Endangered Species Handbook

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Madagascar and other Islands

Preserving Madagascar's Natural Wonders

This fourth largest island in the world is, in many respects, a minicontinent. This evolutionary treasure-house is of great importance from a worldwide perspective. Madagascar's diversity of life forms is so great that as many as 200,000 species, most of them undescribed, may be native, of which an estimated 150,000 are endemic species (Daley 1997). The habitat loss is proceeding so rapidly, however, that the underfunded biological assessment studies will be unable to appraise this biological wealth before it disappears before their very eyes. Logging and burning have reduced the forested area from 120,000 to 20,000 square miles; this destruction still consumes vast areas each year (Daley 1997). It is estimated that all the remaining accessible forests will disappear within the next 35 years (Sayer et al. 1992). With the impending loss of these treasures, many conservationists and scientists consider Madagascar the world's most threatened natural area (Sayer et al. 1992).
Less than 5 percent of Madagascar is protected in reserves and parks. Even if these lands remain intact, they represent too small a percentage of forest to preserve the island's genetic heritage. Other than Masoala National Park, which encompasses most of an entire peninsula, some 840 square miles, most reserves are relatively small--islands of forest surrounded by denuded land. Should all surrounding forest be leveled, these isolated fragments would not be sufficient to prevent genetic impoverishment, inbreeding, and eventual extinction of the very species the reserves were meant to protect. Recent research in the Amazon has shown that forest fragmentation results in extinctions, in direct relation to the size of the reserve (Peters and Lovejoy 1990). The larger the reserve, the fewer extinctions. For this reason, Masoala National Park is receiving special attention from scientists. Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology is analyzing a Geographic Information System (Kremen 1998). So far, this research has revealed that forests on the eastern border of the park are the most threatened, with a likelihood that they will be completely burned away within 25 years (Kremen 1998). The borders of the park were delineated according to the results of biological surveys, a method that is so new that it has not even been used in the United States. Claire Kremen of the Wildlife Conservation Society, with additional support from the National Geographic Society, worked with a Malagasy entomologist and two American ornithologists to conduct detailed biological species diversity studies in this rugged terrain (Kremen 1998). Five new species of butterflies and many other insects were discovered. Each had its own micro-habitat, endemic to that area. Habitats included in the national park are lowland rainforest; cloud forest and montane heath; coastal and seasonally flooded forest; mangrove; marsh; estuary; bay; lagoon; and coral reef. Lemurs and a vast array of wildlife and plants will benefit from this new park.
Masoala National Park will not displace villages but will conduct education programs and involve them in the conservation of local wildlife. The Missouri Botanical Garden is also involved in the management of Masoala National Park, helping to inventory its rare plants and working with local people for non-destructive agricultural and fisheries industries. Work is also proceeding to stop the cutting of forests for firewood on Masoala and to provide public education on land use (Sayer et al. 1992). Some 300 or so villages exist within or nearby Masoala National Park, and the cooperation of the local people is crucial to the success of this park. The final plan for the park involved a compromise in which some cutting of four relatively fast-growing trees, including rosewood, would be allowed. Local communities, which will profit from the products, will be allowed to harvest palm seeds and butterflies. This will prevent the slash-and-burn destruction that was eating rapidly away at this forest (Kremen 1998). This park's endemic plants and animals, including the Red Ruffed Lemur, which exists only in the park, rely for their survival on the protection of this last sizeable rainforest. It will represent an experiment in conservation management that will have serious consequences should it fail. It is, however, one of the first times that ecological rules are being worked out with large numbers of local people to help protect such a large area. Elsewhere in Madagascar, similar projects are in the works.
Many of Madagascar's rarest species are not protected in any reserves, however, and may soon be lost. Reserves and parks, the last refuge for many species, are regularly pillaged for trees, and wildlife is killed or captured. A herpetologist surveying in Bemaraha Reserve, in the western part of the island, discovered a pile of illegally cut trees that had been marked with red paint as part of a botanist's study by the trail in 1996 (Holmes 1997). This is not an isolated occurrence. The native wildlife and plants are among the most endangered in the world. More than 124 vertebrate species are listed in the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Hilton-Taylor 2000), as well as 306 species of plants (Walter and Gillett 1998). While this crisis is occurring, new species of lemurs, reptiles, invertebrates and plants are being discovered, making the preservation of the environment all the more urgent. Obviously, the amazing biological diversity of Madagascar has not been fully assessed and may be far greater than previously thought.
Several species thought long-extinct are rumored to survive, adding even more mystery to the picture. Many Malagasy have told scientists of having seen an animal that might be a pygmy hippopotamus. Shown a picture of an African Common Hippopotamus, they have said that it was similar, but had floppy ears, uncloven hooves, dark skin, except for pinkish areas around the eyes and mouth, and was the size of a calf or small cow (Tyson 2000). As recently as 1976, a man told biologists of having seen and heard one grunting; many unsolicited, independent accounts from Malagasy have agreed on these details (Tyson 2000). They call the animal "kilopilopitsofy," and many are afraid of being chased by it (Tyson 2000). The Common Hippopotamus of Africa also grunts and kills more people than any other animal on the continent.
A long-lost primate, ground-dwelling and the size of a 7-year-old child, has also been reported by several Malagasy (Tyson 2000). This may be the same animal that was described to primatologist Alison Jolly (1980). A Malagasy told her that he had been given a young lemur of a type he had never seen before. This lemur had very dark fur, walked on its hind legs, one foot after the other, rather than hopping like a sifaka, and had a flat face different from the pointed muzzles of living lemurs. After only two months, this lemur died, and its skeleton was buried in an unknown place (Jolly 1980). An old man recently told a similar story of having seen such an animal in 1952. Called the "kidoky" by others who have seen it, it has a dark coat with white spots above and below a flat, round face. When alarmed, it flees by leaping forward in short hops like a baboon. Its call was described as a long, single whoop, and other villagers who had seen the animal said it was solitary (Tyson 2000). Scientists have said that if it exists, it might be an Archaeolemur or Hadropithecus (Tyson 2000). The fact that their descriptions seem so similar to species known to have existed makes them all the more intriguing.
Alarm calls about the impending demise of Madagascar's natural world have been sounded for decades (Jolly 1980, 1988; McNulty 1975; Preston‑Mafham 1991; Tyson 2000). Visitors to the island are united in their descriptions of a ravaged, eroded and deforested land. Jacques‑Yves Cousteau and his team visited the island for a television special aired in 1995. As they sailed toward Madagascar, they were stunned to see huge, wide, red stains of eroded soil in the water, emanating from the island's rivers, and wisps of smoke from burning forests. These red rivers are bleeding the island's life blood, its topsoil. They are so pronounced that they are among the few natural phenomena on Earth visible from orbiting space craft. Cousteau's helicopter flights over the central plateau revealed a landscape among the most devastated on the planet. A research team sponsored by Earthwatch Institute described the island from the air, "Two features of the landscape stood out even from 10 kilometers up: barrenness and smoke" (Tyson 1994).
Although erosion remains a major problem, some progress has been made to stop it (Morell 1999). Erosion costs Madagascar between $100 million and $290 million per year, caused mainly by the continued slash-and-burn agriculture (Tyson 2000). It has been extremely difficult to convince many Malagasy that the last of the forests will disappear within a generation if they do not seek alternative means of growing crops. To that end, Cornell University's International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, run by Norman Uphoff, has been helping farmers in the vicinity of Ranomafana National Park (Tyson 2000). These desperately poor farmers have no electricity or plumbing and struggle to feed large families on soil that is leaching its nutrients. Norman Uphoff discovered that the native Wild Ginger plant had high concentrations of phosphate, and he encouraged its use as fertilizer (Tyson 2000). By supplying seedlings and information, the Cornell program also has helped establish fish farms. Their agronomists have advised farmers to mix crops and to plant certain species in order to keep the soil rich and retard erosion; they have supplied seedlings (Tyson 2000). This agricultural advice has been helpful, but because some rural people have so many children, many are unable to produce enough crops to feed their families (Tyson 2000). Other projects involve encouraging rice cultivation with more suitable seed varieties, improved irrigation systems and application of fertilizer (Garbutt 1999). Using native bees in honey-making is also being taught to the Malagasy, who often fell old-growth trees to obtain honey (Garbutt 1999). The Kew Botanical Gardens in London and Britain's Royal Palm Society are researching the marketing of seeds from some native palm trees (Terry 1996).
International aid organizations could help preserve forests by donating fertilizer so the Malagasy would not need to practice slash-and-burn when forest soil ceases to produce crops. The urgent task of supplying the Malagasy people with methods of producing food and fuel in environmentally non-destructive ways has just begun. Villagers would be more likely to preserve trees now cut for firewood if they were provided with solar cookers or given propane tanks for fuel. Bio-gas, or methane, produced by animal dung and sewage, could be used to provide fuel and fertilizer. Such projects have been launched by international agencies in some countries of Central Asia.
Madagascar's human population is growing at a rate of 3.1 percent per year and reached 12,596,000 in 1992 (55 persons per square mile) (Anon. 1994). By 1995, it had grown to 13.9 million (61 persons per square mile) (McNeil 1996b). Another increase to 14,462,509 people (64 persons per square mile) was registered in the 1999 World Almanac. The 2001 New York Times Almanac noted a population of 15,506,472, based on a July 2000 estimate. Thus, 3 million people were added to the population in just eight years. Along with the original Asians, more recent immigrants from Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Europe, and Arab countries add to the diversity. They have long since passed the carrying capacity of the land, and rice must be imported to feed the people. As one of the world's 12 poorest countries, Madagascar's external debt is approximately $4.25 billion. Average annual income is only $780 (NYT 2000). The unemployment rate is about 33 percent, and 51 percent of children are malnourished, according to a study by USAID (Tyson 2000). The literacy rate is 46 percent, and only 42 percent of children attend schools; 70 percent of children ages 6 to 9 have had no formal education (Tyson 2000). Jacques Cousteau's team filmed hordes of desperately poor people as they combed dumps for scraps of metal and food. Some people even live in these dumps in holes they have dug in the soil. Such scenes are symptoms of extreme overpopulation and rampant poverty that can also be seen in parts of Brazil and Asia.
One of the reasons that illiteracy is so high in Madagascar is that millions of people must spend their days searching for food, water and firewood, requiring the help of their children, who are then unable to attend school. In general, foreign corporations have looted the island's resources, leaving no economic base that would help the people as a whole. One U.S. company, the Esso Corporation, is owed $25 million by the Madagascan government and demanded payment in spite of the country's cash reserves of less than $2 million (McNeil 1996b). Because of the country's debt levels, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are now in charge of its finances (McNeil 1996b), a potentially dangerous situation for both the people and the environment. On the positive side, a "Debt for Nature" swap was carried out in Madagascar, in which a portion of the foreign debt was exchanged for the establishment of nature reserves and parks.
To date, efforts to slow the population growth rate are still in their early stages. A program that addresses population growth, based not on threats or punishment, but on persuasion, was launched by Population Communications International (PCI) of New York City in 1996. As the organization has done in other countries, it trains local people to create communication programs for radio and television with a message that limiting family size is advantageous. The majority of the population on the island lives in cities and has access to these media. The programs, described as "soap operas" by PCI, create melodramas with characters the audience can identify with, who act out dramas. The characters in these dramas come to realize that different behavior, such as having fewer children, will result in positive changes in their lives (Ryerson 1994). In many cases, this involves elevating the status of women, and convincing men that women must be allowed to make decisions about their own reproduction (Ryerson 1994). PCI is cooperating with organizations that are actively trying to conserve the wildlife of Madagascar, such as Conservation International and the African Wildlife Foundation. Ranomafana National Park began a family planning center in 1994 to help the people of the region, many of whom have as many as 14 children, of which 62 percent are underweight and 17 percent malnourished, according to a study by the University of North Carolina (Tyson 2000).
Madagascar is a magnet for scientists from around the world and has been the recipient of millions of dollars in foreign aid and grants from international conservation agencies. Conservationists are initiating many highly inventive and effective programs to interest the Malagasy in conservation and employ them in biodiversity work. Environmental education is a key to the future of Madagascar, and programs are being carried out at Beza-Mahafaly Reserve. This protected portion of endangered spiny desert and shrubland was established when the local Mahafaly people agreed to donate the land, and funds were raised by Alison Richard, a Yale primatologist, for a training program for Malagasy scientists (Tyson 2000). Patricia Wright has set up a similar program in which Malagasy students complete master's theses based on wildlife research in Ranomafana National Park, and some students travel to the United States to receive advanced training in biodiversity and environmental protection (Tyson 2000). They will help guide the country in new directions in the future. It also opens new worlds to these students, who, in turn, will make young people aware of the natural treasures in their country. Schools that Patricia Wright has helped establish in the area of the park teach environmental education to young people. Others are also helping introduce this subject to children. Josephine Andrews, a Scottish scientist studying Black Lemurs in Nosy Be since 1988, teaches children about the lemurs with the help of a Malagasy named Julien, who guides people around the forest preserve (Tyson 2000). "If the kids are really into it, then the adults will switch on as well," she said (Tyson 1994). Forests are the key to the future survival of the island and its people, and an education program aimed at rural people, teaching the value of trees in preventing floods, landslides and in maintaining the flow of rivers and streams, could save countless trees.
Scientists--both Malagasy and foreign--working on the island, could share their findings by talking with local people about the uniqueness of Madagascar's natural world. Ornithologists with the Peregrine Fund, who rediscovered the Red Owl and taught local schoolchildren about the species donated money from bird-watchers to the school, provided such an example. Scientists typically conduct research and depart without having taught local people about their findings. Villagers near Ranomafana National Park were so interested in learning about research results that they asked Wright for copies of reports. She began a bimonthly newsletter, in the Malagasy language, describing the natural history of the park (Tyson 2000).
Films and books about Madagascar's wildlife and plants tend to be distributed only in foreign countries, and never translated into Malagasy. Translations of books and subtitled films could be shown to schoolchildren to introduce them to Madagascar's tremendously interesting and beautiful natural world. It is ironic that Westerners may be more familiar with lemurs and chameleons that most Malagasy. Some projects for the future might include donation of solar collectors and windmills to supply power to rural people. This could elevate their standard of living and cut back on firewood collection for fuel. Donation of projection and video equipment to regional schools provided with electricity would help them appreciate their natural heritage through viewing nature films of Madagascan wildlife. Satellite dishes would facilitate communication with people around the world through the Internet.
The government of Madagascar developed a 20-year National Conservation Strategy and Environmental Action Plan as long ago as 1984. In 1986, a survey of protected areas began with the aim of implementing management plans for priority protected areas and recommending new protected areas, as well as training Malagasy people to work in reserve management and conservation biology. The government has been working to create a sense of pride and ownership in the nation's biodiversity through this program (Morell 1999). The President of Madagascar has stated that the environment is important, a key to whether foreign scientists and tourists will be able to come to the country and aid in its conservation in the future (Tyson 2000). The World Bank and various organizations funded this Environmental Action Plan with $168 million for its first five years (Tyson 2000). This has resulted in many biological studies, education of a growing number of Malagasy for conservation work and a Biodiversity Planning Centre (Sayer et al. 1992). The Geographical Information System database is a cornerstone of the government program, concentrating data from all fields to help establish conservation priorities (Tyson 2000). Conservation International has an office in the capital and is contributing to biological inventory data, as it has in other countries, as well as conducting research on particular species and data management. It coordinates its work with local organizations and trains Malagasy scientists (Sayer et al. 1992).
Ecotourism is another budding industry, and Madagascar is one of the few countries in the world to share park fees with local people. As a result of an initiative put forth by a Malagasy non-governmental organization, the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas, one-half of all fees are given to local people (Tyson 2000). Ninety-three villages in the Ranomafana National Park area received about $10,000 in a recent year from park fees; a committee designated by the villages decides how to spend the money. In 1995 they bought seeds and built campgrounds, a crafts training center and small dams (Tyson 2000). Many local people are employed as park workers, and the aim of the program is to turn over management of this park and its biodiversity work to the Malagasy people. There needs to be a national park system with strict rules for management and protection, according to Patricia Wright, who deplored the illegal tree cutting by the previous park director at Ranomafana (Tyson 2000). She also has proposed that a national biodiversity institute be built, which would offer centralized training in biology and technology, as well as five new long-term biodiversity research stations similar to those in La Selva National Park in Costa Rica and the Smithsonian Institution's Panama tropical research laboratory (Tyson 2000).
Jobs, which are desperately needed by the Malagasy, are increasing as a result of the rise in the number of tourists. Selling crafts to tourists, running hotels and restaurants, and serving as guides are among these. Villagers who used to demand that parks be declassified so that they could legally gather wood, now request that more national parks be established, an apparent result of the new income that comes from fees and tourism (Morell 1999). International tourists have provided a major new source of revenue in Madagascar's economy and are helping the Malagasy see their wildlife in a new way, as so fascinating and biologically important that visitors come from every continent to view it. Madagascar. The Bradt Travel Guide, by Hilary Bradt (1999), published in various editions since 1988, is a useful aid for tourists, providing information about accommodations, natural history, protected areas, and the Malagasy and their history. Nature reserves and parks provide jobs by attracting scientists who employ local people, another incentive for the Malagasy to urge that more protected areas be set aside.
Compensation for lost access to forests has not been paid in the past, and new arrangements reached with villagers to allow some extraction of resources from the forests may heal some of these wounds and placate those who still wish to cut trees. Medicinal plants obtained from Madagascar may be another source of revenue in the future. The Rosy Periwinkle may be only one of many native plants highly valuable in treating disease. Research on the potential of other plants may uncover other such treasures. In the past, revenues from plants used for medicine have not been returned in part to the country of origin, but recently a new trend has begun. In one case, a pharmaceutical company agreed to pay people in a South American country a portion of the revenues gained from any native plant providing a marketable drug.
Another potential source of revenue is the placement of videocameras connected to the Internet, which present websites with general information as well as live camera views of wildlife. South African parks have a number of these videocameras placed at water holes, animal dens and other key areas that capture live views of animals transmitted to the Internet for a small viewing fee. This has proven very successful, funding many of the South African National Parks system’s expenses. A similar system could be established in Madagascar with solar-powered videocameras, which have already been in use in Alaska, trained on tree canopies, rainforest flowers or lemurs, along with websites that provide basic information on Madagascar's environment, biodiversity and the Malagasy people. For millions of people who cannot visit Madagascar, such a website might be fascinating as a learning tool for teachers and the public, as well as an exciting view of these unique animals and their environments. If managed in such a way that profits were shared between poor Malagasy to alleviate their poverty, and conservation organizations to preserve biodiversity, such a system has great potential.
A satellite connection with classrooms in the United States or other countries would be another opportunity for interactive communication and learning. In December 2000, for example, students in an American classroom talked with students in a school in Guyana about endangered Giant Otters and their conservation through a visual satellite hookup. Students and others might set up an interactive link with biologists and conservationists working in Madagascar, asking questions and offering help. Students have provided many excellent ideas for conservation, and classes have raised money to save rainforests and threatened wildlife habitat and to help stop poaching of endangered species in countries half a world away from their own. Malagasy young people might be inspired and enthusiastic through talking with others of their own age about conservation and biodiversity. Video cameras and still cameras might be donated to Malagasy students and young people to record nature and compete for prizes with their results.

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