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Saving the tsingy forests in Madagascar

After the success of their Sahafina Forest project, Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar is now branching out to the tsingy forest of Beanka, a project set to launch in October this year.

Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar (BCM) has been granted a 25-year lease on a 14,000-hectare area of dry hardwood forest, the Beanka tsingy, situated 75 km east of Maintirano in western Madagascar.

‘Tsingy’ are spectacular razor-sharp limestone pinnacles found on the west and north of the island, formed by acidic rain erosion. The deciduous forests that inhabit them are characterized by high plant and animal endemism.

Bush fire near Beanka. The biggest threat in the windy region.

Illegal timber aside Sahafina before BCM entered the area. Photos courtesy of BCM.

The Beanka forest plays a crucial role in water regulation for the region but is under constant threat from fire and illegal hunting; a common story throughout western Madagascar.

The Malagasy organization plans to apply the same principles here – protection of the forest, socio-economic development and forest restoration – that brought them success with their last project, the 2,500-hectare forest block of Sahafina on Madagascar’s east coast.

BCM’s approach to conservation rests on one basic truth: as long as people have nothing to eat they will continue to exploit the forest, thereby causing its doom. The organization aims to help local people improve their standard of living through education; and believes the best way to achieve this is by recruiting them as partners.

Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar, an NGO set up and funded by Bioculture (Mauritius) Ltd, has been working with local communities to protect threatened areas of high conservation value in Madagascar since 2003.

Over the past six years, BCM’s basic principles have been put into action at Sahafina. Following a successful plea to the Malagasy government, the area now enjoys National Protected Area status. And the move came not a minute too soon; studies conducted by the Missouri Botanical Gardens show the forest to be of high biodiversity importance.

Plant nursery inside Sahafina under the supervision of external consultant technician.

Through managing the forest and employing local villagers as guards, illegal loggers have been evicted from Sahafina and threats of burning and hunting mitigated. Within this new safe haven, young Malagasy students carry out environmental studies, in collaboration with GERP (Groupe d’Etude et de Recherches sur les Primates de Madagascar). ‘The courses given by GERP are very fruitful as they give us a better knowledge of nature, our environment and the lemurs of Sahafina,’ commented Andonahary Jacquis, one of the students. ‘We feel very privileged to have been part of the program.’

Over the past 18 months, a BCM-sponsored Malagasy student has been compiling a comprehensive list of the most important plants within the Sahafina ecosystem as part of their DEA (Masters) thesis. The soon-to-be-published results will give BCM a better idea of which species should be grown in their two nurseries, which currently focus on producing seedlings of ten important lemur food plants. These are eventually planted in areas of forest decimated by loggers. With a 95% survival rate for forest-planted seedlings, the nurseries have so far been a great success. ‘I am even wondering if it’s time to have a third one.’ says Managing Director Aldus Andriamamonjy.

In an effort to raise the living standards of the local population, the project has been providing training and support for improved rice cultivation. Farmers have already benefited from a significant increase in yields. However the efforts have not come without challenges. There is reluctance to change traditional practices that have been used for generations, ‘But we keep on assisting and encouraging.’ says Andriamamonjy. A constant dialogue with the farmers is maintained; understanding their needs and showing them the benefits of the programs.

Local villagers using traditional harvesting in Sahafina.

Patrolling Sahafina forest guards. Photos courtesy of BCM.

Access to Sahafina, once extremely difficult, is now much easier due to a road recently laid down by a mining company in the region. The nickel mine, one of the largest in the world, was met with much controversy earlier this year as conservationists voiced concerns about potential environmental damage. The pipeline runs through areas of high conservation value, including the Torotorofotsy wetlands where a population of Greater Bamboo Lemurs — the world’s rarest lemur – was recently discovered. Thankfully, the Sahafina forest has not suffered major negative impacts from the mine so far.

Expat staff from the mine pay BCM forest guards to guide them on walks at weekends and the forest is open to locals, but Sahafina does not currently host any ecotourism. It is future possibility though. Andriamamonjy says that if a serious came about they would be keen to work with it.

BCM’s attention is currently focused on its next challenge however; the Beanka tsingy. ‘We hope to control the bush fires,’ says Andriamamonjy, ‘communicate our goals regularly with villagers, involve them in the team and give agricultural, educational and health support. For such a small NGO like ours working in this region, if we achieve these targets there is something to be proud of.’

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