Conserving Madagascar’s Forest of Hope
Some places are so rich in natural wonders, so extraordinary, so different from any other, so important for people, and yet so threatened, that we must pull out all the stops to save them. Madagascar is one such: an ‘island-continent’ well over twice the size of the UK, with wildlife so unlike even nearby Africa’s that it can hardly be bracketed with it, or any other region of the world.
Within this vast area are a multitude of astonishing sites, and right up among the most remarkable of these is Tsitongambarika Forest. Most of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed over a long period, and in particular the lowlands have suffered, being the most accessible areas. The rainforests of Madagascar form a chain extending down the east side of the great island, much of it on steep slopes and at high altitude. In a few places, mostly in the North, forest survives down on the hills, and very occasionally plains, by the coast; but in the South, forest in such places has virtually all gone.
It is no wonder, then, that Tsitongambarika, as the only remaining area in southern Madagascar that supports significant areas of lowland rainforest, is such a treasure.
Scaly and Short-legged Ground Rollers, and Red-tailed Newtonias, once impossible dreams for visitors (and still highly prized finds), are common. The elusive Madagascar Red Owl is increasingly frequently observed. Collared Lemur, Fleurette’s Sportive Lemur (Critically Endangered, with a tiny range) and at least four other globally threatened lemur species are found. The reptile and amphibian fauna is almost unbelievably rich: no fewer than 11 species have been observed that simply are ‘not in the book’ and appear, based on the views of highly experienced herpetologists, to be new to science, and recorded only at Tsitongambarika. The flora is, of course, just as extraordinary.
The bad news is that deforestation rates at Tsitongambarika have been among the highest in Madagascar. As in much of the country, deforestation is mainly a result of shifting cultivation by poor subsistence farmers lacking alternative land to grow food-crops and desperate to lay claim to land, which they can do by clearing forest. Further threats are from logging of precious hardwoods and hunting of wildlife in the forest.
But there is hope. Since 2005 the national NGO Asity Madagascar, BirdLife in Madagascar, has been working to save Tsitongambarika Forest. Local people, as aware as anyone of the forest’s value, are also keen to conserve it, but need help to maintain and improve their precarious livelihoods without clearing forest. Too often portrayed as the villains of tropical deforestation, local people can be the best conservationists, so long as their needs are properly considered and they take part in and benefit from management. This can include some carefully controlled use of forest products, limited to certain zones so that other areas are left completely intact; they may also benefit from income related to forest conservation such as tourist guiding, or be supported to take up new ways of making a living by growing food for sale or subsistence away from the forest.
In April 2015, 230 square miles (nearly 50 times the area of Rutland Water) at Tsitongambarika, including the whole forest, was protected by the Government of Madagascar, in recognition of the progress made by Asity Madagascar working with local communities as well as of its overall importance. Problem solved? Sadly not, although a crucial step forward, which blocks many potentially damaging developments and helps to direct conservation support to the site. The Government of Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, can neither fund nor manage and enforce conservation plans for its many extraordinary sites; it needs help.
This is where Birdfair comes in. Asity Madagascar and local communities have jointly been made managers of the new Tsitongambarika Protected Area, supervised by the Government and supported by many other organisations. Birdfair support will allow Asity Madagascar and local communities to carry out long-term conservation plans for Tsitongambarika. It will strengthen their ability to conserve the forest while improving their livelihoods outside the forest, providing them with opportunities that, based on trials, they readily accept. But there must be rules, and the project will support enforcement, by local communities themselves but supported by Government authorities where necessary. Finally, the project will identify and secure long-term financing sources for conservation of Tsitongambarika.
Thirteen years ago, Birdfair supported BirdLife’s wetland conservation programme in Madagascar. Back then, the ability of national (Malagasy) organisations to conserve big sites was minimal, and the country’s wetlands were on hardly anyone’s agenda. With Birdfair’s help, Asity Madagascar has grown into a proficient protected area manager and advocate for conservation, and have secured protection for both of the huge wetland sites that we discussed back then; no wetland species has been lost from the sites. Conservation work there continues as it will always have to, but so much has been achieved that it is time to look again at the forests. Let us all rally round to save them.
Birdfair is also raising money for the next generation of conservationists. The event aims to support and train young people in the countries where Birdfair funds conservation projects: this year African students will receive financial support.
Since 2005, the work of BirdLife and Asity Madagascar at Tsitongambarika up to now has been funded by Rio Tinto (currently through a pioneering ‘biodiversity offsets’ programme), The Waterloo Foundation, Wetland Trust, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, MAVA Foundation, SVS/BirdLife Switzerland, Forestry Bureau of the Council of Agriculture of Taiwan, Conservation International Madagascar, Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation and Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Development Programme.