It’s home to an incomprehensible number of endemic creatures, but almost all of Madagascar’s lemur species face extinction and biodiversity is under threat. What’s being done? Meera Dattani visits the world’s fourth-largest island to find out.
As the current bush fires in Australia demonstrate, the climate crisis is here, right now. It’s not an abstract concept, and it never was. Billions of animals have died, including an estimated 8,000 koalas, and that’s not including species extinction, injured wildlife, displaced communities, destroyed homes, and, at time of writing, 33 people dead.
Many scientists and experts warned that fires on this scale could occur. Too often, we’re warned about risks to our environment, wildlife or health—but we bury our head in the sand. Fortunately, there are changemakers in our world, dedicating their lives to positive impact.
One place where warning bells have been sounding is Madagascar. Off the southeast coast of Africa, the world’s fourth-largest and oldest island occupies 0.4 per cent of the world’s landmass, but has five per cent of its biodiversity. Over 80 per cent is endemic, found nowhere else in the world, including lemurs, one of the world’s most endangered creatures.
With almost all of Madagascar’s lemur species facing extinction, and deforestation a major issue, what do the scientists and conservationists on the ground really think? Is there a chance to put the brakes on a rapidly escalating crisis—or have the scales been tipped too far on the ‘eighth continent’?
Lemurs in particular lure many, like me, to Madagascar. Highly intelligent, social mammals, most lemur species are female dominant and group living. And the first moment you make eye contact is unforgettable—in my case, a dancing, diademed sifaka in the eastern (some primary) rainforests of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Neither do you forget the wail of an indri lemur, found only here, ringing through the treetops, while fellow indri wail back in response. These are some of the treats for anyone who road-trips along Madagascar’s popular RN7 route.
But why are they, and other species, so at risk? Firstly, habitat loss. Madagascar is a poor country and many subsistence agricultural practices don’t always prioritize the environment. As a former French colony, the French may have created the first national parks, but the colonialists also cleared most of the primary forest for ‘economic progress’. In fact, almost three-quarters was cleared from 1895 to 1925—deforestation is no new thing. Conservation fell off the agenda until after independence from France in 1960, and it was the 1980s before it was back on, in any meaningful way.
But now, there is some good news—perhaps. In August 2019, national scientists presented the Ivato Declaration to encourage political and economic leaders to take swift action on conservation and sustainable economic progress, to better protect the country’s biodiversity. Madagascar’s president Andry Rajoelina, elected in December 2018, has made a commitment to sign it, but at time of writing, the January 2020 date has been postponed. In the meantime however, authorities have announced that 60 million trees will be planted in 2020 to mark 60 years of independence—Madagascar lost a fifth of its tree cover between 2001 and 2018 so this is some welcome news.
Whatever happens, the president’s interest is a significant move, says Professor Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Malagasy native, director of Houston Zoo Madagascar Programs (among many illustrious positions), and one of the scientists behind the Ivato Declaration. “Almost all previous governments have not given importance to research and tourism in Madagascar,” he says. “Quite sad, but that’s the truth.”
75 per cent of the population live on less than US $1.90 per day … Habitat loss isn’t a priority when there’s a family to feed, and healthcare and education are limited.
When I spoke to him a year earlier, he’d said, “Top-down does not work in Madagascar.” Now there’s a slither of hope. The scientists have come up with five ways President Rajoelina could quickly improve Madagascar’s biodiversity, including tackling environmental and wildlife crime (poaching, hunting) in a way that doesn’t target poor farmers unaware of environmental laws, and using technological advances in tracking and DNA barcoding.
They also want the government to invest more in Madagascar’s protected areas—protected status can slow down rates of deforestation. After Dr. Patricia Wright discovered endangered golden bamboo lemurs in 1986 among the giant ferns of what’s now Ranomafana National Park, it became a protected area in 1991. Now it’s home to 13 lemur species, and the pioneering Center ValBio research station.
Investment can’t come soon enough though. Dr. Tara Clarke is a lecturer at North Carolina State University’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology and director of special projects at US-based non-profit organization Mad Dog Initiative—she started working in Madagascar 16 years ago and Dr. Patricia Wright was her undergraduate thesis adviser.
“Concerns surrounding biodiversity have increased at an alarming pace,” says Dr. Clarke. “Madagascar faces countless and concurrent anthropogenic pressures—habitat loss and degradation, mining, climate change, plus acute levels of poverty, crime and corruption. If swift action isn’t taken and strategic conservation solutions implemented, we face the harsh reality of irrevocable loss of Madagascar’s unparalleled biodiversity.”
And Madagascar really is something else. The only other place with a wild lemur population is the nearby island of Comoros, where they were introduced by humans. Lemurs, like many of this island’s creatures, evolved after this landmass, now Madagascar, broke off from the African continent 165 million years ago. It’s thought the primates made their way to Madagascar, across the Mozambique Channel on floating rafts of vegetation, where they evolved with little competition. Lemurs the size of gorillas once roamed this island—in fact, some 17 species of Malagasy megafauna such as the pygmy hippo and elephant bird only went extinct in the last 500-2,000 years.
But that was then. Now, logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, zebu cattle farming, and hunting (endangered species for pets or food) have taken their toll on wildlife and habitats. And the less land there is, the harder it is for lemur and wildlife populations to survive and thrive.
Cattle farming is the greatest issue, but in one of the poorest countries in the world where 75 per cent of the population live on less than US$1.90 per day, that’s the livelihood for many Malagasy. Habitat loss isn’t a priority when there’s a family to feed, and healthcare and education are limited. And with over 40 per cent of children under five suffering from stunting, conservation in Madagascar can’t be an isolated issue: It has to go hand-in-hand with economic progress, says Professor Ratsimbazafy.
While new species are discovered in Madagascar at a faster rate than most tropical countries, the stats are stark. Almost 50 per cent of natural forest is less than 100 meters from a forest boundary—the result of deforestation—and over time, Madagascar has lost 90 per cent of its primary forest.
Meanwhile, illegal hunting and illegally wild-caught animals for the pet trade—it’s illegal to have a pet lemur in Madagascar—have pushed some species to the brink of extinction.
None of these issues takes away from the joys of visiting Madagascar. As we head south from the eastern rainforests to Ranomafana National Park then west towards the semi-dry desert of Isalo and the dry, hot spiny forests of Ifaty on the southwest coast, we count 17 lemur species among our sightings. And that’s not all. Sharp-eyed guides spot camouflaged chameleons, giant snails, brilliant green geckos, kaleidoscopic painted Mantella frogs, bright crimson millipedes, orchids, birdlife. It’s extraordinary.
“Communities must feel they’re the owners of their natural resources. People no longer think that the land of their ancestors belongs to them.”
Professor Jonah Ratsimbazafy
It’s because of this that scientists want to ensure that any infrastructure projects have minimal negative impacts on biodiversity, another aspect of the Ivato Declaration. Only 13 per cent of Malagasy have electricity (World Bank, October 2019) and public transport and roads are often in a poor state. While development is crucial on the path to prosperity—much of it will be carried out by the Chinese government—respecting the environment has to be part of this.
One of the ways long-term conservation can succeed is via community involvement, the fourth point in the Ivato Declaration. While over 15 per cent of forests are now under community areas and more marine areas are being set up, there are still legal barriers preventing some Malagasy from gaining land rights. If they did. it would be harder to clear land.
“Communities must feel they’re the owners of their natural resources,” says Professor Ratsimbazafy. “People no longer think that the land of their ancestors belongs to them.”
In community-owned Anja Reserve in south-central Madagascar, home to around 400 ring-tailed lemurs, community tourism is shown to be working. This model of tourism here means guides, restaurants and lodges are benefitting directly from tourism. And in this small protected area, it’s also relatively easy to spot these much-loved, highly sociable, playful lemurs. If you’re very lucky, you may see a group enjoying a ‘lemur ball’ of cuddles.
The community aspect is crucial in the context of wildlife conservation: Ensuring local people are involved, educated and engaged is the first step to long-term conservation. “Last summer, I saw schools in Andasibe and I was in shock,” says Dr. Clarke. “To get to school—if they go at all—children walk several kilometers across log bridges on crazy roads. Once there, no meals, no blackboards, no desk.” Last November, Mad Dog Initiative started a project to improve access and a lunch programme. “Enrolment has tripled,” she says.
Although not signed or sealed yet, the Ivato Declaration still goes further than anything in recent times. It addresses issues such as corruption, how tax evasion results in slow development, illegal logging of precious hardwoods such as the much-prized rosewood tree, the increase in mining in protected areas, and how forests are being cleared for cash crops, often in cahoots with “local elites”.
Scientists also want leaders to address Madagascar’s fuel wood crisis, urging them to consider renewable sources and reforestation initiatives. Most Malagasy use wood or charcoal for cooking, but with demand exceeding supply amid a rising population, this places strains on protected areas and wildlife. This web of issues will require some serious detangling.
“When the Ivato Declaration was proposed in 2019, I felt excited about Madagascar’s future,” says Dr. Clarke. “It was a bold move for conservationists, directly appealing to Madagascar’s president—some NGOs might have worried about permits not being renewed or scientists who need to maintain good relationships with landowners to conduct research in forests.”
“Fast-forward to January 2020, and we’re still waiting to see if President Andry Rajoelina will sign it,” she says. “I heard whispers he may in fact not, but until that happens, I’m still hopeful.”
“One thing tourists can do is not stay at hotels that keep captive pet lemurs,” says Dr. Clarke. “They often encourage human-lemur interactions, such as feeding them bananas which isn’t part of their wild diet. Lemurs are wild animals so behavior can be unpredictable and there’s the possibility of disease transmission. Observing—not handling—lemurs on educational tours would be better.”
Many people don’t realize that keeping pet lemurs is illegal, she adds. “Captive lemurs at various establishments or being used as photo props were wild-caught illegally. This is unsustainable—lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals in the world. I’d also urge visitors not to take or share selfies with captive lemurs—this only fuels the pet trade.”
There’s also no standardized protocol of care, even in places with permits. “Nothing on check-ups, hands-off policies, diet, animal husbandry,” says Dr. Clarke. “The best thing travelers can do is avoid these places, not take or share photos, and tell business owners how they feel.”
“It’s not a simple solution,” she admits. “I discuss ethics with my students e.g. if the government started confiscating animals from ‘lemur parks’, where would we put them? If rescued animals are then kept in captivity, is that a better life than before—or is euthanasia an option? Some animals are psychologically traumatized and can’t be with others. You see abnormal behaviors, such as continual pacing, in some zoos.”
While travelers can’t ‘save’ Madagascar’s lemurs or its biodiversity simply by visiting, tourism did account for 15.7 per cent of GDP in 2018 and can play a part. Increasing visitors to national parks and private reserves—not lemur ‘theme parks’—shows there’s a livelihood to be made from wildlife tourism and everything around it, such as homestays, restaurants and crafts.
Countries like Costa Rica have benefited hugely from their biodiversity by making eco-tourism a key revenue earner. After all, many travelers will travel across several continents to see spectacular landscapes and endemic wildlife. My own thousand-kilometer road trip through eight national parks is standard for first-timers to Madagascar.
When and how these approaches will see tangible results is anyone’s guess, but for people like Professor Jonah Ratsimbazafy and Dr. Tara Clarke, recent developments are a glimmer of hope. And hope is, and always has been, the catalyst for change.
Special thanks to Dr Tara A. Clarke, lecturer and lab supervisor at North Carolina State University’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology, and director of special projects at Mad Dog Initiative and Professor Jonah Ratsimbazafy, director of
Houston Zoo Madagascar Programs, president of Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar (GERP) and co-vice chair—Madagascar section of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group.