In Focus, March 30, 2007
By Ben Jolliffe
Madagascar’s lemurs and chameleons tend to grab the conservation limelight, but the diversity of the island’s estimated 12,000 plant species is just as remarkable. Eighty percent of them are found nowhere else in the world, but they remain just as threatened as the fauna of the Madagascar and Indian Ocean Islands Hotspot.
Although the greatest threat is the range of unsustainable natural resource management practices prevalent on the island, the lack of botanical knowledge and the gaps in Madagascar’s protected area system are a further obstacle to conserving what remains.
Among the many efforts underway, the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) has been working with local people at the district, regional, and national levels since 2002 to help tackle this problem by assessing priority areas for plant conservation.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) supported MBG as part of its strategic direction to support biodiversity conservation and management training in the hotspot. Today, the project has some impressive in situ conservation results and continues to contribute toward raising the profile of plant conservation across Madagascar.
Research, Identify, Protect
The MBG team’s first step was to select endemic plant species with restricted distribution and use these as a basis for identifying priority areas for plant conservation. Working with experts in the island’s botany to research existing data, the team came up with a list of 1,200 species that could be adequately conserved by protecting 77 sites across the country.
“Some of the sites were botanically well-known,” said Jeannie Raharimampionona, MBG’s catalogue project leader in Madagascar. “But others were chosen because their combination of environmental characteristics suggested they might constitute habitat gaps in the existing protected areas network.”
Fortunately, as this work was ongoing in 2003, the president of Madagascar made a new commitment to triple the country’s protected area system to 6 million hectares – or 10 percent of the country – by 2008.
The System of Protected Areas of Madagascar, the country’s national park management system, adopted MBG’s assessment of priority areas for plant conservation, and through its work with Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Forests, identified 25 of the sites originally selected by the project, an area of more than 1.6 million hectares, for protected area creation.
Protection of Key Species
While the process of creating protected areas is a slow one, in the short term, the project was also designed to identify species for which coordinated in situ and ex situ conservation measures were most urgently required.
“Through plant inventories in some key sites, we developed a list of the 60 highest priority species,” Raharimampionona said. “Then, where possible, we started working to protect them with local communities and other partners such as the University of Antananarivo and the Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza.”
One of the priority species is the endemic tree Tinopsis tampoloensis. The only known mature individual in the field was discovered in 2005 in what is now the Tampolo Forest Station, a 690-hectare reserve that forms one of the last fragments of littoral forest on Madagascar’s east coast. Seedlings have now been established both locally and at another site some 100 kilometers away.
At the national level, MBG’s Conservation Science Unit is using data gathered during the project to help the Malagasy Plant Specialist Group (the IUCN representative body in Madagascar) update plant entries on the IUCN Red List. At the moment, only 4 percent of the country’s flora are listed, and since 2002 the group has only been able to update some 100 species per year.
“Data from [MBG’s] project is vital in building up the list and informing effective conservation planning for all the different bodies involved, now and in the future,” said Sylvie Andriambololonera, leader of a project funded by the Marisla Foundation at MBG that is helping to update the Red List.
MBG has involved local communities in implementation. At Ankazobe, 150 kilometers north of Madagascar’s capital, residents have worked with the Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Agronomiques at the University of Antananarivo to establish a nursery for the very rare Schizolaena tampoketsana tree and other endemic species in order to restore one of the few remaining fragments of humid forest found in the Central Highlands.
“Local people have established a community group and we have helped them to plant fast-growing species they can use for construction and charcoal,” said Mamisoa Andrianjafy, MBG’s local project leader. “They are also developing sustainable livelihoods for the future by planting coffee and establishing small-scale silk farming.”
MBG’s conservation experience at all levels – research, planning, capacity building, government, and community engagement – has enabled it not only to raise the profile of plant conservation, but also to train 15 Malagasy conservation professionals who help ensure that the country’s rapidly expanding protected area network is fully representative of the island’s unique botanical heritage.
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