Protecting Threatened Lemur Habitat in Madagascar

by SEED Madagascar
Protecting Threatened Lemur Habitat in Madagascar
The respective team captains
The respective team captains

Today across Madagascar, 103 of the 107 surviving species of lemurs are threatened with extinction, with four of these species found in the Sainte Luce Littoral Forest. World Lemur Day is a global effort to raise awareness of this charismatic and incredibly diverse species and on 29th September, SEED Madagascar joined the rest of the world in celebration!

After a speech on the importance of protecting lemurs given by the Sainte Luce Chief of Community, the day kicked off with a lemur themed football tournament. All six teams were named after either four local lemur species or two of the trees ecologically crucial to them. There was a great turn out and it seemed that nearly the whole community of Sainte Luce was at the pitch to see the female, male, and veteran teams compete for their species to win. In the end, Team Red-collared brown lemur and Team Thomas dwarf lemur took the top prize money, in which they and the community decided to reinvest back into the football club. Football is a much-loved community activity in Sainte Luce, and by having a lemur-themed game, we hope to see more positive local associations with these species. The tournament was followed by a community screening of a Malagasy environmental animation about agroecology.

 We also caught up with Hoby, SEEDs Conservation Programme Team Leader, to ask him his thoughts on World Lemur Day:

“(World Lemur Day) is an important opportunity to teach the local community about the different species we can find in this area and raise awareness of their ecological importance and conservation. It is important to protect lemurs because they help the local community through seed dispersal and they are pollinators, just like bees and butterflies.”

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A view of corridor four connecting to remnant four
A view of corridor four connecting to remnant four

Planting for the Future: SEED’s Long-term Commitment to Reforestation

 

Scientists say that reforestation is a top climate change solution, but how can you know if these reforestation projects are having a real positive impact on both the climate and the local environment in which these trees are planted? Here, we take a look at the development of Project Ala’s (‘forest’ in Malagasy) long term goals and how reforestation isn’t just about the now, but is a long-term responsibility delivered through careful planning, implementation and monitoring.

The author Nelson Henderson said that ‘the true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit’ and this is certainly the philosophy that underpins Project Ala, SEED’s reforestation project based in Sainte Luce.

Reforestation is achieved over decades and has two main stages: the first, an initial ‘establishment’ phase which Ala is currently in and then, a longer ‘building’ phase. For Ala, this initial establishment phase involves our team building a solid understanding of the ecological form of the land. This process includes studying the different habitat types, ground cover species present in the area, and their potential invasiveness. For example, grasses are some of the world's most invasive species which compete with young seedlings for light, water and soil nutrients. When given the chance these grasses will out-compete seedlings by growing and in-taking these elements extremely quickly. By ensuring a thorough establishment phase, the Project Ala team is able to put a plan into action to avoid these threats and give seedlings the best possible chance at life!

Within the establishment phase, pioneer and fast-growing tree species are planted to both aid in shading out invasive weeds and to develop a protective canopy for the slower growing, more shade-tolerant species to establish in the corridor. For Ala, pioneer species, such as the non-native Acacia mangium, were not only used as they are fast growing, but also as they have the potential to fix nitrogen into the nutrient-deficient soils of overused or abandoned arable lands between the forest remnants. 

 

Project Ala’s reforestation efforts in Sainte Luce are targeted towards the use of native tree species which are adapted to this environment and are specifically chosen because of their use by lemur species for resting and feeding. A combination of data on existing lemur habitat use and the abundance of tree species  was used to help develop a corridor reforestation plan that benefits both our target Endangered lemur species, along with other species which will use the corridors to cross between the fragments of forest. Ala is a small-scale project, both in terms of the area covered and the number of trees planted, compared to other corridor reforestation projects in Madagascar.  As it is small, the team are able to monitor all of the trees, replant where necessary, and monitor weed growth throughout the growing season. This level of after-care ensures the initial establishment and subsequent growth of the pioneer species in this phase which ultimately helps to speed up canopy formation, necessary to plant the native species. 

 

SEED’s approach in Ala also differs from other large-scale reforestation projects, as we have a targeted approach to reforestation implementation, working closely on the ground with land-owners. This is done through a balance between the suitability of an area which will benefit from tree planting, where tree planting will not affect the natural function of a given habitat, and the availability of land needed for reconnection. Ala also ensures that the monitoring of corridor survival and growth and the creation of long-term strategies for sustainability are put in place for an effective and holistic response to conservation, instead of focusing solely on the number of trees planted.  

Reforestation is a long-term process with the long-term aim to create a functioning ecosystem. However, many reforestation projects only report on short-term indicators such as the number of trees planted and ignore the more challenging and longer term indicators of survival and growth rates or tree species diversity. To make real impactful change, a change in focus and reporting is needed on long-term growth and maturation stages, environmental and socio-economic successes.

 

“Right now, we are at the stage of planting trees, but the big question is: What is next? How to protect those young trees, so we don’t plant them in January and then destroy them in July? If the authorities do not have a clear and efficient strategy to fight against deforestation and fires, then Madagascar won’t return to forests” 

- Jonah Ratsimbazafy, (Head of Groupe d’Étude et de Recherche sur les Primates (GERP)).

Long-term monitoring is needed in order to understand the successes and failures at each stage of reforestation. Along with the limitations of the techniques and methods implemented, it is important to have the time to use all of these learnings to continually adapt and create a more successful project. Transparency within this monitoring is a signal that an organisation is aware of the complexities involved in a successful reforestation project. By creating the capacity to monitor project development and report on results, they are ensuring that reforestation is not thought of simply in terms of this initial establishment phase only.

There is not a simple, one-size-fits-all way to restore forests, but scientists have found that projects that use a localised approach on an individual forest or community level have greater successes than those that don’t. Finding a balance between the needs of the environment for restoration, biodiversity and those of the community is key. Measures of success will also differ throughout the different phases of reforestation and between projects, depending on the goals that the project is aiming to achieve. SEED has created a five-year Conservation Programme Strategy and a 10 to 15year Forest Conservation Programme Strategy which have helped to build a long-term locally led, holistic and adaptive programme for the conservation and restoration of the Sainte Luce Littoral Forests (SLLF). These strategies have helped shape Ala Phase II by setting achievable goals for the next three years. Phase II has been developed to help to continue to grow SEED’s reforestation efforts and strengthen its vital research, by working together with key stakeholders and the local community in Sainte Luce. Research which monitors the progress of such reforestation efforts has been reviewed and will continue in Phase II with increases in the amount of transects needed for lemur encounters, but to also now understand forest resource uses and community needs. During Phase II, we will see progression from the initial ‘establishment’ phase, which saw the successful establishment of pioneer species Acacia mangium, to a greater ‘building’ phase, with the Acacia forming a canopy, the establishment of native species and the decrease in fast growing, invasive ground cover.

 

Over the coming years Project Ala will continue to monitor, learn, adapt and through the dissemination of reports, learning and research, add to the growing body of knowledge on reforestation in Madagascar.

Reports can be found on our website, along with progress reports for Phase I.

Corridor 4 one year after planting Acacia mangium
Corridor 4 one year after planting Acacia mangium
Hoby, our team leader, taking data in Corridor 1
Hoby, our team leader, taking data in Corridor 1
SEED's SCRP team on a herpetofauna transect in S8
SEED's SCRP team on a herpetofauna transect in S8
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Firebreak surrounding fragment S8
Firebreak surrounding fragment S8

In October 2019, we told you about the planting of our first seedlings in two corridors and so much has happened since! We have seen the planting of 1,937 Acacia mangium seedlings and 5,625 native species of 17 species planted across four corridors since the beginning of the project. Subsequently, three of these corridors have also been expanded by a further ten meters than was originally planned. Project Ala’s work has provided an additional 58 hectares of lemur habitat, increasing viable, connected habitat by 109%. The initial first phase of Project Ala ends this month though, and the team has two very important activities left to complete: the replanting of native seedlings and the implementation of mass mobilisation events encompassing the importance of fire mitigation.

For several months prior to March, the South of Madagascar has been experiencing a severe drought that caused a dramatic loss in groundwater reserves and therefore affecting the survival of our newly planted native seedlings in January. However, in recent weeks, the weather has finally changed and rain in the area has become more consistent. Now that the rains have started, Laza (Project Ala Coordinator) and Patrice (Nursery Manager) will be replanting some seedlings into all four corridors to make up for recent seedling lost as a result of the drought. The team has been working hard to ensure that enough seeds have been sown to complete the replant this month. Beginning next week, 4,296 native seedlings of 15 species will be transplanted from the nursery into the corridors. 

In addition to this replant, Project Ala will soon be holding mass mobilisation events in Mahatalaky, Ebakika, and Sainte Luce, communities that have a direct impact on the conservation zone in which we work. Project team members and the local forest management committee have been reporting increases in the frequency of fires around Sainte Luce. This has only been exacerbated by the drought, which tends to make fires more difficult to manage, and the related famine, which increases the use of damaging agricultural practices. These mass mobilisations will cover the impacts of fire on the environment, forests and the corridors, and also highlight the importance of fire management by local authorities, especially during the current drought. Education on fire management and prevention will be conducted in these communities and fronted by the forest management committee of Sainte Luce, to increase their capacity to have a positive impact on their community members. 

All of the corridors’ seedlings are currently protected by the firebreaks that the Ala team and Sainte Luce community have created around all corridors and the remnants. Fire has not crossed into the remnants or corridors since the construction of these firebreaks. We are hopeful that the mass mobilisations will only further decrease the impacts of fire on the S8 remnants and other littoral forest in the area. 

During Phase II of Project Ala, which will begin in June 2021, we will be working closely with key stakeholders to create a fire management strategy to collect data on fire incidents areas to ensure that the construction of firebreaks around the conservation zone and corridors is targeted to areas particularly at risk. Phase II will also prioritise the assessment of and response to community needs. This will allow community members to obtain the resources that they need while minimising the impact on essential biodiversity and their habitat.

Seedlings ready to be replanted!
Seedlings ready to be replanted!

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School children participating in quiz
School children participating in quiz

Who doesn’t enjoy watching a good nature documentary? As well as allowing us to marvel at the beauty of the natural world, nature documentaries have been found to increase our interest in the species being filmed and support shifts in environmental attitudes.1

For us in developed countries, documentaries showing the enormous variation in animals and plant species throughout the world can be crucial to connecting us with nature in an increasingly urbanised society.  However, even in the remote community of Sainte Luce where our lemur project is based, despite people being surrounded by nature, people are still shocked at just how valuable and extraordinary their local biodiversity is.

The way we interact with nature may be very different across societies, but the way in which we spark interest and appreciation for nature could be quite similar. Therefore, this World Lemur Day, Project Ala decided to celebrate by holding film screenings in Sainte Luce of the fabulous documentary series ‘Madagascar’, translated in Malagasy.

By visualising the dramatic landscapes and diverse wildlife across Madagascar, the screenings proved to be a novel and exciting way to raise awareness of the country’s unique biodiversity and the importance of conserving it. By doing so we hoped to highlight the value of nature in Sainte Luce and engage the community in Project Ala’s conservation work to reconnect fragments of littoral forest habitat and support lemur populations. Sainte Luce is a vitally important location for lemur conservation because it supports populations of four different endangered species: The Anosy Mouse Lemur, Southern Woolly Lemur, Thomas Dwarf Lemur, and Collared Brown Lemur, all of which are worth celebrating!

Over the two-day lemur-inspired event we held four screenings at Manafiafy and Ambandrika Primary Schools and a fifth screening for Project Ala’s stakeholders, including corridor landowners, members of the forest management committees, and a representative of the regions Environment Ministry. As we were unable to hold a community-wide mobilisation effort due to COVID-19, it was important for us to reach as many members of the community as possible, while ensuring their safety. Therefore, the documentary was shortened so we could hold multiple screenings with 30 people attending each and hired extra community members to ensure people’s safety within any crowds. Following the screenings, we held a quiz to test students and stakeholders on the documentary, general lemur knowledge, and on Project Ala. Prizes of exercise books and pencils for the new school year and refreshments added to the celebratory atmosphere.

Smiles and enthusiasm on the day showed that everyone enjoyed the event, but feedback provided by the students highlighted its successes. One student expressed that they had not heard of the supercontinent of Gondwana that Madagascar broke away from 180 million years ago, giving rise to the high levels of endemism that we see across the country today. Another student did not realise that tenrecs were only found in Madagascar and nowhere else in the world. Whilst another did not know that the Variky, or Collared Brown Lemur, which can be seen easily in Sainte Luce during the day, is cathemeral, meaning they are also active during the night.

Raising awareness of nature alone will not be enough to lead to behavioural change for conservation in the long-term. However, when placed alongside Project Ala’s other engagement and capacity building activities, celebrating events like World Lemur Day plays an important role in creating value and interest in nature which are the building blocks for achieving the local support and leadership required for conservation success. Despite the unusual circumstances this year, Project Ala could not let World Lemur Day pass us by and so we joined the world in celebrating these incredible species at the local level, where it matters most.

We would like to thank the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership for providing a copy of the translated documentary.

 

1 FernándezBellon, D., & Kane, A. (2019). Natural history films raise species awareness—A big data approach. Conservation Letters, 13(1). doi: 10.1111/conl.12678.

Posters of the four endangered lemur species
Posters of the four endangered lemur species
A pair of brown lemurs
A pair of brown lemurs
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The ultimate goal of a conservation project is to help protect a piece of the Earth’s biodiversity, in the present and the future. But projects cannot last forever, therefore their impact must be sustainable. SEED Madagascar’s mission is to increase the capacity of local actors to achieve sustainable environment, education, and development goals. This is no different for Project Ala, which works to protect the unique biodiversity of Sainte Luce’s littoral forests by connecting habitats and building the capacity of staff, stakeholders, and communities for the forests long-term management.

Like the rest of the world, monitoring for Project Ala halted as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent. With the majority of international staff returning home, volunteers suspending their travel, and national staff restricting their movements, it seemed unlikely that activities could resume for a long time. However, with careful and continuous assessment of the local situation and government guidelines, these unusual circumstances gave rise to a novel and positive opportunity.

SEED’s SCRP guides Hoby and Tsiraiky have taken on the great responsibility of continuing monitoring the corridors and remnant forests for Project Ala in the absence of international staff. This is no mean feat, requiring rapid training in equipment use, data collection and recording, and leadership skills to train and coordinate three local guides in Sainte Luce. International staff have been busy from their various home countries producing detailed protocols and training workshops to support the guides in their new roles and ensure that they have all the information to collect robust data.

SEED’s Conservation Research Programme (SCRP) combines the talent of national staff and local guides with that of international researchers, assistants, and volunteers to collect valuable data for SEED’s conservation and research projects. Our guides are responsible for leading surveys using their expert local knowledge for navigating the forests and spotting and identifying elusive wildlife. While our international team participate in surveys, they are responsible for the organisation of the busy schedule and for the accurate recording and handling of data.

This monitoring is crucial for Project Ala to ensure that the reforested corridors are effective in connecting four littoral forest fragments in the Anosy region of southeast Madagascar. Survival and growth surveys of the planted seedlings help monitor the progress of the corridors’ establishment and improve our understanding of how they should be managed in the future. Flora and fauna surveys provide novel information about local biodiversity and contribute to long-term data sets which will show how biodiversity changes as the corridors develop. This change is very gradual, therefore consistent data is important to allow Project Ala to assess its success in conserving local biodiversity, including three species of endangered and endemic lemurs.

With COVID-19 cases now being recorded in the Anosy region and rising across Madagascar, access to the remote community of Sainte Luce may become restricted once again to prevent the spread of the virus. Consequently, the resilience and determination of our national team and local guides has been hugely important for keeping Project Ala’s key activities on track to stand us in good stead for the difficult times to come. 

Having to respond to the challenges of a global pandemic has in fact accelerated a vital aspect of conservation for Project Ala. Building local capacity to independently monitor and manage forests creates a greater level of ownership over the project making the continuation of these activities more realistic in the future. Only through sustained data collection will we be able to determine the impact that connecting fragments of littoral forest has on the vulnerable local biodiversity to ensure its protection for both people and nature. We are proud of the enthusiasm shown by our national team to take on this responsibility and it bodes well for the future of conservation in Sainte Luce. 

 

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SEED Madagascar

Location: London - United Kingdom
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Twitter: @SEEDMadagascar
Project Leader:
Melissa Hornby
London, London United Kingdom
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