In Focus, February 2004
Despite damaging encroachment on its fish diet and forest habitat, the Madagascar fish eagle, one of the rarest birds of prey, is making a tentative comeback thanks to the guardianship of local fishing communities as part of a project by The Peregrine Fund in Madagascar.
The Peregrine Fund is assisting with the legal transfer of control and management of natural resources from the Malagasy government to indigenous communities and the associations created to represent their interests.
The project, focused on the Madagascar fish eagle and the wetland habitat it shares with indigenous people, is one of nine supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in Madagascar as part of its strategic approach to integrate local groups and individuals in the management of protected areas in the biodiversity hotspot.
Following the start of work by the community associations to more closely monitor and conserve fish populations and protect wetlands and forest habitat, the Madagascar fish eagle is enjoying a new period of stability. Recent surveys in the three adjoining freshwater lakes of Ankerika, Befotaka and Soamalipo have identified 18 male and nine female Madagascar fish eagle and now also seven fledglings.
"Our work in the three lakes complex and the creation of the community charter associations has helped protect the breeding fish eagles to a stabilized group," says Russell Thorstrom of the Peregrine Fund Madagascar Project. "If neither of these two activities had been occurring the fish eagle population on the three lakes would be steadily declining due to human pressure and persecution."
The Madagascar fish eagle is one of eight sea eagle species worldwide. Unlike related eagle species that have black feathers, the Madagascar fish eagle is a rich chocolate brown with a white head. A wingspan of 2 meters allows it to hunt with seemingly effortless grace for its diet of fish. It typically nests in the tallest trees in the dry deciduous forest by the lakes and may perch on lakeside trees for hours waiting to spot prey.
Reported as a common species along the coast of western Madagascar as recently as the 1920s, the Madagascar fish eagle is now classified as Critically Endangered. Habitat degradation is the major reason but other threats that the Peregrine Fund has identified include persecution for food and sorcery practice. There are two recorded incidents of people chopping trees down to capture and eat the nestlings, and the feet and talons of fish eagle are considered a powerful talisman for black magic.
Deforestation has reduced the availability of trees for nesting and perching, and conversion of wetlands to rice fields has reduced the availability of the eagle’s staple fish diet. The trees surrounding the lakes are cut down for canoes and for fires for drying the fish catch. In recent years, the lakes have become overrun with migrant fishermen, who directly compete with the eagles for fish.
The project builds on an ongoing Peregrine Fund program that grew out of concern in the local Sakalava community about over-fishing by migrant fishermen from other parts of Madagascar. CEPF support is helping to build the capacity of the new associations to develop their own community-based wetland management strategy.
The project is pioneering the use of a 1996 law that empowers local communities to create resource management associations that are allowed to control and conserve wetland biodiversity at the same time as meeting sustenance needs of local people on a sustainable basis.
"We have helped develop two community associations that were given probationary status to manage their nature resources in 2001 by the Malagasy government," Thorstrom says. "We provide logistical and material support, technical expertise and education to the local associations to help manage the natural resources that they share with the fish eagles."
The two natural resource management associations, FIZAMI and FIFAMA, are made up of village elders and mayors who are traditionally respected individuals and the local tompondrano - the "keeper of the lake."
Results to date include a widely established awareness in the local fishing communities of conservation and sustainability methods and increasing independence of the elected associations. Progress is evident in enforcing policies on fishing seasons, catch limits and tree cutting through newly hired security personnel.
Inhabitants of the villages on the lakes follow traditional fish harvesting limits that are enforced by the local tompondrano. They also coexist with 10 percent of the entire population of Madagascar fish eagles and other endangered species such as Madagascar teal. As the primary users of the wetland's resources, these villagers have the desire and, with help, the capacity to be the guardians of the wetlands.
"One of the most positive aspects of the work between the Peregrine Fund and tompondrano has been the continuation of the local communities to follow their traditional practices which was and has been very good for conservation," says Peregrine Fund Research Coordinator Lily-Arison Rene de Roland who meets regularly with the associations to support them.
She mentioned how fishermen have agreed to stay in designated camps, which helps in collecting data on their impacts and facilitates monitoring of an area set aside for wood collecting and cutting. Members of the two associations and communities have received training in tree nursery cultivation following their interest in replacing trees in degraded areas.
In addition, the associations have established a bank account with funds collected from fishing permits. The associations plan to use the funds to build health and education facilities as part of a process that has enabled them to develop ideas and plan for the future development of their communities.
Coupled with the modest but promising growth in fish eagle population, the project is proving to be an example of how human interests and conservation can work together for mutual benefit.