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Johannesburg – International conservationists in Madagascar have been treating more than 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises that were seized from traffickers who had crammed them into a home with no access to food or water.

The Turtle Survival Alliance and other groups are caring for the tortoises at a wildlife facility in the Ifaty region of the Indian Ocean nation, though hundreds have died from illness and dehydration.

The alliance says the radiated tortoises were found by police at a home in Toliara on April 10 and that they likely had been collected for the illegal pet trade, possibly in Asia.

Radiated tortoises are coveted for the star pattern on their shells.

Most of the surviving tortoises appear “fairly healthy,” said Susie Bartlett, a veterinarian with the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society who described the challenges of working with the huge number of tortoises.

Each morning, “ill tortoises that are under veterinary care are collected from their enclosures and brought to the clinic in large tubs and pans,” Bartlett wrote in an email. “Sick animals are given subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate them and antibiotics if needed, along with vitamin supplementation. This is easily done with the sick tortoises that do not have much strength to retract their heads and legs.”

However, as tortoises get stronger it gets more difficult to extend a leg out of a shell to find a fold of skin for an injection, according to Bartlett. Some of the rescued animals have eye and mouth infections and are given pain medicine.

Conservationists from Zoo Knoxville in Tennessee, Hogle Zoo in Utah, Dallas Zoo and Oklahoma City Zoo are participating in the rescue. About 1,500 radiated tortoises deemed to be healthy have already been moved to other facilities in Madagascar.

Radiated tortoises used to be found along roadways in the dry, spiny forests of south and southwest Madagascar where they live but poaching and habitat loss have taken a heavy toll, according to a “red list” of threatened species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The list says Asian smugglers are known to collect the tortoises and that tortoise meat is popular among some people in Madagascar.

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