- The unique biodiversity of the world’s oldest island, including its 110 lemur species, remains as imperiled as ever.
- Though the country has tripled the terrestrial area under protection since 2003, the quality of the protection is inadequate.
- Madagascar is lagging in the creation of marine protected areas with less than 1% of its total marine area of 1.2 million km2 (433,000 mi2) currently safeguarded under national law.
- Tourism could boost conservation efforts in important biodiversity areas, but it calls for greater investment from the government and private players.
The megadiverse island nation of Madagascar isn’t doing enough to meet the Aichi targets, which means the unique biodiversity of the world’s oldest island remains as imperiled as ever.
The Aichi targets are a set of 20 goals to be achieved between 2011 and 2020 under the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The global treaty ratified by 196 parties attempts to regulate human impact on the natural world and its more than 8.5 million species. Nations are required to develop their own sets of targets in line with the Aichi objectives.
Progress in countries like Madagascar is crucial because they are biodiversity hotspots. The African nation is home to over 110 species of lemurs, primates endemic to the island who shot to international fame thanks to the DreamWorks movies named for the island. Its inability to meet its targets is bad news for the real King Julien and his friends: more than 75% of lemur species are only one step away from extinction.
It is also sobering news for the world. Of the plants and animals found in Madagascar, 80% are found nowhere else on Earth. Lemurs, a flagship species, receive outsize attention, and yet they are faring poorly. What has particularly piqued scientists is that there are still species in Madagascar’s forests that could be lost even before they are known to science.
Making progress ‘like a chameleon’
Madagascar struggles to preserve its natural bounty because of its high rate of poverty. Three-quarters of Malagasy people live below the poverty line, and less than a fifth of the population has access to grid electricity. The country’s per capita GDP was $528 in 2018 — 118 times less than the U.S. at $62,800.
The country, which signed on to the CBD in 1996, said in its final report on the Aichi targets published in 2019 that it was behind on all goals except one: the formulation of a national plan to conserve biodiversity. But Madagascar’s strategic plan, which includes targets that align with the Aichi targets, comes with its own timeline: 2015 to 2025.
“I think that during the period of the Aichi targets, little progress has been made, and we have even gone backward on many things,” said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, country director of WWF Madagascar. She cited the example of deforestation rates that have increased since 2010. Madagascar lost the largest proportion of tropical rainforest in 2018, according to Global Forest Watch. Trafficking and illegal hunting continue to decimate wild populations of many species.
Other experts were marginally more optimistic but noted the inconsistency in Madagascar’s efforts, with no clear progress toward securing its biodiversity. “They are making progress like a chameleon,” said conservationist Patricia Wright, a world-renowned authority on lemurs at Stony Brook University in the U.S. About half of the world’s chameleon species are found in Madagascar, and their signature move is a back-and-forth swaying that they do to avoid detection by mimicking branches in the wind.
Conservation efforts in the country were dealt a blow by a coup in 2009 that brought Andry Rajoelina to power the first time. He is currently serving his second term, this time as the democratically elected president. In the political crisis precipitated by the coup, the law-and-order situation worsened, opening natural resources to unprecedented plunder and leading to a flight of the aid money on which many conservation programs in the country rely. “The 2008 government problems set the country way back, and only now they are moving forward,” Wright said. The political crisis that culminated in the January 2009 coup came on the back of months of political upheaval.
A growing but thin safety net
One of the few bright spots in the otherwise grim evaluation was the expansion of terrestrial protected areas. In 2003, then-president Marc Ravalomanana announced that his government would extend protection to 10% of the country, which meant more than tripling the protected area network from 1.7 million to 6 million hectares (4.2 million to 14.8 million acres).
Today, 127 protected areas cover an expanse of more than 7 million ha (17.3 acres), according to the Malagasy government. This is well short of the Aichi target of 17% but in line with Madagascar’s own target of 10% by 2025.
However, the effectiveness of the protection offered is questionable. Forests continue to be cleared in a country that relies on wood for everything from construction to fuelwood, and a growing population encroaches onto forestland to grow crops. The traditional practice of slash-and-burn agriculture continues to endanger protected areas.
Madagascar has a convoluted system for protecting important biodiversity areas. The government does not directly ensure protection; instead, management is outsourced to local and international NGOs, a quasi-governmental agency that is also dependent on foreign funding, and even private parties.
“Protected areas are the last chance to save the unique endangered species of Madagascar,” said Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a Malagasy primatologist and president of the International Primatological Society. But he warned that ever-evolving government regulations have meant that many of the areas only enjoy ad-hoc temporary protection, not permanent sustained protection that could stem biodiversity loss.
“Lemurs are still hunted today. Their habitats continue to vanish drastically, and there continues to be deforestation and mining in protected areas,” Ratsimbazafy said.
Small-scale mining by locals is a growing concern, but so is systematic destruction from large-scale mining operations. More than a third of the environmental permits granted by the environment ministry since 2000 were given to mining projects.
Despite the challenges, the data suggest that protected areas have curbed deforestation rates compared to other areas and remain islands of protection for species that are not just endemic to Madagascar but to particular forest types.
Slipping on marine areas
Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world by area and has a coastline of 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles). The Aichi targets call for extending protected area status to 10% of marine and coastal tracts. Madagascar is lagging on this front with less than 1% of the total marine area of 1.2 million square kilometers (463,000 square miles) under its jurisdiction currently safeguarded under Malagasy law.
Research and assessment data on marine species are extremely scarce, the 2019 government report said, adding that a national strategy and action plans for the conservation of these species haven’t been developed.
“The government of Madagascar lacks the resources and capacity to help grow the scale of the area of ocean managed under MPAs,” or marine protected areas, said Alasdair Harris, founder of Blue Ventures, a British charity that works extensively in Madagascar. It links the conservation of marine areas with poverty alleviation.
Madagascar National Parks (MNP), the quasi-governmental agency that oversees protected areas, manages an estimated 2,000 km2 (772 mi2) of marine areas, most of which are extensions of terrestrial protected areas. Despite not having large swathes of designated MPAs, Madagascar is seeing a surge in locally managed marine areas (LMMAs). These help to manage the marine resources sustainably for the benefit of communities and create conditions for threatened species to bounce back.
The Velondriake marine area on Madagascar’s southwest coast was created in 2006 with the help of Blue Ventures. It is Madagascar’s first locally managed marine area (LMMA) where consultations with the local communities and awareness-generating activities played a significant role.
“Reported progress against the Aichi target as percentage coverage of MPAs does not tell the whole story of marine management in Madagascar over this timeframe,” Harris said. “Community-led initiatives under the umbrella of ‘Locally Managed Marine Areas’ have spread around the coastline rapidly and now cover over 19% of the island’s seabed.” Many of these do not currently meet the IUCN criteria for protected areas, and they are not included in reporting against the Aichi targets by Madagascar.*
Despite this, Harris says he believes LMMAs hold promise for achieving conservation goals because they are low-cost and enjoy the backing of local communities. “Local people support them and are much more likely to comply with the rules, given their design and management strategies put local interests first,” he said.
However, community-led initiatives can only go so far if the broader protection regime is weak. They do not have access to enough resources and are not able to always enforce the traditional bylaws that govern use. Unsustainable exploitation and degradation that result from large-scale industrial operations also require a strong state, which currently does not exist in Madagascar.
Tourism: An uncertain path to conservation
With the country enjoying a stint of political stability, the Malagasy government has decided to tap into tourism to finance and promote conservation. The plan was to boost the number of annual visitors from about 200,00 in 2015 to 500,000 by 2019 and generate $1.4 billion in revenue from the sector. It was hoped that 190,000 foreign tourists would visit national parks and protected areas. In reality, there were an estimated 375,710 tourist arrivals to the country in 2019.
Biodiversity-driven tourism appears to be working only in some places. Ranomafana National Park in southeastern Madagascar, which is managed by MNP with help from Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio (CVB) research center, is one such place. “Ranomafana National Park inspires 2-3 million dollars a year into the region with tourist guides, hotels, restaurants, handicrafts, research salaries, research projects, PIVOT health care,” said Wright, who runs CVB. The park boasts of 12 lemur species and is easily accessible by road from the capital Antananarivo and benefits from the steady flow of researchers to the CVB.
“When you talk about developing tourism, that also means ensuring security, better transportation,” Ratsimbazafy said. “I believe that Madagascar can improve its economy very fast by developing good infrastructure and investing in tourism and promoting its unique biodiversity.”
Whether this push for tourism actually feeds into conservation efforts remains to be seen. “While the promise of tourism is huge, it offers limited potential to address the drivers of biodiversity loss in remote protected areas far from the tourist trail,” Harris said.
(Banner Image: A Verreaux’s Sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi). Image by Rhett A. Butler)
Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.
(*Editor’s note: The article has been updated to clarify comments on the contribution of locally managed marine area towards the Aichi targets. )