Madagascar: A Story of Conservation Hope Through Education

Story and Photos by Kathy West

There is a supernatural ambiance to Madagascar’s incredibly diverse habitats, rich species biodiversity, implausibly-unique animals, strange drought tolerant plants, and stunningly beautiful landscapes.

Pre-pandemic, ecotourists came in droves from around the world to see the lemurs and discover for themselves the tiniest chameleon in the world, Brookesia nana, the fairy-like Paradise flycatcher, the odd fleshy-face of Schlegel’s asity, and the red, succulent-like plants perched on the razor-sharp Tsingy rock.

1. The Indri (Indri indri) is Madagascar’s largest living lemur and is dangerously close to extinction. Due to unregulated and destructive mining and deforestation practices, even in protected areas the Indri is threatened. In Andisabe National Park, the remaining population is only around 110 individuals (2017) and other tiny populations are scattered throughout eastern Madagascar’s isolated sections of forests. These gentle, singing lemurs live in monogamous family units and have not been successfully bred in captivity like so many other lemur species. However, they are surviving and reproducing in an isolated private preserve (Palmarium, Ankanin’ny Nofy) on a peninsula in Lake Ampitabe, on the East coast of Madagascar. 2. Schlegel’s Asity (Philepitta schlegeli), male, Ankarafantsika NP. 3. Red Euphorbia plant on Tsingy rock, Ankarana NP


Yet, across Madagascar, even in the lushest of rainforest habitats, there has been a relentless destruction of the forests though the intense pressure from the growing human population to cut and burn forests for growing rice, grazing zebu cattle, and making charcoal, their main source of cooking fuel. In the most protected of Madagascar’s rainforests, such as those of the Masoala peninsula, 9 out of 10 species of lemurs are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered with some species’ only remaining populations found in small, isolated areas.

Humans arrived in Madagascar from SE Asia around 4,000 years ago and found a forested island full of gorilla-sized lemurs, giant flightless birds, and a richness of plant life to support their growing populations. Fast forward to the present and there are now 25 million people living in Madagascar, many with food insecurity and difficultly growing staples in poor soils resulting from slash and burn agricultural techniques (tavy). There is also a large percentage of the population that is mobile due to the lack of land ownership, crowding in the cities, and few opportunities for income. Approximately 95% of the forest has been removed and pristine forest habitat precariously remains in small protected areas.

While visiting Madagascar in 2017, I found it overwhelming to consider the enormous amount of deforestation, habitat destruction, human over-population, poverty and food insecurity, and the impending risk of losing most lemur species to extinction.

But then, stepping back I took stock of the myriad of conservation programs working in Madagascar to help restore the balance. Effective international programs are supporting Malagasy efforts with infrastructure and education to assist with learning to grow sustainable food sources (delicious “bacon bugs”), discover new cooking fuels (solar stoves), teach good sanitation and sustainable solutions (SEED), develop reforestation and forest protection programs (research is showing that even newly planted seedings can have a quick, positive impact on water retention), and educate children in the basics as well as developing environmental curricula (UNICEF and others).


I am hopeful that with these efforts and the hundreds of others underway, there will be a tremendous improvement in the protection of the lemurs as well as the quality of life and health of the communities. With education as the foundation, the Malagasy people can build a collaborative alliance with the local biodiversity to protect the lemurs and preserve their own lifestyles.

(L) Rice is a staple food for the Malagasy people and generations of farmers use the same area for their crops. However, with a rapidly increasing population and more people leaving the cities for the countryside, new lands are being deforested and prepared for growing rice. Fortunately rice growers don’t have to rely on soil quality for their crops. However, after slash and burn techniques, the soil is depleted for other crops or reforestation.

(R) The nocturnal Ankarana Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur ankaranensis) is another endangered lemur species whose population is in decline due to habitat loss (here pictured in Ankarana National Park, NW Madagascar). It may not be as charismatic as the singing indri but it also benefits from the protection of the forest as do thousands of other unique, endemic species found only in Madagascar.


Education
As I gathered images from my travels in Madagascar and then attended professional meetings with the American Society of Primatologists, I began to frame an idea using education and visual arts as a pathway to conservation.

In order to contribute to conservation solutions through education and using my photography and communication skills, I founded a nonprofit organization, Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation (PICC). This project is based upon the concept of truly seeing and engaging with the natural world through visual arts. The PICC program goal is to inspire students to become conservation leaders within their communities by providing them with knowledge of primate ecology, local conservation issues and solutions, and through learning the skills of photography, field sketching, and writing.

In working in collaboration with local primate-habitat communities we celebrate their relationship with, and together learn about their local ecosystem and endangered wildlife. The PICC sessions are designed with a goal of building local capacity for sustainable conservation through educating and empowering both the children and the broader community, including local teachers and elders. The sessions teach the children the skills of photography, writing and field sketching and follow up with publication of these students’ creative works in a book. Local sales of these books go to building funds for continued engagement with conservation issues and solutions. The children’s stories, photos and drawings are a relatable platform to engage people of all ages with the wonderfully unique characters that make up the lemur family, and to share awareness of conservation issues in Madagascar.

(L) Chickens and ducks are the most used source of protein in Madagascar and can be a sustainable and low impact food resource. Organizations such as Mad Dog Initiative (link) are supporting the health of these flocks throughout the country by inoculating them against Newcastle Disease. A more resource-heavy and habitat destructive protein source is zebu cattle that are a prominent part of their livelihoods, cultural celebrations and burial ceremonies.

(R) Ankarafantsika National Park. Malagasy families live around the park and commonly use the forest resources as well as the plumbing infrastructure at the lodges. Water is a precious resource and children are seen collecting it throughout the day from rivers, lakes or from communal faucets in their village (at a cost).


Sharing these conservation success stories celebrates the progress, achievements and passion of the children, and the successes of protecting their local forests and wildlife. After mini-PICC (pandemic) sessions in villages of the Masoala peninsula (2020 and 2021), I am hearing reports from the Malagasy staff that children are teaching their parents to protect the forest through their new-found love of the lemurs and understanding of habitat needs. These children are sharing with their families what happens with habitat destruction and how it affects the lemur families, reduces water flow and retention, depletes fish stocks, increases land degradation, reduces crop output, and reduces tourism.

Malagasy children are fortunate if they are able to attend school even part-time, walking long distances from their homes to attend a few hours of school per day. Limitations for children’s education are many: families must financially support 40% of their children’s school costs, most teachers are not paid and are inconsistent about attending school to teach, 97% of teachers are not professionally certified, and even when the children complete their education only 17% are competent in reading and 20% in math. Official, national environmental curricula has been lacking in Madagascar. Only recently has the Ministry of National Education, through the Environmental Education Department and in collaboration with UNICEF, launched the Environmental Education for Sustainable Development program with resources to strengthen awareness and knowledge in students and teachers (Oct 2020).


One of the most common solutions to sustainable success in protecting bio-rich habitats such as in Madagascar is through developing a strong system of ecotourism to host international visitors and provide a reliable source of income. PICC students gain skills in visual communication methods, providing an effective foundation upon which they can successfully build conservation-oriented careers in eco-tourism, guiding, and communications.

(L) A guided walk for international tourists (2017) through the forests at Amber Mountain National Park, led by a professionally certified guide. As is becoming increasingly obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, with bans on travel into and within Madagascar, eco-tourism is one of the best solutions to protecting the biodiversity and lifting the local populations out of poverty.

(R) These dried mudflow erosion scars, locally called “Red Tsingy” or “Lavaka”, are adjacent to Ankarafantsika National Park. A result of deforestation, this extraordinarily large erosion canyon continues to claim more of this land. Just meters from the Tsingy are burned forests and destructive land use with slash and burn agriculture, destroying more forests and soil for both future crops or reforestation, and turning previous lemur habitat into wastelands.


Conservation in Madagascar is not only about saving the lemurs, but they are some of the country’s most visible and endearing species. Protecting the lemurs as an umbrella species means protecting all of the wondrous plants and animals that are unique to Madagascar and comprise the complex ecosystems that are spread across this island. Building awareness and capacity through education is the key to preventing the runaway environmental destruction and giving the Malagasy people hope for healthy and productive lives in their beautiful country.

Smoke from grass and forest fires hangs over a valley near Ankarana National Park in NW Madagascar. Here, the Sakalava people live in the valley, farming what they can from the poor soils, grazing their zebu cattle by using frequent grass fires to regenerate growth, and harvesting wood and resources from the nearby forests.

The PICC program is active in numerous locations in Madagascar as well as in Kenya and Uganda. Please help us to build environmental awareness and capacity in indigenous communities in primate habitat countries, and to develop future conservation leaders with our PICC sessions. Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation is a 501c3 nonprofit. 100% of your donations go directly to the children’s education programs.

Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation

Learn about the PICC program

Engaging Children in Conservation Issues

The act of creating an image with photography or sketching rewires us to be truly present and see details and beauty on a deeper level of appreciation.

Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation (PICC, 501(c)(3) nonprofit) is a project that was founded in 2016 based upon this concept of truly seeing and engaging with the natural world. In working in collaboration with local communities to celebrate their relationship with their ecosystem and endangered wildlife, we provide a platform to share ecological knowledge, empowering future generations in conservation issues and solutions. (PICC website).

The PICC project focuses on threatened primate species and is designed to engage and inspire students and the broader community through improving knowledge of local ecosystems and learning the skills of photography, illustration and storytelling, gaining an appreciation of the ecological, cultural, and economic value to their communities when protecting endemic biodiversity.

Children from the Masoala village of Ambodiforaha sketch white-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur albifrons) June 26, 2020. (IUCN: Endangered and decreasing). Photo by Pascal Elison.

2020–2021 UPDATE: PICC Team member Pascal Elison and I have collaborated to develop a curriculum to conduct alternative pandemic-sessions of the PICC program in the Ambodiforaha village, Masoala peninsula. The children have been so excited and engaged learning about their local lemurs and ecosystems. I appreciate having such skilled and knowledgeable Malagasy partners! (See here for updates.)

Critically endangered red-ruffed lemur, drawing by Ambodiforaha PICC 2020 student.

PICC will be conducted in Masoala National Park, Madagascar, as soon as the borders are open to international travel. The students will learn using activity books, workshops and field photography. The sessions begin with gathering students, teachers and community leaders in classroom workshops to learn how to use a DSLR camera and make drawings and field notes. Each student will have a full day in the forest to experience and enjoy the local biodiversity, capture their own photos, and make drawings and journal notes of the plants and animals that pique their interest. Children naturally see the world with unique viewpoints which can teach others to look at the same scene with a new appreciation.

We are excited to include in our workshops and the forest experience local elder leaders with traditional ecological knowledge in order to integrate their local perspective into our project and learn from them through their cultural stories, ancestral practices, and their understanding of their local ecosystem.

Students will work in the classroom with PICC team members to develop stories with scientifically accurate illustrations and text. The program staff will assist the students in putting the photographs, illustrations and stories together to demonstrate effective communication methods, skills which can be further developed and used after the program is completed for careers in tourism and conservation.

A village-wide gathering will be held at the completion of the program, introducing the community and other students to the photographs, illustrations and stories that the program students have produced. The PICC students will be named “Forest Ambassadors” and receive a certificate of completion. These Forest Ambassadors can proudly share their images, experiences and knowledge with their parents and community, extending the teaching benefits and in the process developing strong allies for the animals within the community.

Furthering the PICC project’s sustainability, the creative works that the children produce will be published in a small book and poster in Malagasy, French and English. These will be available to the students and teachers for sharing their local ecological story and the books can be sold to visitors as a source of income for conservation programs and continued environmental education.

PICC piloted this project in Suriname in October 2018. See our PICC website for images of students participating and images that they captured during the program.

In addition, a film about the project will be produced, engaging the audience with the beauty and fascinating behaviors of the animals, highlighting conservation issues and showing the benefits to the community of conservation projects. The film will be available open-source online for expanded international outreach education and awareness, and provided to Malagasy educators and government officials.

To sustain learning, an internet-connected iPad, scanner / printer and DSLR camera will be housed in a central location for access to teachers and students. The PICC website will provide a moderated platform to post drawings, creative stories, and access learning resources.

This project is partially supported by a generous grant from the American Society of Primatologists Conservation Committee, 2018, and private individuals. We have gathered an exciting team of multilingual experts in lemur biology, photography, illustration, storytelling, conservation issues, and the Malagasy culture to help to lead the students and teachers through the program.

How can you help? All of our project team members are donating their time and skills to advance lemur conservation through this project. However, additional funds are needed for printing, student materials, and logistics in order to successfully accomplish all components of this program. In-kind services and contributions are welcome! To see how you can help, please visit Support Us or contact us at: PICCmadagascar@gmail.com.

PICC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 100% of all donations go to the project and Malagasy staff.

 

Conservation Coloring and Activity Books

Custom-tailored conservation coloring and activity books are an effective method to engage and inform children and adults in topics of local biodiversity, ecosystems, and conservation issues and solutions. I have been designing science education coloring books for over 17 years and am excited about the potential for sharing this tool with as many primate habitat communities as I can reach. Contact me if you would like to have a custom book designed for children in your community!

The first book in my primate conservation coloring book series was written and illustrated for the southeastern habitats of Madagascar, co-authored with lemur biologist Dr. Amber Walker-Bolton, University of Toronto, Scarborough, and published in English and Malagasy. The illustrations (by Kathy West), activities and text provide information on lemur behavior, biology and natural history, and present conservation issues and solutions. Dr. Walker-Bolton has provided a copy of the book to teachers and students in Madagascar in 2018 and Kenya in 2019, with great excitement from the classes, especially on owning their very own book, a first for many of the children (see photos below). Download a free copy of the Berenty edition (2019) RBC Lemur Conservation Colouring and Activity Book.

Just published is a new edition for the PICC project in Masoala National Park, NE Madagascar. It was co-authored by Kathy West and Pascal Elison, translated to the local Malagasy dialect, and customized for the local ecosystems, communities and conservation solutions. Cover art was done by Ambodiforaha students from their PICC session in June 2020. Download a copy here!

lemurconservcoloring_2019

Please feel free to download both editions of the coloring book and share with children in your life – we are providing the books open-source so that more students can learn about conservation issues facing the lemurs. If you would like to have hard copies they are available at-cost directly from Corporate Color Printing (www.4printing.net). Glossy cover, perforated pages for easy removal, English & Malagasy.  Email request to: customerservice@4printing.net, or write me with questions!

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Malagasy children receive their lemur conservation books, 2018
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Teachers planned lessons around the lemur conservation books, 2018