The Biggest Threats to Wildlife Habitat in Madagascar

Florence Unwin

19 Jul 2017

The role of Ecotourism in lemur conservation  

Wildlife habitat in Madagascar is decreasing rapidly and alarmingly. 90% of native forest cover has now been lost, and lemurs – endemic to Madagascar – are now considered to be one of the most threatened mammal families on earth, with 17 of the 81 species critically endangered, 42 endangered, and 20 vulnerable. 

This decline is caused almost entirely by one invasive species – humans.

One of the major factors in the human destruction of Madagascar’s wildlife habitats is the high and unsustainable rate of deforestation. Local people use the method of slash and burn, or ‘tavy’, to clear forest for growing crops such as rice, coffee and vanilla. This consists of felling large areas of forest, and then setting it alight to clear the undergrowth and leave the area free for planting. Without the protection of the trees, the topsoil in this area will, after two to three years, erode or be washed away, so that it is no longer possible to grow anything there – trees or crops. The farmers will then move on to a new area and start the process again, continuing the destructive cycle. 

The slash and burn method not only destroys habitat when it is first used, but ensures that the habitat and that area’s wildlife will not be able to recover. When slash and burn was first being used, it was relatively sustainable. As cleared land took about twenty years to recover, farmers could move back to it and thereby not destroy an unnecessary amount of forest. However, due to the massive population growth in Madagascar, this twenty year wait is no longer possible, and farmers are moving back to vulnerable areas far too soon, destroying its chance of recovery and making slash and burn one of the most fatal threats to natural habitats in modern Madagascar. The growth of the population has also decreased the amount of forest in Madagascar because the sheer scale of crops – particularly rice – that need to be grown means that more and more of the forest is being replaced by paddy fields.

Another way humans have contributed to the decline of wildlife in Madagascar is through hunting. Local people will hunt the endemic and endangered animals for food, their skins, the animal trade, or out of superstition – for example, some tribes regard the aye-aye as an omen of death, and so will kill them wherever they come across them. Since humans colonised the island, at least 14 species of lemurs have become extinct, and many more are still being persistently hunted, despite their protection by law. The local pet trade is also a problem, with lemurs kept in cages in homes, or chained up on the coast for tourists.

So what can be done to combat this loss of animals and their habitats in Madagascar? The simple creation of national parks does not work here, with local people often being unaware of the boundaries, or simply continuing destructive practices illegally because they are their only means to survive. 

The answer lies in creating schemes that do not cut off local people from the land, but instead involve them in the projects and make them integral to the running of conservation efforts, linking conservation to incentives that would benefit local people.

Education and training are a vital part of this, educating local people in the minutia of conservation and boosting literacy levels, enabling them to work closely with both Malagasy and western scientists to gain a better understanding of the delicate habitats that they live and work in. For example, in the Saha Anjzorobe-Angove corridor project, local people are involved in helping plant a forest corridor that will link up patches of isolate rainforest, using local trees from nearby plant nurseries. This combats the problem of rainforest fragmentation and allows species within those environments to extend their habitats.

And this is where tourism comes in. Ecotourism creates more jobs for local people and revenue for the community - revenue that can then be put back into conservation efforts and increase ecotourism, which increases revenue and so on, in a positive and constructive cycle. It also creates a better knowledge and understanding in the international community of the environmental problems being faced by conservationists in Madagascar. This can spark increased aid and resources coming from overseas, and further growth in ecotourism. Successful conservation efforts (such as the Saha forest corridor) also tend to attract more tourists, helping the community reap even more of the benefits from ecotourism.

If managed well, ecotourism can become a vital part of saving Madagascar’s habitats.

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