Michael Ogle, our assistant curator of herpetology here at Knoxville Zoo, is kind of a big deal in the world of tortoise conservation, although he is far too modest to ever admit it. He’s been a key part of our success breeding some of the rarest tortoises in the world, often making us the first zoo to do so. He is particularly knowledgeable when it comes to species found in the country of Madagascar, which led to the invitation from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to travel to southern Madagascar last month to work with some of his Malagasy counterparts to help locals care for confiscated tortoises.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest factors in the demise of the critically endangered spider and radiated tortoises is the illegal pet trade (these tortoises are highly sought after by collectors in Asia) and the fact that they are considered a delicacy by some more affluent members of Malagasy society. And to add yet another peril, they are increasingly experiencing habitat destruction due to mineral mining in Madagascar. These tortoises just can’t get a break.
Fortunately for them, there are people like Michael who want to help ensure a future for these guys, and one of the goals of his recent trip, (this is his second), was to teach basic husbandry to the team of police and forestry service employees, who, inadvertently, have found themselves de facto tortoise keepers due to the large number of confiscated tortoises they have intercepted in thwarted attempts to smuggle them out of the country for the pet trade. (For every animal that survives the illegal trip out of the country, by the way, there are hundreds that do not.) But the goal is to return every intercepted tortoise back to their native range, hence the need to care for them until they can be successfully transported and returned. Here’ s Michael (tall guy with a sunburn in the middle of the back row) during one of their husbandry workshops.
Now, on to Michael’s other mission on this trip-educating the local villagers about tortoise conservation and encouraging them to re-energize their long tradition of respecting the tortoises who shared their home. (And getting to that whole school thing.)
Madagascar is not a well-developed or affluent country, and in the villages, schools are rustic at best and students often have to travel long distances to another village to attend school. The TSA, realizing that if you want to ensure the education of the next generation about the conservation of tortoises, among other things, then it would just make sense to build the village of Antsaokamasy a school. So build a school they did.
So thanks to the TSA, they now have a lovely new school, which will further the education of 60 students in the village. But there was one small snafu-they needed schools supplies like desks and chairs and school supplies. Enter Michael Ogle.
When Michael heard about their plight, he got the idea that he knew enough people who just might be able to help make sure they opened their new school with everything they needed. So he got busy, and thanks to the generosity of quite a few folks, he raised $3,200 to not only provide the furniture they needed, but to also install solar panels on the roof of the school to light the classrooms! (The village only has a generator that runs three hours a day to supply electricity.)
Michael tells us the children were extremely excited to show off their new school, and the village celebrated its opening with singing by the schoolchildren, speeches by local politicians and a feast of zebu, which is a very large cow found in Madagascar for you foodies out there. He said they were so proud of their new school, racing inside to see it as soon as they had the opportunity.
And all of us are pretty proud of Michael for his skills with tortoises who desperately need his help. Not to mention his soft spot for the schoolchildren of Antsakoamasy.