Deadly cyclones set back conservation efforts in Madagascar
Rhett A. Butler,
April 2, 2007

As Madagascar braces for the arrival of the sixth major cyclone (Gaya) to hit the Indian Ocean island this season, researchers from a prominent conservation have asked for help in the relief and recovery effort.

Local officials with the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society say that the series of storms have left tens of thousands of people homeless, devastated croplands, and diverted already short funds from conservation activities.

"We have a major immediate crises (getting food and shelter to people and dealing with water-borne diseases) but also some very significant longer term issues of re-placing lost crops, repairing infrastructure (including schools and clinics as well as roads and bridges)," said Helen Crowley, WCS-Madagascar Program Director. "There is urgent need to help here. WCS is be working with MedAir and CARE to get the emergency effort out to the remote villages with whom we work and begin preparing to rebuild income opportunities."

Besides having nice beaches and coral reefs, Masoala National Park holds one of the most biodiverse forests on Earth--about 50% of Madagascar's species are found on 2 percent of the island's landmass. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Cyclone Indlala was the fifth cyclone to hit Madagascar in the past three months, following Anita, Bondo, Clovis, and Favio. The Malagasy Government estimates that 100,000 people have been affected by flooding and more than 150,000 farming families have lost an estimated 90,000 hectares of crops from the five storms. The government reports that 80 percent of the country's vanilla crop has been lost -- Madagascar is the world's largest producer of vanilla.

Prior to Cyclone Indlala, the most destructive of the five storms, Madagascar requested more than $242 million in aid for relief efforts, both for flood damage and a worsening drought in the far south of the island, but as of last week, the U.S. had committed $100,000.

Nicolas Blondel, project manager of the Masoala and Nosy Mangabe site in Madagascar, says that it unclear whether "humanitarian help will reach the bush areas near the park."

Conservation impact

Nicolas adds that WCS is also assessing the conservation impact of the storms.

"Indlala is not the strongest cyclone that has hit the region, but it comes at a rather difficult time, when different threats against the park have intensified," he said. "Now that there has been a cyclone, we cannot escape the fact that these unplanned expenses will leave a gap in finances."

Rice fields in Maroantsetra just prior to Cyclone Indlala.
Photo by Julie Larsen Maher / WCS

Blondel says the storms caused light to moderate damage over a widespread area in the park, making repairs difficult. Cyclone Indlala also damaged the radio network used to communicate conservation messages and weather warnings to remote villages.

Bigger problems, he says, may come from storm damage outside the park. Crop losses and destruction of buildings could put pressure on protected areas from villagers seeking timber for reconstruction and wildlife meat for food.

Increased fire risk

Blondel notes that the increased amount of debris from the storm could increase the risk of forest fires from slash-and-burn agriculture in the coming dry season, but says that proper preparation could reduce this vulnerability while simultaneously helping the recovery effort.

"The risk of wildfires in the coming months has increased many fold due to the amount of dead trunks and downed vegetation," he said. "As this area is still recovering from the past cyclones, a fire would be fatal to the regeneration of that coastal forest (one of the conservation targets of Masoala National Park). We would need to open firebreaks in the coming weeks, which requires a significant amount of labor. This could, at the same time, reduce the severe threats to that part of the park and provide food or cash income to the population in that sector severely affected by the storms."

Blondel says that Masoala and Nosy Mangabe will need $10,000-$30,000 in immediate assistance over to address the most pressing concerns.

"We definitely could make good use of anything between $10,000 and $30,000 in the coming 4 months (roughly $10,000 or more for special agriculture support, $10,000 for park infrastructure rehabilitation and $10,000 for replacement and repairs of park equipment (boat and radios))."

"The park in the past years has worked in rural development, especially on effective microprojects directly related to the alleviation of the threats against the forest. Compared to the time of the previous cyclone in 2004, the resources for that program have shrunk. It is therefore all the more important that the park be present and active for the adjacent population when there is such a blow."

Madagascar needs relief help after deadly cyclones

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