What’s the link between cannabis and endangered tortoises? The rise of corrupt, organised gangs in Madagascar

What’s the link between cannabis and endangered tortoises? The rise of corrupt, organised gangs in Madagascar
Two radiated tortoises from Madagascar. The southwest of Madagascar is the home range of the radiated tortoise, one of the world’s rarest reptile species. EPA-EFE/LAURENT GILLIERON

The smuggling of two of the world’s most endangered species, radiated and ploughshare tortoises – both classified as critically endangered – is intimately linked to Madagascar’s cannabis trade and the corruption is fuelling the growth of organised gangs.

The mountainous Andriry region near the town of Betroka in southeastern Madagascar is an inhospitable area: remote, difficult to access and with a reputation for danger because of long-standing banditry and armed cattle-rustling groups. It is also one of Madagascar’s two main cannabis-producing regions and home to organised groups of traffickers who control exports of the drug.

Hery (not his real name), the leader of one of these groups and a key cannabis supplier, described how his business works. He and his lieutenant reportedly control hundreds of young men in their trafficking organisation, a claim backed up by a police officer who spoke anonymously and is tasked with a mission to arrest Hery and bring him to justice. This officer estimates that Hery has about 150 people in his gang.

They control the cannabis shipments to exchange points on the outskirts of Betroka, from where transporters then take the shipments by road to drug bosses based in the capital, Antananarivo, and other towns, including Toliara, Antsirabe, Ihosy and Fianarantsoa.

A businessman and nightclub owner in Betroka explained how cannabis is brought from the mountain regions by transporters on foot and left in clandestine drop-off places outside the city. Toky (not his real name), an inmate in Betroka prison, who was arrested for acting as a cannabis transporter, described his experience on this route. Working on behalf of a dealer based in Ihosy, he travelled with a group into the mountain region to collect a cannabis shipment. After paying his cut to Hery’s gang to move cannabis freely, his group was intercepted by police on their way back to Betroka. As the oldest member of the group, Toky was not able to flee in time.

How Betroka became a major cannabis production hub has links to cattle rustling. One ex-politician, also a former cattle rustler, reported that many of the major players have, in recent years, switched their focus from cattle rustling to cannabis. Hery said that some in his gang were once cattle rustlers, but were now concentrating on drugs and looking to invest in artisanal mining. According to Hery, his gang recently reached a pact with regional law enforcement, whereby they would surrender any arms from cattle-rustling operations in return for being able to trade cannabis with impunity.

The way Hery operates, and those like him, relies on complicity and protection. He reports that grand patrons – “big bosses” – in Antananarivo ensure their protection and cover their activities. In Betroka, he claims that his group and their 30 or so subgroups pay annual fees to regional civil servants to ensure their collaboration. Other interviewees, from former politicians to public prosecutors, businessmen and police, also corroborated that corruption linked to the cannabis trade is widespread in the area.

The world’s rarest reptiles

The southwest of Madagascar is the home range of the radiated tortoise, one of the world’s rarest reptile species. Along with the ploughshare tortoise – also native to Madagascar and even more endangered, as only a few hundred specimens are known to remain in the wild – radiated tortoises have in the past decade become highly sought after by reptile collectors in the international pet trade.

In the radiated tortoises’ home ranges, a large proportion of people depend on rural subsistence livelihoods. For centuries, tortoises have been part of the local diet as an important source of protein. Herilala Randriamahazo, a conservationist with the Turtle Survival Alliance, working on tortoise protection, told us that poaching for bushmeat remains a primary danger to tortoise populations.

Theft of young radiated tortoises for international sale has grown significantly in the past decade. In 2018, two seizures of unprecedented scale – numbering over thousands of tortoises – were made in the island’s southwest. One of the experts interviewed believes that the buyer of the seized tortoises will be waiting for this order to be fulfilled, meaning that the pressure remains for thousands of more tortoises to be taken from the wild.

Tortoise traffickers – predominantly Malagasy and Asian nationals resident in Antananarivo – use intermediaries who approach communities to conscript locals to poach live tortoises for a cash income. In this impoverished region, in which tortoises have traditionally been a food source to exploit, and not an endangered species to protect, this proves a strong incentive. The intermediaries then make payment on collection and arrange transport for the tortoises.

Different markets, similar dynamics

The markets for cannabis and radiated tortoises may initially seem to be quite different: very different commodities, originating in different regions of Madagascar, and operating in very different social and political contexts.

However, in both cases, one of the challenges inherent in governing these markets is a lack of local government legitimacy and a local acceptance of these trades. Conservationists try to integrate anti-poaching edicts into local law systems in a bid to encourage community compliance with national-level efforts to counter the tortoise trade. In the cannabis trade, Hery and his gang argued that producers and traffickers in the region are simply trying to find a source of income in a difficult environment, and that they saw cannabis as a legitimate way of making a living.

Both trades rely on the complicity of officials in source regions and along trafficking routes. Just like the multitude of officials on Hery’s gang payroll, officials in the southwest are encouraged to turn a blind eye to the tortoise trade, and trafficking intermediaries reportedly have strong links to law enforcement.

Police inspection points along the main roads in Madagascar are widespread. Moving tortoises from the southwest to Antananarivo may entail passing up to 20 checkpoints. However, there are few reports of seizures at these checkpoints, implying that low-level corruption is common. The transport of large shipments of cannabis uses the same trunk roads leading to Antananarivo as those used for tortoise trafficking. These flows may be relying on the same modalities of corruption to move illegal goods, and their establishment along transport routes paves the way for multiple types of trafficking.

Shipments of tortoise and drugs other than cannabis also pass through many of the same transport hubs and regional destinations. Tortoises are transported overland to Antananarivo, and then to Asian destination markets by air from Ivato airport. Alternatively, some traffickers ship radiated tortoises from the southwest by boat to Mahajanga for export to the Comoros islands. Similarly, international law enforcement sources identified Mahajanga as a major hub port for drug shipments through Madagascar, and migrants are also smuggled from this port to the Comoros.

Secondary routes include regional flights from smaller airports to Comoros, Mayotte or Reunion. More recently, there have been reports of radiated tortoises going directly from southwest Madagascar on ships to China, or by fishing boat to Mozambique.

Cannabis from Betroka is primarily shipped to Antananarivo and also services regional consumption markets across southern Madagascar. Cannabis from Madagascar’s other major production area, the northern Analabe Ambanja, is also shipped to Comoros via Nosy Be, an island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. Nosy Be is also an important hub for heroin shipments from Madagascar to other Indian Ocean island states, after heroin is brought into the country through other ports (particularly Toamasina) and consolidated, cut and repackaged in Antananarivo.

Corruption: A gateway for organised crime

Neither the illegal tortoise trade nor the cannabis market in Madagascar is a priority for national or international law enforcement. However, both markets show similar dynamics of local corruption and acceptance of the illegal market at the community level. In the case of cannabis-trafficking in Betroka, where our research has been centred, the reported corruption is significant and endemic. In illicit markets, corruption in source regions and along transport routes undermines the rule of law and also acts as a gateway for other forms of organised crime to operate through the same routes. DM

This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly East and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally.


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  • Marianne McKay says:

    Thank you. Very interesting article. We can but hope it helps to draw attention to yet more species being pushed into extinction by human greed.

  • Rory Short says:

    The possibility of earning money is what drives the whole chain from start to finish. It can only do so unhindered because money is anonymous. If units of currency recorded not only their value but also the history of those who possessed them as they passed from person to person throughout their lives, then money would no longer be anonymous and could be used to track down criminals. With digital currencies such record keeping would be perfectly feasible.

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