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.

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.

A California Treasure: Conserved

Jepson Prairie Preserve is owned and managed by the Solano Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and an active docents group. It is a living laboratory for University of California researchers and students as part of their Nature Reserve System and a treasure for the public who come to enjoy the flush of wildflowers, birds and open spaces. The Preserve supports a strong docent program to educate the public on the value of this undisturbed sample of the state’s natural prairie system, leading tours in the spring months. It is open for visitors year-round.

In a small corner of Northern California’s central valley, parched brown fields lie tucked between gently rolling farmlands. For 5 months of the year, the area is pleasant but unremarkable. Surrounded by small towns and agriculture, most people drive by without knowing about the treasures lying just over the fence line.

Then, coming over the rise in early spring after the winter rains, you’ll see a transformed panorama of lush-green Purple needlegrass meadows and riotous patches of bright yellow Goldfields and Yellow Carpet, Mariposa lilies, and sky-blue Downingia. It is a place that for the best views and most interesting photographs one has to tread carefully and lie on one’s belly in the soft grasses.

I am fortunate to live in an area rich with protected natural spaces, including this local and unassuming flat grassland in California’s Central Valley, the Jepson Prairie Preserve. This small reserve (634 hectares) protects the best remaining undisturbed sample of one of California’s most interesting and unique natural ecosystems of clay-pan vernal pools and native forb and bunchgrass prairie habitats, and is refuge to a surprising number of rare and endangered endemic plants and animals.

Vernal Pool Goldfields (Lasthenia fremontii). Jepson Prairie Preserve, April 2018.

Collecting water in the same location since the last ice age, Jepson Prairie comes alive from February through May. The playa lake Olcott fills with water and then birds, salamanders, shrimp, and insects, and the land is covered with tiny ground-growing flowers that bloom in successional waves around the vernal pools.

In early California history, vernal pools and native bunchgrass prairie habitats could be found across the Great Central Valley. Today, only a small fraction of those habitats survived the millions of people moving into the state. The extensive system of vernal pools supporting millions of migrating birds was plowed and planted into the rich agricultural lands we know now.

American avocets (Recurvirostra americana) feeding on invertebrates in Olcott lake, April 2018. This playa lake provide an important layover for migrating birds, especially critical now because they have lost their extensive feeding grounds along the Central Valley which have been converted to agriculture over the past century.

By protecting this unique ecosystem, Jepson Prairie Preserve provides wetland habitat for millions of migrating waterfowl and wading birds. It supports over 400 species of plants – of which 15 species are rare and endangered, including Bogg’s Lake hedge-hyssop, dwarf Downingia, Baker’s navarretia, Colusa grass, and Solano grass.

Included in the list of 5 rare, threatened and endangered animals protected by the reserve is the Delta green ground beetle which is known only from the 10 square-mile area surrounding Jepson Prairie. Also endemic and endangered are vernal pool fairy shrimp, Conservancy fairy shrimp, vernal pool tadpole shrimp, and the California tiger salamander, which emerges with the rains and quickly reproduces before the next dry season which could last for years.

The stunning waves of flowers attract spring visitors and docent tours, but perhaps just as importantly the flowers support solitary ground bees. University of California research has shown an incredible diversity of bee species endemic to vernal pool habitats. They synchronize their life-cycles and are vital cross-pollinators to the succession of vernal pool flowers including Yellow Carpet, Meadowfoam, Goldfields, and Downingia (UC Davis Natural Reserves link). Some of these bee species are single species pollinators and rely on a specific species of flower found only near vernal pools.

All of these plants and animals rely on a carefully evolved and dependable timeline of rain, blooming, feeding, breeding and migrating. The climate crisis has recently been changing that fine-tuned system. The Jepson Prairie area now has unpredictable periods of high heat in the spring, rains in summer, more frequent years-long droughts, and unusual cold spells in the late spring and summer, even snow in the nearby, low-elevation coastal range. Fortunately, through the work of dedicated volunteers and generous land purchases, the unique ecosystems of Jepson Prairie are being protected and managed to preserve the remarkable plants and animals that have adapted to these harsh cycles of plentiful or scarce water availability.

I am hopeful the Jepson Prairie Preserve will survive and thrive through the changing climate with its strong system of support from the Nature Conservancy’s visionary land purchase in 1980, Solano Land Trust’s management and stewardship, the committed docents, and the inclusion of the Preserve in the University of California’s system of natural reserves.

For more information visit the Jepson Prairie website, or see the excellent field guide produced by the Jepson Prairie docents “Jepson Prairie Preserve Handbook” to learn about the natural history, geography, plant and animal species, cultural significance, and conservation of this area.

A Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) singing from a Jepson Prairie Preserve fence post, March 2021. In the background lies the dry lakebed of Olcott lake. In a normal year during the month of March, this area would be brimming with water and migrating birds.

Photos by Kathy West, ©2018 and ©2021.