared for anything, but they were not prepared for this. They were going to require help to save these beautiful animals, which are endangered.
Randrianjafizanaka knew that the tortoises were at risk of dying due to the horrendous conditions they were living in. When found, 180 tortoises in the home were dead.
This left an astounding 9,888 tortoises that would need relocation and veterinary care.
The tortoises are an endangered species known as Radiated tortoises. They are highly prized in the illegal pet trade due to their colorful shells and rarity. Authorities believe that the suspects planned to send the tortoises to Asia.
Unfortunately, at the current rate of poaching, these beautiful creatures will be extinct in the wild in the next 15-30 years. The species is thought to have decreased by 75% in the wild.
Tortoises live a long life, but they take a long time to reach reproductive age. They aren’t able to reproduce quickly enough to keep up with poaching.
The Radiated Tortoise is particularly prized due to their colorful shells. They are considered a delicacy in some countries. However, perhaps this rescue could be a new chance for the species.
The team worked until early the next morning relocating the turtles to Le Village Des Tortues, which is French for Village of the Turtles. The private wildlife refuge was 18 miles away from Toilara.
Unfortunately, within a week, 574 tortoises had died from infection or dehydration due to the deplorable conditions they were kept in. The rest recovered well, however.
The story does have a silver lining. Experts from around the world came together to help care for the rescued tortoises, including Stephen Nelson, a herpetologist at Zoo Knoxville.
The Turtle Survival Alliance played a pivotal role in saving the tortoises. The Turtle Survival Alliance has members in zoos around the world working to keep the Radiated tortoises alive with captive breeding programs.
Returning endangered species to the wild is important for the continuation of the species. However, it is a lengthy and expensive process.
The SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program gave TSA and Knoxville Zoo a $50,000 grant in March 2020 to reintroduce 1,000 of the tortoises to the wild.
Relocation begins with selecting appropriate sites. Then enclosures are built around the sites to contain the tortoises. These enclosures are proven to allow the animals to re-acclimate to being in the wild.
Without them, they may attempt to return to their birthplace, which could result in death or being recaptured.
The enclosures allow the tortoises to establish home ranges. This is the area that the tortoise will stay in once it has been established. After one year, the enclosures will be removed.
The tortoises will be tracked via radio transmitters. Local communities that hold the tortoise sacred have agreed to watch over the turtles and protect them from poachers.
There are currently 25,000 tortoises that experts are hoping to eventually release back into the wild.
Of the 10,000 tortoises found in the home, 8,000 of them made a full recovery. They are finally getting the healthy life they deserve.
The neighbors were shocked to learn the cause of the smell, but glad they played a role in saving these endangered tortoises. Without the neighbors contacting the authorities, the turtles might have never been found.
The illegal wildlife trade is a worldwide problem. In fact, it’s the fourth most profitable transnational crime. Stopping these poachers requires everyone’s participation. From neighbors that notice a strange smell and grow concerned, local authorities, and even experts around the world. With species around the world in danger of extinction, saving them is a worldwide concern.
In this case, each of the suspects received long prison sentences for their crime.
Perhaps this will deter others from following in their footsteps.