Madagascar & Comoros
With so many species found nowhere else, Madagascar is one of the global icons for biological diversity. But unfortunately it is also one of the world’s least developed countries and its rich natural resources are being placed under severe pressure. Madagascar is Durrell’s largest programme country and we implement long term field programmes in eight key locations around the island. Our general approach integrates efforts to reduce human pressure on the environment with species-led restoration projects.
Madagascar was formed as an island almost 160m years and lies approximately 400km from the east coast of Mozambique. Its large surface area and location has supported the evolution of the diverse range of habitats. With a high central plateau that traps the moisture coming from the east, the island’s most dense forests are found running north-south along the east coast. Across the plateau to the west are the dry forest ecoregions, which contain unique geological formations and are also extremely rich in species.
The island’s isolation and conditions set the scene for the development of the extreme endemism that we see today. What is so special about the extent of the ‘megadiversity’ found on Madagascar is that it extends to whole families of species that are found nowhere else. The islands best known endemics are the Lemur families, which contains over 90 species found only in Madagascar ranging from the largest (up to 8kg) the Indri to the world’s smallest primate, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, which weighs 30g. We know that the lemurs did not evolve on the island and would have arrived approximately 60 million years ago either by land bridge or rafting across from mainland Africa. In a similar way other endemic groups such as the tenrecs, analogous to hedgehogs, moved across about 20 million years later.
Madagascar also contains the richest diversity of amphibian and reptile species in the world with 314 of the 340 known species of reptile being endemic, most notably the chameleons which may have originated on the island. However our knowledge of the species on Madagascar remains incomplete and species are constantly being described.
However as one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar’s population is largely rural and is reliant on natural resources for survival. Therefore effective conservation on the island cannot only focus on the restoration or protection of species without addressing the main causes of their decline.
The main threats come from deforestation primarily from a practice called tavy (slash and burn agriculture), but also from mining and logging (either for charcoal or construction wood). Tavy is a cyclic process where the forest is cut and burnt and planted often, crops are harvested and the land is left fallow for four years before the process is repeated. However this brings short term rewards to rural communities and after a couple of cycles the soils are denuded of any nutrients and become barren.
Once the land is bare, soil erosion can take hold and great quantities are washed away into rivers and lakes causing them to become silted. This has now become a major challenge in places like Lake Alaotra, the rice growing centre of Madagascar and the island’s largest lake. The watershed for this lake is almost completely deforested with a population of at least half a million people reliant on its resources.
Equally the introduction of non-native species has had a major impact especially in rivers and lakes such as Alaotra. Fish such as snakehead and tilapia introduced into the marshes around the lake as food resources have removed many native fish species. At the same time the infamous water hyacinth is having a major impact and is known as “tetzanalika” or “dog’s bridge” for its ability to clog waterways.
Durrell in Madagascar
Durrell started working in Madagascar in 1986 with efforts to protect the ploughshare tortoise, which at the time was identified as one of the 12 most threatened tortoises in the world. This work saw the development of the Ampijoroa breeding facility in Ankarafantsika National Park and the first surveys of the tortoises remaining habitat, which then led to the creation of Baly Bay National Park. Madagascar has now grown into our largest programme area.
Here more than anywhere we have developed a specific approach to conservation whereby we combine a species-led response to protect and restore key endemics such as the ploughshare tortoise, giant jumping rat and Alaotran gentle lemur, coupled with a community led conservation approach that aims to build capacity within rural villages to monitor and manage their natural resources by identifying areas for community-led protection. Changing human behaviours and actions intrinsically requires time, and therefore we have also made a long-term commitment to each of our field sites as we work through the different levels of community engagement and empowerment.
In terms of where we work in Madagascar, our focus has primarily been on the deciduous dry forests and wetlands in the west. These two habitat types represent the most threatened in Madagascar as a whole. The forests, which often contain higher endemicity than the better known moist forests of the east, have been reduced to just 3% of their former range. We focus on wetlands both because they are habitats for highly vulnerable populations of birds, fish and turtles, but also because of their importance as natural resources and the pressures placed on them through over-exploitation and invasive species.
One of our newest projects involves the Madagascar pochard. This duck thought to be relatively widespread along the wetlands of the central plateau was sent almost to extinction through exploitation and changes to their wetland habitats. It was only in 2006 when the species was re-discovered by The Peregrine Fund, that we were given a second chance to save this species. Now together with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, The Peregrine Fund and the Government of Madagascar, we have embarked on an ambitious project to restore this species through a long term conservation breeding and release programme.
The Comoro islands
Lying off the North-West coast of Madagascar the Comoros represent one of the most challenging places in the world to work. A chain of four islands including Mayotte which is a French Overseas Department and therefore not part of the Union of the Comoros, the three main islands are Grand Comore, Anjouan and Moheli. Each has a level of political autonomy and the presidency of the Union is supposed to rotate between the islands. Beset by political troubles, these islands are also suffering one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Such is the pressure on the forests that the 11 rivers on the island of Anjouan have all silted up and are now dry.
The Comoros are known as the land of the bats as there are four species of fruit bat to be found on the island, the largest of which is the Livingstone’s fruit bat, which has a highly restricted and fragmented range. Durrell has supported the conservation of this species as a flagship for the past 15 years and as a keystone species for the forests, it remains an important priority for Durrell in the future.
Currently Durrell is an active partner in a major project led by the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation to develop community led approaches to the protection of natural resources and biodiversity on the islands. Bringing together many Comorian and international partners this initiative starts at the village level with facilitators supporting communities to identify ways of protecting declining natural resources such as watersheds or develop more sustainable agricultural practices. At the same time Durrell is supporting the assessment of biodiversity around the islands to identify zones for specific protection. Together we are supporting the development of local capacity within the Comoros to take the projects on into the future.
Image copyrights: (listed from top to bottom)
- Eulemur rufifrons Credit Alice Smith
- Manombo forest Credit Joanna Durbin
- Ploughshare tortoise Credit Alice Smith
- Livingstone fruit bat Credit James Morgan