Hope for Madagascar and its lemurs

21.02.2019

What can be done to ensure the long-term survival of Madagascar’s amazing biodiversity – potentially a key economic asset for the country? The answer lies with Madagascar’s civil society, in particular its local communities, writes Russell Mittermeier, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Primate Specialist Group.

90% of lemur species are threatened

Madagascar is one of the world’s most important countries for biodiversity conservation and, in the opinion of many, the highest priority biodiversity hotspot on Earth. As the world’s largest oceanic island (about the size of Texas in the United States), it has been separated from other landmasses for many millions of years.

As a result, an amazing range of species have evolved there separately, with unmatched levels of endemism in both plants and animals. This includes over 15,000 species of plants, more than 80% of them endemic; more than 400 species of reptiles, 90% of which are endemic; five endemic families of birds; and a staggeringly high level of frog diversity and endemism.

Ecotourism can and should be Madagascar’s number one foreign exchange earner in the near future – keeping in mind that the country is now one of the poorest on Earth. 

Undoubtedly though, Madagascar’s best known creatures and greatest ambassadors are the lemurs, a unique radiation of primates that numbers 111 species and subspecies, found nowhere else. Furthermore, we continue to discover and describe new species, and have more than doubled the number of known lemur species in just the past 25 years alone. I have been privileged to be involved in this exciting research endeavour, having been a co-author on the description of seven new species in the past decade.

Lemurs play a very important role in Madagascar’s forests, serving a wide variety of ecological roles from seed dispersal and pollination to maintaining forest structure. However, their greatest importance to the country and its people is almost certainly their role as an international magnet for ecotourism with growing numbers of tourists flocking to Madagascar every year to see these wonderful animals in their natural habitats. Indeed, I firmly believe that ecotourism can and should be Madagascar’s number one foreign exchange earner in the near future – keeping in mind that the country is now one of the poorest on Earth.

10% of Madagascar’s original natural vegetation remains intact Only about 10% of Madagascar’s original natural vegetation remains intact. Habitat destruction in the country is mainly caused by slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging. Photo: © Russell Mittermeier

Sadly, Madagascar is also one of the world’s leaders in environmental degradation. Our own species arrived there just a few thousand years ago, causing species extinctions and habitat degradation – to the point that today only about 10% of Madagascar’s original natural vegetation remains intact, if that. Sadly, illegal exploitation of forest resources and wildlife trafficking continues. Around 90% of lemur species are threatened with extinction due to habitat destruction caused by slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging, as well as hunting.

So, what can be done, indeed, what are we doing, to ensure the long-term survival of Madagascar’s amazing biodiversity and have it become a key economic driver elevating Madagascar’s people from poverty? The answer lies with Madagascar’s civil society, in particular its local communities. As decision-making structures, these communities have continuity. Their actions will ultimately determine whether or not Madagascar’s lemurs and other creatures survive, and whether the natural ecosystems on which the human communities themselves depend will continue to be viable.

Furthermore, researchers from around the world interested in lemurs flock to Madagascar every year and an increasing number of Malagasy scientists have taken on an important leadership role. The growing number of Malagasy NGOs focused on lemurs and other biodiversity and the existence of a national lemur organisation, GERP – le Groupe d'Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar – testifies to this progress. This research not only provides the essential ecological and behavioural information needed to ensure the long-term survival of lemurs, it also generates local employment and furthers local awareness of the importance of these animals and their habitats.

The actions of Madagascar’s civil society, in particular its local communities, will ultimately determine whether or not Madagascar’s lemurs and other creatures survive.

This research also lays the groundwork for conservation and for the growing emphasis on ecotourism. And what is particularly exciting about ecotourism in Madagascar is that it is mainly home-grown. Indeed, Madagascar’s guide associations, which first began in the early 1990s, have in my opinion become a model for other hotspot regions of the world, including the very first, the Association des Guides d’Andasibe in Andasibe Mantadia.

These guide associations now number in the many dozens across Madagascar, and new ones are created every year. Through various funding mechanisms, the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group has been involved in supporting these organisations for nearly 30 years, and the IUCN SOS Lemurs Initiative is also providing support to some.

ecotourism-related activities Madagascar’s home-grown guide associations can provide significant income for local communities through ecotourism-related activities. Photo: © Russell Mittermeier

Firstly, these home-grown guide associations provide very significant income for local communities. Apart from the substantial earnings for the guides themselves, this includes all of the economic benefits generated by the other activities usually associated with ecotourism, such as lodging, meals, handicraft development, construction, trail maintenance, and patrolling. Second, because of the economic benefits and the pride that ecotourism brings, the communities have become major supporters of conservation – to the point that many are now creating their own community-run reserves in close proximity to government protected areas. And third, the people in the communities gradually transition away from the destructive activities of the past, such as slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting. We still have a very long way to go in most of the priority areas in Madagascar, but at least we are seeing some progress and have a viable model.

Meanwhile lemurs are gaining profile at home and abroad thanks to other efforts like the annual World Lemur Festival, the brainchild of Jonah Ratsimbazafy, one of Madagascar’s leading primatologists. Every October, communities – and especially schoolchildren – across Madagascar celebrate with a week-long festival, connected internationally through zoos, IUCN’s SOS initiative and the Lemur Conservation Network (LCN).

Local communities can be a powerful driver for conservation, with the right support.

Of course, all of this requires ongoing investment – a perennial challenge even if lemurs and Madagascar enjoy favourable attention worldwide. The most exciting development for lemurs to date has been the IUCN SOS Lemurs Initiative. This originated from a strategic lemur conservation action plan created by the world’s leading lemur scientists following our Lemur IUCN Red List Workshop in Antananarivo in 2012. Publishing and promoting this action plan made it easier to attract and engage potential donors. And it worked! In 2016, IUCN’s SOS – Save Our Species initiative secured an exceptional grant representing enough funding to implement the entire Action Plan for Lemur Conservation. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that an SSC action plan has been funded in its entirety – an enormous boost to lemur conservation, with several million dollars already disbursed to priority projects throughout the country.

Madagascar provides some excellent examples of how a country’s development challenges can be addressed through grassroots species conservation – raising the tide of hope for the country’s species, habitats and communities. Local communities can be a powerful driver for conservation, with the right support. I hope that this example can inspire others to support local community-driven conservation action that also provides a way out of poverty.

Topic: 
Biodiversity
Business
Sustainable development

Russell Mittermeier

Russell Mittermeier is Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Primate Specialist Group and Chief Conservation Officer of Global Wildlife Conservation, an IUCN Member. He has worked with IUCN for four decades: has been on the SSC Steering Committee since 1982, was an IUCN Councillor from 2004 to 2012, a Vice-President from 2008 to 2012, and is currently an Honorary Member. He is a primatologist and herpetologist by training, with a strong focus on tropical forest conservation. Dr Mittermeier is also the author of many books, as well as scientific and popular papers. Madagascar is one of his focal countries and he has made more than 90 trips there since 1984.

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