Press Release: The last chance—but a fighting one—for Madagascar’s biodiversity

April 29, 2019 Science

Scientists’ letter to Malagasy government emphasizes urgency, locally driven solutions.

A lemur perched on a rock, seemingly staring right at the camera with golden-brown eyes. Its fur is mostly gray with some black details and white stomach and facial markings. There are branches with small green leaves behind the lemur.

Watch an ad from Madagascar’s tourism board, and you’ll find a montage of lush landscapes: clear ocean waters teeming with fish and sea turtles, frogs and chameleons in the thick of the rainforest. President Andry Rajoelina’s election manifesto even features images of baobab trees and ring-tailed lemurs, reinforcing how central biodiversity is to the island nation’s identity.

Madagascar, while roughly the size of Texas, is a hotbed for endemic species, with roughly 90 percent of its reptile, plant, and mammal life existing nowhere else on Earth. Unfortunately, due to deforestation, poaching, and illegal animal collection for the pet trade, Madagascar’s unique habitats and species are under serious threat—nearly half of the country’s remaining rainforest is found in small patches across the island nation rather than in healthy, uninterrupted blocks.

A group of concerned scientists—including Field Museum field researcher Steven Goodman—found the situation so dire that they wrote a letter to the Malagasy government, to be published in Nature Sustainability. Part of the letter reads: “President Andry Rajoelina’s five-year term may represent the last chance to avoid habitats and species being committed to extinction.”

Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a professor at the University of Antananarivo and one of the letter’s co-authors, put it more simply: “The time has come for action—it’s not too late to turn things around in Madagascar, but it soon will be.”

The letter, titled “The last chance for Madagascar’s biodiversity,” isn’t quite as doom-and-gloom as one might think. Instead, it presents the urgency of the nation’s environmental crisis alongside five proactive measures the Malagasy government can take to lay the groundwork for sustainable development and economic growth.

“We wanted to write a letter in which no one was called into court,” Goodman says. “This is not something being imposed from the outside but instead in direct collaboration with Malagasy conservationists. We wanted this article to be a pivot point, with our five recommendations serving as a jumping board to go in all different kinds of directions.”

From land tenure reform to law enforcement to local economies, the letter’s five recommendations demonstrate how biodiversity can help inform decisions across several areas of policy.

Recommendations include addressing the corruption that drives much illegal resource extraction in Madagascar, investing in Madagascar’s protected areas, ensuring major infrastructure developments limit impacts on biodiversity, strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources, and addressing Madagascar’s growing fuelwood crisis. In broad strokes, these solutions put local Malagasy communities at the forefront of the nation’s conservation and economic development efforts.

“Madagascar’s environmental crisis is urgent—it requires a complete retooling of how people view the natural world around them, how they use natural resources,” Goodman stresses. “But if we take action now, it will lead to important socioeconomic advancement for the country. That’s the central message of this article.”

Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, co-author and an expert in conservation and social justice at the University of Stirling, reiterates that conservation must contribute to, not detract from, economic development. “Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world with more than 75 percent of people living in extreme poverty. Malnutrition is a serious problem and access to education and sanitation is limited,” she says. “Conservation must contribute to making things better and not get in the way of development. Including the voices of the rural poor in conservation decision making will be vital."

Ultimately, the letter is part of a larger effort for Malagasy officials and the local and global conservation communities to enact much-needed policy change. Goodman and colleagues have also recently published a book about Madagascar’s protected areas, which is a large-scale review of the current state of health of the system. “It’s the first step in several different directions,” Goodman says. “We’re hoping this letter will garner buzz and build momentum.”

Julia Jones, the letter’s lead author and professor at Bangor University, adds, “Our co-authors, and the many other active Malagasy and international scientists who care about Madagascar, are all ready to help the new president ensure that his term can deliver the turning point needed for Madagascar, and its wildlife.”

Goodman, who’s done conservation work in Madagascar for about 30 years, sees the threat to the island nation’s biodiversity as dire—but not hopeless.

“In the three decades I’ve lived and worked here, I’ve seen a rise in how Malagasy scientists and researchers use new tools, programs, and ideas to advance conservation,” Goodman emphasizes. “Everything is poised for advancement, and we need to work with the government so we can help this emergent community of scientists make the greatest positive ecological impact possible.”