Madagascar is one of the world’s most important hotspots for biodiversity, yet it is also one of the world’s poorest countries, with 92% of people living below the poverty line.
Bristol Zoological Society has been working in northern Madagascar since 2006, to safeguard the future of wildlife on this unique island. Most of our work is focused in and around the Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park.
Bristol Zoological Society’s Lecturer in Conservation Science, Mark Abrahams recently visited our field programme, working with primatologist Sedera Solofondranohatra for three weeks visiting two major projects; the new research facility in Ankarafa and cocoa plantations in Ambanja. This is the first visit since the beginning of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
A new field station
Mark’s visit to Madagascar began in Ankarafa in the northwest of the country. Here, our team on the ground are building a new research station, designed by world-renowned landscape architects, Grant Associates, in collaboration with Felden Cragg Bradley Studies and Buro Happold engineers.
It is being built with soil blocks, which combine local soil and a small amount of concrete. As a result, they are more sustainable than traditional clay fired bricks. And we don’t have to transport large amounts of construction material to this remote location, which is only accessible by road during the dry season.
This station will serve as a base from which to run our conservation and reforestation efforts.
- It will ensure we are leading research into the local lemur population and help preserve these species. From it, we can study the behaviour of the Critically Endangered blue-eyed black lemur. These lemurs are one of the 106 endemic species of lemurs found exclusively in Madagascar, most of which are threatened due to vast deforestation.
- It will help us to partner with local people, to save the natural heritage. Working with the local Malagasy community, we will promote sustainable farming and construction.
- And, it will support our work to protect the forest more broadly, providing a hub for conservation across the region. We hope to transform the way the forest is viewed, so that it is preserved for the community and future generations.
Forest decline in Madagascar is severe. Simply preventing deforestation is not enough. We must regrow and a range of ideas are being trialled.
- A seedling nursery has been built to allow seedlings to grow in safety before being planted. Seeds are collected during the dry season then planted in the nursery in Zebu cattle dung and sand. They are then transferred to planting sites ready for the rainy season. In 2022, we have already planted over 4,000 seedlings, with a further 1,000 to come.
- By planting these seedlings in a double pit (a pit with a smaller pit inside) success rates have improved dramatically. The smaller pit is filled with Zebu dung, soil and sand providing nutrients to the roots. The larger pit fills with water during the wet season giving the plant a head start when heading into the dry months.
- Efforts have also been made to contain the local zebu cattle to limit the number of new plants eaten. While the cattle continue to break through fences and eat new growth, where fences have held, plant growth has improved.
- And we know what doesn’t work. One idea was to plant non-native species such as mango and jackfruit to help the forest grow. However, mortality rates of the non-native species was much higher than native species, with zebu cattle preferring these new plants. The result is a native species planting strategy.
From Ankarafa Mark travelled to Ambanja, a small city in the far northwest of Madagascar well known for its production of cocoa beans. Bristol Zoological Society is currently working with ‘Beyond Good’, a chocolate producer that wants to secure sustainable cocoa, while supporting local people and biodiversity.
The few remaining forest fragments in this area of Madagascar are small and extremely degraded. Significantly impacted by the production of charcoal (the primary cooking fuel in the area), without intervention, the future is bleak.
However, cocoa plantations may provide additional habitat for local wildlife, supplementing the forest fragments. By growing cocoa plants among much taller trees and plants, they are protected from harsh conditions such as excessive heat and strong winds. The layer of taller trees also creates a forest canopy that supports local biodiversity, including lemurs. Indeed, without the forest canopy created by cocoa agroforestry, there may be little forest habitat left.
Beyond Good is currently researching whether cocoa plantations benefit local biodiversity. Mark and Sedera carried out biodiveristy surveys in the cocoa plantations and confirmed three species of nocturnal lemur are still living in the area. These findings, combined with previous data, will help inform how plantations are managed and ensure they have a positive impact on the local biodiversity.
A seedling nursery has also been set up to grow native fast-growing trees for use in both the cocoa plantations, and for reforesting corridors between existing forest fragments and the plantations.
These corridors include artificial ‘bridges’. Simple rope and wood structures that are in place to help wildlife move between the different areas, while new trees grow to join them. If it works and animals travel across, breeding populations will be better connected. Cameras on the bridges will let us know.
Although our work with Beyond Good is coming to an end this year, we have helped provide local conservation teams with the skills to continue this work in the future. In this way, the project will continue to have an impact on Madagascar, its biodiversity and people.