Rare Animals Make Africa Island Park True Hot Spot

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 6, 2004
Thousands of plants and animals on the African island nation of
Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world. Within this treasure
trove of biodiversity, the crown jewel is a seven-year-old national park
on a peninsula in the northeast corner.

"Certainly, it is a hot spot within a hot spot," said James MacKinnon, a conservation biologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society who serves as the technical advisor for Masoala National Park.

On average, about 20 research teams from all over the world trek to Masoala each year to study the lemurs, chameleons, frogs, butterflies, palms, fish, octopuses, and hundreds of other furry, scaly, and slimy creatures that choke its rain forests and ply its coastal waters.

Created in 1997, Masoala covers 840 square miles (2,175 square kilometers) including intact rain forest from sea level to 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), including three marine reserves home to vibrant coral reefs. The park is the largest such protected area on the island.

Conservationists and scientists laud the park as a last stronghold and refuge for many species facing increasing threats from logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and destructive fishing practices.

"In Madagascar virtually all the biodiversity is found in the forests, and once they go, everything goes," said Helen Crowley, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Madagascar program.

Masoala Research

Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at Princeton University in New Jersey who was instrumental in the establishment of Masoala, said the park's protection allows a constant stream of new species discoveries and new records of rare species.

"When we study any [plant or animal] group, we find new species, find new records of species found in only a few places, find species that are considered rare elsewhere. That's what makes Masoala so special," she said.

A key discovery came four years before the park was officially established. In November of 1993 Russell Thorstrom of the Boise, Idaho-based Peregrine Fund rediscovered the serpent eagle while walking through the dense forests on the Masoala Peninsula.

The eagle, one of the rarest birds in the world, had not been seen in over 60 years and was thought to be extinct.

According to MacKinnon, the park is particularly rich in plant discoveries and well known for its concentration of palms (accounting for about 15 percent of the world's known palm species).

Today researchers come to Masoala to study flagship species like the serpent eagle and the red-ruffed lemur, which is found only in the park and is one of Madagascar's famed endemic primates.

Others study phenomena like the impact of cyclones, the importance of forest corridors, and humpback whale behavior. "We encourage a range of research projects, some more applied than others," Crowley said.

In addition to the international research teams, the Wildlife Conservation Society—which oversees management of the park in collaboration with the Madagascan park service—promotes and finances studies by Madagascan students.

Currently students are studying the problems surrounding octopus fishing and how to make it less destructive to coral reefs. On land, a student is studying the impact of local use of the palm leaves to thatch roofs and make mats, hats, and baskets, MacKinnon said.

Park and People

Kremen, who worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the 1990s and led the team that designed Masoala, said the park was created within a framework called integrated conservation and development.

"What that means is we don't put fences around nature, but we think of how nature can benefit from people and people can coexist with nature. We're looking for win-win situations," she said.

As Kremen and her colleagues drew the park boundaries, they worked with local people who had lived on the Masoala Peninsula for generations. Kremen's team wanted to make sure that locals maintained control over their traditional lands, while at the same time protecting the region's unique biodiversity.

The team also worked with locals to establish sustainable forestry programs and ecotourism enterprises. While the forestry programs have met with limited success, Crowley said ecotourists are coming in increasing numbers, and plans call for more ecotourism promotion in the coming years.

"The park is doing well," Crowley said. "There is constant pressure, particularly from precious-wood extraction and lemur hunting and of course tavy [slash-and-burn agriculture for hill rice], but the limits of the park are sound."

MacKinnon said the major threat comes from illegal logging of precious woods such as ebony and rosewood, which is done to supply an international demand for these products.

"As long as that demand is there, some people—almost always foreigners or at least not local to the region—will always try to supply the wood needed," he said.

But with the park still intact and once deforested areas being restored, researchers will continue to descend on Masoala. "There are also frogs, snakes, and fish still waiting to be named," MacKinnon said.

For more Madagascar news, scroll down.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.