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Madagascar Creates Millions of Acres of New Protected Areas

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 4, 2007
 
The government of Madagascar has established 15 new conservation areas encompassing a total of 2.65 million acres (about a million hectares) on the East African island famed for its unique wildlife.

The additions increase protected territory to more than 9 million acres (3.7 million hectares) on Madagascar, which traditionally has had a poor conservation record.

The protected areas include tropical rain forest, dry deciduous forest, wetlands, limestone caves, and other threatened ecosystems (see a map of Madagascar).

Conservationists say the newly established parks will help protect Madagascar's wealth of species, including its famous lemurs, from extinction. (Related: "Three New Lemurs Discovered, Add to Madagascar's Diversity" [June 26, 2006].)

An estimated 80 percent of the island nation's plants and animals are found nowhere else on Earth.

"Madagascar is just a gold mine of biodiversity," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Arlington, Virginia-based Conservation International (CI), one of several environmental groups helping to fund the parks.

"That's what makes the protection of these areas truly important in a global sense."

Island of Diversity

Madagascar's unique biodiversity is due to its separation from Africa 150 million years ago and from India 88 million years ago.

The island boasts a huge diversity of habitats, from boggy rain forest in the east to the unique, semi-arid Spiny Forest in the south.

"The natural habitats are like an archipelago of different islands perched on a mini-continent," said Alison Jolly, a primatologist at the University of Sussex in England, who has studied Madagascar's lemurs for more than four decades.

"This is a major conservation problem as well as a delight," she said. "There is limited use saving just one or a few big reserves. Each forest is different from the next, so each is valuable."

The new protected areas include three large tracts of forests and wetlands, as well as smaller areas set up to create wildlife corridors linking protected regions.

Among threatened species found in these areas are the giant jumping rat and the pygmy mouse lemur, one of the world's smallest primates. (Related: "Giant Jumping Rats' Numbers Get Big Bounce in Madagascar" [September 25, 2006].)

Conservation Disaster

But many environmentalists have long viewed Madagascar as a conservation disaster. The island has suffered for decades from forest destruction, illegal wildlife trade, and other problems.

Historically, only a small portion of the country's area—about 3 percent—has been protected.

In 2003 the island's president, Marc Ravalomanana, pledged to triple the protected areas. His government set aside 2.5 million acres (a million hectares) of new protected areas in late 2005.

But overall, more than 90 percent of Madagascar's original forests have disappeared, largely due to so-called slash-and-burn agriculture.

The mighty jungles have been burned by farmers to clear land for planting crops and by cowherds to encourage the growth of tender shoots for cattle.

One study determined that an average of 1.5 million acres (600,000 hectares) were burned each year between 1984 and 1996.

"The biggest threat continues to be the poverty of the country," CI President Mittermeier said. "The tendency is still to go and do slash-and-burn agriculture and cut down pieces of forest for short-term plots."

"But you keep doing that ... and eventually there's nothing left."

The key to preserving Madagascar's remaining wilderness, Mittermeier said, is to develop community-based programs that aim to bolster economic benefits for the local people who live in and around the protected areas.

As part of that effort, his organization has worked to set up guide associations that train local people to work as eco-tourism guides.

"Paper Parks"?

Not all experts are convinced, however, that the parks will benefit local communities.

"Many farmers and herders around the island resent the way past parks have restricted their access to natural resources crucial to their livelihoods, [such as] land for farming and forage for grazing," said Christian Kull of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, author of Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar.

The rapid expansion of the park system may undermine efforts initiated in the mid-1990s to give more formal control over forests, lakes, and pastures to local community groups, he said.

"I worry that these new protected areas may become 'paper parks,' demarcated on maps but unenforceable and unpopular on the ground," Kull said.

But Mittermeier disagreed. He does not foresee a need for more rangers to protect the new parks, but instead expects local communities to be supportive of the effort once they see the economic benefits.

The annual cost of the park system is currently around five million U.S. dollars, which is covered by international donors. The figure may double as a result of the expansion, Mittermeier said.

Meanwhile, scientists working in Madagascar are discovering a slew of new species almost on a daily basis.

"When I first started working there almost ten years ago, there were about 30 species of lemurs recognized," said Mireya Mayor, a primatologist at State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"That total has since tripled, as we now recognize over 90 species." (Mayor has received funding from the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

"Our recent discoveries in Madagascar," Mayor added, "demonstrate just how little we know about this unique island and the urgent need to protect the landscape that serves as home for these truly amazing animals."

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