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Mamy Razafitsalama


Mamy Razafitsalama was born in a small village on the east coast of Madagascar, and developed his love of the wild from a young age. Now an award-winning conservationist, Mamy has become a guardian for the endangered species that populate his homeland. He has dedicated his career to protecting the wildlife of Madagascar and empowering the local communities who play a vital role in safeguarding the country's natural treasures. He has also worked as a consultant in a malaria program at Population Services International.

Mamy’s passion for the unique wildlife of Madagascar took him to university, where his research on the impact of habituation in breastfeeding Coquerel’s sifakas earned him a degree in Primatology. Lemurs have remained central to his career in conservation, and the primates also feature prominently in the programmes organised by Planet Madagascar, where Mamy serves as a valuable member of the team. This conservation, education and community-development organisation works closely with communities in order to improve the lives of Madagascar’s inhabitants, as well as conserve the island’s lemurs and their habitat. Mamy leads and oversees all of Planet Madagascar’s programmes in the country.

Despite its location a few hundred miles off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar's provenance actually lies further afield. The island separated from the Indian peninsula around 88 million years ago, allowing a remarkably diverse array of endemic flora and fauna to evolve in relative isolation. The country remains a haven for biodiversity, but climate change and deforestation – driven by illegal logging and unchecked slash-and-burn agriculture – threaten Madagascar’s wildlife and its people alike. Mamy knows that a holistic approach that factors in the welfare of both the human world and the natural world is the only way to secure Madagascar's future, and he and his team work tirelessly to provide sustainable solutions for the problems facing the country.

MAD Madagascar Andasibe Lemur Island Brown Lemur Arto Hakola

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Interview with Mamy Razafitsalama

How did you develop your passion for conservation and come to work for Planet Madagascar?

Since I was a child I have been fascinated by lemurs. I loved watching them jump from tree to tree. Even though my family thought I was crazy I knew I had to study lemurs. I studied at the University of Antananarivo, where I focused on Science and got a degree in primate behaviour and ecology. Madagascar is unique in the world with regard to the richness of its endemic (only found in Madagascar) plants and animals, including lemurs. However, much of the incredible diversity of Madagascar is also threatened with extinction. I decided to do something about it and partnered with Travis Steffens from Planet Madagascar to create a holistic community-driven conservation organisation.

Could you tell us more about the work done by Planet Madagascar, and what your role is in the organisation?

Planet Madagascar is a conservation, education and community development not-for-profit organisation that aims to create sustainable forest communities in Madagascar. We work to improve the lives of local residents within Ankarafantsika National Park by building capacity and working to alleviate poverty. We have completed household surveys to learn more about each community’s needs and interests with regards to conservation and community development. We have also helped create a woman’s cooperative focussed on sustainable agroforestry and forest restoration. We are now in the midst of a fire management and forest restoration initiative and are always working on conservation education in and around the communities we work with. As In-Country Director and Operations Manager, my role is to oversee the implementation of all on-the-ground projects in Madagascar.

Much of Planet Madagascar’s projects take place in and around Ankarafantsika National Park, in the country’s northwest. What is it about this park that makes it unique, and how is it well suited for your conservation initiatives?

Ankarafantsika is one of the few remaining intact tracts of deciduous dry forest in Madagascar. The park hosts over 800 species of plants and animals – including eight lemur species – plus more than 120 bird species and 44 reptile species. Many of these species are easily observable right from the parking lot! Dry forest is special and is decreasing worldwide due to its sensitivity to fire. Sadly we still see evidence of hunting, people illegally extracting wood, and large numbers of fires in and around the park. Also many people live with limited resources within the park. However, the park has inspired leadership and we have a great relationship with the park service, but more importantly the community members we work with. This makes running conservation and development projects much more successful.

In 2015, you were the recipient of a Conservation Award from the American Society of Primatologists. Could you tell us about your work that led to this award?

I was very honoured to receive this award and I believe that I got it because of my work developing Planet Madagascar from the ground up. We were able to take an idea and turn it into an organisation that was making real progress in improving the situation of members of the communities we work with, as well as protecting habitat for lemurs. It wasn’t easy and meant a lot of sleepless nights and busy weekends and there is still much to be done, but so far it has been an incredible journey.

Although over 90% of Madagascar’s wildlife is found nowhere else on the planet, lemurs are without a doubt the most iconic species here. How important are lemurs to the ecosystems of Madagascar?

Lemurs are very important to the ecosystems of Madagascar. Lemurs provide benefits to the forest by acting as one of the most important seed dispersers. Seed dispersal by primates is important for many fruiting trees in the tropics, including Madagascar. Some lemurs also consume flowers which allow them to act as pollinators. Although this isn’t as pleasant, they are also a prey species for many animals including raptors, snakes, and the fossa.

A study in 2014 found that 90% of lemur species are endangered, primarily due to habitat loss; however, the people of Madagascar are also in need of aid, with around 70% of the population living below the poverty line. What can be done to help both lemurs and humans flourish together in sustainable forest communities?

The situation is even worse now. 95% of lemurs are now threatened with extinction, and yes, many people live on less than $2 USD per day. For lemur conservation to work, communities must be consulted and be a part of short-, medium-, and long-term projects. Food, health, and economic security are major issues facing rural communities in Madagascar. For conservation work to be successful, projects must find ways to conserve and restore forest while improving people’s livelihoods. For example, we have helped create a sustainable agroforestry program that we hope will expand to create surplus food for the communities we work with while also providing habitat for lemurs.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is a danger to all flora and fauna in Madagascar, if not managed correctly. How does Planet Madagascar help to monitor fires across the country and prevent excessive damage?

Through our existing fire-management project, we try to prevent fire by building firebreaks around sensitive forest fragments. We have teams that patrol our fire-management zone six days a week, who monitor and fight fire directly. We also hold a ‘Responsible Fire Day’ event every year which is meant to teach the nearby communities how to burn safely and to protect forests from fire.

Educating local communities is a vital part of conservation, wherever you are in the world. If you could tell every Malagasy one thing that would help to preserve and protect Madagascar’s natural treasures, what would it be?

In the short-term I would say stop letting fires burn out of control and destroy forest – we have lost so much and we need to protect the precious little we have left. In the long-term I would suggest communities learn to live with fire in a more natural way.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

Gerald Durrell is my own personal Natural World Hero. I always found him to be very charismatic and his work saving critically endangered animals around the world is extremely inspiring.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

My best experience was living out in the grasslands when I was building firebreaks with people from the local community. It was hard work and very hot. The nearest water was a 1.5-hour walk away and we struggled to keep up our supply. It took a few weeks but we were able to cut nearly 12km of firebreaks which stopped numerous fires that year.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

We have one planet that desperately needs our help. However, solutions exist – we just need to work together to save it.