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Deforestation in key Madagascar park accelerated after 2009 coup d’etat, finds satellite analysis

Deforestation and forest disturbance in Madagascar’s largest national park increased significantly less than a year after a coup displaced the country’s democratically-elected president in 2009, finds a new study that analyzed forest cover in Masoala National Park.

The study, published in’s open-access academic journal Tropical Conservation Science, is based on analysis of high resolution satellite data and ground surveys in the park, which is located in northeastern Madagascar. It found that annual deforestation and forest disturbance in the 15,280-hectare study area within the park was 0.75 percent and 0.52 percent respectively.

“We found the most recent annual (2010-2011) rate of forest change (1.27%) was higher than the most recent annual deforestation rate published for all of Madagascar, a disturbing result given that Masoala has the highest level of legal forest protection in Madagascar. This highlights an important and persistent problem within Madagascar’s largest national park,” write the authors, led by Thomas Allnutt of the University of California, Berkeley and the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Despite nominal protection, support and financing from national and international organizations for the last 15 years, the current deforestation rate in our national park study area is higher than in many forests that lack protection altogether.”

Rainforest on the Masoala Peninsula, Madagascar, in October 2012. Masoala suffered from widespread rosewood logging in 2009 and 2010.

Logging and deforestation was higher in areas close to human settlements and along rivers, which provide access into the rugged park, indicating forest cover change was driven by people rather than damage from cyclones that periodically hit the region.

The result is significant because it “corroborates recent ground-based accounts of increased illegal activities in national parks, including logging of precious hardwoods.”

In the aftermath of the March 2009 coup and subsequent collapse in governance, Masoala was heavily targeted for its rosewood and ebony trees, which are in high demand for making luxury products in China. Other research has shown that loggers and traders use periods of political turmoil to cut and export valuable timber.

Change in deforestation and disturbance. Change in total observed deforestation and disturbance over the study period showing an overall increase in total deforestation and a decrease in disturbance, and an overall increase in forest change (disturbance plus deforestation).

Study area in Madagascar’s Northern Masoala National Park, shown in red outline in the inset map. Blue dots represent infractions reported during Madagascar National Park patrols, 2008-2010. The apparent concentration of infractions on the upper Onive river influenced our choice of study area

Beyond the findings, the authors say the study provides a test case for a new approach to distinguish natural from anthropogenic disturbance using CLASlite — a desktop-based land-use change detection system developed by co-author Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science — and ground observations.

“We present a new approach for separating natural and anthropogenic disturbance, and this method has broad utility beyond this one study,” they write. “For example, monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) within most REDD+ programs requires routine, repeat measurements of forest cover and importantly, forest disturbance and degradation over time. Our approach can help ensure that change statistics accurately reflect anthropogenic disturbances and are not inflated by forest loss that occurs as a result of senescence, disease, cyclones and other natural processes.”

“We demonstrate [CLASlite’s] potential use as a tool for rapid and timely monitoring on an issue of immediate policy concern and relevance – illegal logging and forest clearing in remote national parks.”

The study comes shortly after new reports of rosewood smuggling in northeastern Madagascar. According to local sources, small boats carry illicit logs to a “mother ship” offshore, avoiding ports or customs officials. Madagascar’s rosewood trade is dominated by a small group of wealthy and politically-savvy traders.

CITATION: Allnutt, T. F., Asner, G. P., Golden, C. D. and Powell, G. V. N. 2013. Mapping recent deforestation and forest disturbance in northeastern Madagascar. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 6(1):1-15. Available online:

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