After Major Poaching Bust in Madagascar, N.H. 'Turtle Artist' Swings into Action

May 3, 2019

Matt Patterson of New Ipswich traveled to southwestern Madagascar to assist in field research on radiated tortoises.
Credit Courtesy of Matt Patterson

Matt Patterson doesn’t have long hair, and he’s not big into exercise. And yet, he’s always wearing a bandana—one he designed himself.

“This is a northeast turtle bandana, which I made because I kept looking for a bandana with turtles on it. But all I could find was Ninja Turtles, so I said the hell with this, I have to make one,” Patterson explains.

Patterson’s bandana is just one of many reptile and amphibian-themed items he produces out of his studio in New Ipswich, N.H. His specialty is highly realistic paintings and prints done in an Audubon-style, often with native plants in the image.

“Are you offended if I call you a turtle artist?” I asked him.

“No, I love it. It’s my dream. I’ve made it,” he assures me.

(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)  

Turtle artists don’t live charmed lives, especially those based in rural New Hampshire. Patterson hustles: he illustrates books, goes to craft fairs, and more recently, started selling work at turtle conferences.

“Met a bunch of wild, crazy turtle people. Loved it,” he recalls of his first turtle conference.

A painting of a radiated tortoise by Patterson.
Credit Courtesy of Matt Patterson

The turtle world is a small, tight-knit kind of place, and Patterson, 38, has earned his way to the inside of it. Patterson is big on turtle Instagram, his work is featured in art galleries, and he recently got invited to Madagascar.

The lush island off the coast of Africa is in some ways the epicenter of turtle world right now because of what happened there last year.

“In April 2018, 10,000 radiated tortoises were found crammed wall to wall without room to move or eat inside a small house inside southwestern Madagascar,” says the narrator of a documentary. “The thousands of rare, critically endangered tortoises had all been stolen from the wilderness by poachers.”

(A quick nature note: tortoises are turtles that live on land.)

Poachers target radiated tortoises because of their elaborate shells. It’s the same reason Patterson likes to draw them.

“They are beautiful, they are probably the best looking tortoise in the world,” he says.

They have a bright, almost star-like pattern. “Each one of those star patterns is unique to that tortoise, so it is almost like a fingerprint.”

Approximately 10,000 radiated tortoises stolen from the wild by poachers were found crammed into a house in Madagascar.
Credit Courtesy of DREEF Atsimo Atsinanana

Illegally poached radiated tortoises can sell for tens of thousands of dollars each in China, where they’re sometimes kept as pets.

After authorities busted this poaching operation, specialists with the Turtle Survival Alliance swung into action. That includes an expert named Josh Lucas, who spent months doing round the clock care.

“And now, almost a year later, I’m in Madagascar, I’ve been here almost two months now, exclusively surveying a bunch of potential sites to reintroduce these animals because our ultimate goal is to get them back in the wild, but we can’t just throw them back with such extreme poaching pressure,” explains Lucas from the field.

Today, there are an estimated 3 million wild radiated tortoises in Madagascar. In the 1990s, there were four times that many.

And so, before any of these rescued tortoises are released back into the wild, experts want to be sure that they’ll be safe. That’s where Matt Patterson comes in.

Credit Courtesy of Matt Patterson

The Turtle Survival Alliance invited Patterson to Madagascar to help study potential places in the wild where they can release them. That meant surveying for edible plants, as well as making sure those in captivity are healthy. It’s part of a multi-step process that Lucas says could take years to complete.

Now back home in New Ipswich, Patterson says the trip only heightened his love of these animals.

“People don’t really look at reptiles and amphibians as much as, say, birds or mammals. But there’s a lot of beauty right under your nose, so that’s what I try to focus on.”

Patterson says he’s going to make some limited edition prints of radiated tortoises and give the proceeds to the Turtle Survival Alliance. It’s the least a turtle artist can do.