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Science community rallies support to save Madagascar’s natural riches

  • Madagascar is set to host the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s 56th annual meeting in July.
  • The organizers have launched a petition to garner support for urgent actions that must be taken to preserve the island nation’s unique biodiversity.
  • The petition will be presented to the country’s president, who has been invited to sign it and recognize it as the Declaration of Ivato, after the site where the meeting will take place.
  • The document, available in four languages, can be accessed online until Aug. 2.

As Madagascar prepares to host a major conservation summit next month, the organizer has launched a petition to call attention to the threats faced by the island nation’s unique biodiversity and its people.

Delegates from more than 50 countries are expected to attend the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s (ATBC) 56th annual meeting that runs from July 31 to Aug. 3 at the Ivato International Convention Centre in the capital, Antananarivo. Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina has been invited to sign the petition at the closing of the conference so that it can be instituted as the Declaration of Ivato.

The petition is an attempt by the scientific community to shine a light on concerns that were laid out in a commentary published in Nature Sustainability in May and recommend actions for the government and key stakeholders. It highlights the unique place that Madagascar occupies as the oldest island in the world and home to unique species that are weird and wonderful — but also severely threatened.

A Madagascar kingfisher (Alcedo vintsioides). Credit: Rhett A. Butler

Madagascar’s astonishing variety of plant and animal species, an estimated 90 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth, is a result of its isolation for tens of millions of years. This allowed evolutionary forces to shape the biota unfettered. The country hosts more than a hundred species of enigmatic lemurs and lesser-known but equally remarkable reptile and amphibian species.

Most of these species are endangered by unbridled forest loss, habitat degradation, fragmentation, and wildlife trafficking. In 2018, Madagascar lost 2 percent of its primary rainforests, the largest proportion of any country in the world. The remaining forests are severely fragmented, about half of them now located less than 100 meters (330 feet) from a forest boundary.

The installation of a new government under Rajoelina this year raised hopes that a degree of political stability could help stem the environmental destruction. During Rajoelina’s previous stint as president, from 2009 to 2014, when he came to power on the back of a coup d’état, the country experienced a period of unchecked natural resource exploitation.

The ATBC, in its petition, acknowledges the reality of conservation in a country that’s one of the poorest in Africa, with 75% people living below the poverty line in 2018, and suffers high rates of child malnutrition. “Conservation of biodiversity must therefore contribute to, not detract from, efforts of the country to develop economically,” it says.

It emphasizes the need to safeguard Madagascar’s natural heritage and make it the basis for its economic recovery, a key challenge for the current president. “This will be a crucial opportunity to underline to the nation’s political and economic leaders the views of the national and international scientific and conservation communities, specifically the importance of the island’s natural patrimony at a global level and the need for new decisive actions,” the petition says.

Kids from the Vezo community in Madagascar dancing atop a sand dune. Credit: Rhett A. Butler

It lists five urgent actions to save the forests and biodiversity and secure the people’s future: tackling environmental crime, investing in Madagascar’s protected areas, ensuring that major infrastructure developments limit impacts on biodiversity, strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources, and addressing Madagascar’s growing fuelwood crisis.

According to the World Bank, only about 20% of Malagasy households have access to electricity, and the percentage is even lower in rural areas forcing people to turn to forests for their energy needs. A majority of households rely on firewood or charcoal for cooking. As the population swells, between 2007 and 2017 the country’s population grew by over 6 million people, the pressure on forests will only intensify.

The ATBC targets 2500 signatures* for the petition; as of June 24 more than 800 people had already signed it. The hope is to garner even more signatures and support from across the world to lean on the Malagasy government to act. The petition is available in English, French, Spanish and Malagasy, and will be live until Aug. 2.

Banner Image: A female black lemur in Nosy Komba island in Madagascar, 2012. Credit: Rhett A. Butler

[*Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to reflect a change in the target number of signatures for the petition.]

Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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