Conserving Madagascar‘s forest of hope
By Roger Safford, 20 Oct 2016
Developing the confidence of local communities and a BirdLife Partner to work together to protect their environment has brought encouraging changes for nature and people.
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’ almost as big as France, 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 (Geobiastes squamiger and Brachypteracias leptosomus), once impossible dreams for visitors and still highly prized finds, are common.
Scaly Ground-roller is a particularly bizarre-looking creature, confined to Madagascar’s lowland rainforest, with markings unlike any other bird: subtle rufous, green and brown hues set off by black and white ‘scales’, and quite unexpectedly sky-blue patches revealed when the tail is spread. Like most other ground-rollers (an entire family restricted to Madagascar), they live on the ground, rummaging in the leaf litter or rotting wood, picking out animal prey. Its close relative, the Short-legged Ground-roller, looks somewhat similar, but is the exception, living mainly in the trees.
More in the ‘small brown job’ category – but on closer inspection a pleasing mixture of pastel shades of grey, brown, pink and rufous – the Red-tailed Newtonia Newtonia fanovanae was lost to science from 1930 to 1989, when it was rediscovered very close to Tsitongambarika; we now know it to be common there but there are very few if any other places where this can be said. Another species once lost is the elusive Madagascar Red Owl Tyto soumagnei; this is also increasingly frequently observed at Tsitongambarika.
However, it is arguably for the other fauna and flora that Tsitongambarika is most extraordinary. Being able to fly, birds tend to spread around the island’s forests (although not beyond them), whereas these other species have evolved and remain in situ as unique forms confined to tiny areas. Sometimes it seems that almost everything is endemic, not just to Madagascar, but to South-East Madagascar, and many species are known from no other site. Nearly all the lemurs are represented by local species, like the beautiful collared lemur Eulemur collaris, along with Fleurette’s sportive lemur Lepilemur fleuretae (Critically Endangered, with a tiny range), southern woolly lemur Avahi meridionalis, southern bamboo lemur Hapalemur meridionalis and others.
The reptile and amphibian fauna is almost unbelievably rich: among around 130 species in total, no fewer than 11 have been observed that simply are ‘not in the book’ and so appear, based on the views of highly experienced herpetologists, to be new to science, and recorded only at Tsitongambarika. Giant and dwarf chameleons abound, alongside cryptically coloured lizards (one gecko bearing a startling resemblance to Gollum from the Lord of the Rings stories), brilliantly coloured tree-frogs and snakes. The flora is, of course, just as extraordinary, with new species being found at such a rate that botanists have, like the zoologists, been unable to keep pace in describing them.
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 Partner), has been working to save Tsitongambarika Forest, as part of the BirdLife’s global Forests of Hope programme. 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; any change to their circumstances and the resources they need can be disastrous for them. 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.
As one of the first steps in developing the forest conservation programme, Asity Madagascar carried out a comprehensive social and environmental assessment for the whole forest, which identified people most affected by protected area establishment and specified actions to meet their needs. Asity Madagascar then helped to establish a local organisation, KOMFITA, as an ‘umbrella’ body of community associations which, together with Asity Madagascar and supervised by the government, manage the forest.
KOMFITA ensures that the forest-edge community is consulted in all aspects of the project, the benefits are determined and shared fairly, and local people are properly involved (as ‘co-managers’) of the forest. The communities themselves define the Dina or resource management rules for the forest. These can include some controlled and agreed 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. Remarkable improvements have been made, for example through supporting simple composting methods in the cultivation of cassava, the local staple, or improved water management to grow rice close to the villages.
In April 2015, 600 square kilometres 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, and has asked for, help. This is where the project 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.
With support of the BirdLife, will allow Asity Madagascar and local communities to carry out longterm 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, BirdLife launched a wetland conservation programme in Madagascar with the team that is now Asity Madagascar. Back then, the capacity of national (Malagasy) organisations to conserve big sites was minimal, and the country’s wetlands were on hardly anyone’s agenda. With BirdLife’s help, Asity has grown into a proficient protected area manager and advocate for conservation, and have secured protection for both of the huge wetland sites; 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.