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One-two punch of drought, pandemic hits Madagascar’s poor and its wildlife

  • Because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in years poverty is rising in Madagascar, already one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • Near Tsimanampesotse National Park in the southwest of the country, the loss of tourists has coincided with a disastrously dry rainy season, and restrictions associated with the pandemic are adding to rural distress; an estimated half a million people will need food aid in the coming months.
  • Erratic rainfall patterns and food scarcity don’t just affect humans but also the lemurs living in the park, according to Lemur Love, a nonprofit that works in Tsimanampesotse National Park.
  • The hunger crisis created by the drought and compounded by the pandemic could force people to lean even more heavily on nature; to impinge on forests and consume more wild meat to survive.

With just over 1,200 cases and ten deaths, it may appear that Madagascar has been spared the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the deep south of the country, the crisis is casting a shadow of despair over a drought-stricken land, pushing people deeper into destitution.

The island nation of 27 million people, off the coast of southern Africa, is one of the poorest in the world, where three out of four people live on less than $2 a day. Now, after several years of incremental decline, poverty will rise in Madagascar because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, according to World Bank estimates released earlier this month.

A view of Efoetsy village that abuts Tsimanampesotse National Park in southwestern Madagascar. Image courtesy of Marni Lafleur/ Lemur Love

Although the evidence remains inconclusive, the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in wildlife. Many experts say human incursions into the natural world are responsible for the increasing frequency with which zoonotic diseases are entering human populations. In parts of Madagascar, the disease and its disruptions may force people to lean even more heavily on nature; to chop down trees and consume more wild meat to survive.

The Malagasy economy was in bad shape after a political coup in 2009, which brought the current president to power for the first time. This year could be worse: World Bank data suggest the country may be plunging into recession.

Madagascar reported its first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in late March. The government stopped international flights on March 20, contributing to a collapse of foreign tourism. It began easing restrictions on April 20.  But a recent uptick in cases has led the government to reimpose curbs on travel, especially to and from cities where cases are clustered.

Even prior to the pandemic, tourism numbers were low in Madagascar compared to other African countries that promote ecotourism. But over the past five years, the sector has grown steadily. Tsimanampesotse National Park on the southwestern coast has been attracting around 2,000 tourists a year. These tourists hire local guides to visit the park and provide income to vendors of souvenirs and snacks.

The park, named for the salt lake it encompasses, is home to the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), a.k.a. King Julien from the DreamWorks Madagascar movie franchise. The region’s otherworldly spiny forests are adapted to the dry clime and boast one of the highest rates of plant endemism in the world.

A ring-tailed lemur. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

In Efoetsy commune, the gateway to Tsimanampesotse National Park, the loss of tourists has coincided with a disastrously dry rainy season. On average, the area around the park receives around 200 millimeters (7.9 inches) of rain during the rainy season, which runs from November to April. As of March this year, the region received less than 30 mm (0.1 in), according to data from the park.

Filoma Laha, the deputy mayor of Efoetsy, told Mongabay over the phone that there have been no rains since the start of the year. Crops and livestock have been destroyed, and the community is facing severe food insecurity, he said. “Coping with the climate-induced food shortage remains our biggest challenge,” Laha said.

The present drought is part of a larger trend: This May was the hottest on record for the planet, and the climate crisis is bearing down on communities like those in Efoetsy.

The commune is located in one of the driest regions of Madagascar. Rainfall is naturally scant and unevenly distributed throughout the year. Soils are dry and unsuitable for cultivation. The groundwater here is saline, and access to drinking water is poor, according to Paubert Tsimanaoraty Mahatante, a researcher at the University of Toliara who studies the impact of climate change in the region. As climate change progresses, the conditions are worsening, and changing rain patterns are intensifying distress.

A meeting in Efoetsy village in 2016. Image courtesy of Honore Reseva/Lemur Love.

“For the past four or five years, what has been very routine but insufficient rain has actually become erratic and very insufficient rain,” said Daniel Rooney at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which provides aid in the region. “The rainy season itself is no longer predictable.” Madagascar is among the top five countries most threatened by climate risks, including cyclones, flooding and drought.

The last major drought to strike southern Madagascar was in 2016. Communities at the edge of the park were reduced to feeding their children every other day, according to Kim Reuter, a conservationist who serves on the board of the NGO Lemur Love, which works in and around Tsimanampesotse National Park.

Coupled with the current drought, the effects of the pandemic will be punishing even if the disease does not come to Efoetsy.

“The lockdowns could expose Efoetse [Efoetsy] to two biggest risks: exacerbation of the local conditions and eventual contamination by the virus,” Mahatante said. “Food insecurity, water access issues badly impact children. I estimate no less than 40 percent of children less than 5-years-old are at high risk.”

There are around 1,800 children in the remote rural commune, and they suffer the most from the shortages, said Laha, the deputy mayor. In Ampanihy district, where Efoetsy is located, and five nearby districts, more than 100,000 children will suffer acute malnutrition in 2020, according to an estimate from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a global collaboration that tracks food security. Across the wider region, more than half a million people in nine districts are staring at food shortages in the coming months.

People carry goods to a market near Toliara in this file photo from 2005. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The nearest city, Toliara, is about 300 kilometers (187 miles) away from Efoetsy. Bad roads mean the journey could take hours, if not days. A much shorter route has become unusable because of a river crossing that has not worked for years.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have disrupted supply chains. Markets for essential goods like rice, sugar and oil in the city have grown further out of reach for residents of surrounding rural areas. Rising prices are putting food out of the grasp of the neediest. Even after some travel restrictions were eased, life did not become much easier. Taxi brousses, the minivans that are the only means of public transport to Toliara, have started charging more, Laha said.

In the past, many have migrated out of Madagascar’s stricken south to towns and cities. For the moment, that path is closed too. There is also a reluctance to go to cities because the disease lurks there. The U.N’s World Food Programme is currently providing food aid to tide over the dire times.

A baby ring-tailed lemur. Image courtesy of K. Sunderland.

It is not just people who are going hungry.

When the last major drought struck in 2016, Tsimanampesotse park received about 100 mm (4 in) of rain. In the two years following the drought, no ring-tailed lemur babies survived, according to Marni LaFleur, director of Lemur Love. Her observations were based on tracking three groups of ring-tailed lemurs in the park.

LaFleur said the park is at the edge of the ring-tailed lemurs’ habitats and the arid conditions are already hard to survive. Their situation becomes even more precarious during the late dry season when mothers are lactating and carrying their new babies. “It is likely the mom’s poor nutritional state and their own inability to get adequate nutrients leads to high mortality,” she said.

A burnt forest in western Madagascar. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The humid forests lining Madagascar’s east coast and the dry forests of the west are a treasure trove not just of lemurs, but all manner of bewitching birds, reptiles and amphibians found only on this island. The spiny forests of the southwest are considered a unique eco-region. Today, however, only about 10% of Madagascar’s primary forests remain.

Even before the novel coronavirus struck, the biodiversity hotspot was losing rich habitats at an unprecedented rate, with some estimates saying its forests could be gone in decades.

A Malagasy giant chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

With conservation efforts impaired because of logistics and funding difficulties, the threat to Madagascar’s natural wealth appears graver than ever. More than three-quarters of the Malagasy population, including its 16 million rural inhabitants, don’t have electricity. Charcoal made from wood is their primary source of energy, and forests are routinely cleared for subsistence farming. Experts fear that exploitative activities will rise in the face of economic hardship.

In times of scarcity, people in southern Madagascar fall back on wild cactus, tamarind and wild meat including birds, bats and lemurs. “The consumption of wild meat is an issue across the country and although norms vary I can’t think of a single area in Madagascar where wild animals are not consumed,” Reuter said.

In the wake of the pandemic, conservationists and animal rights activists have called for bans on the consumption of wild animals in various parts of the world to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases. The demand has come in many forms, with some groups arguing that communities that depend on bushmeat for sustenance should be exempt. Around Tsimanampesotse, as food supplies dwindle and despair grows, people may have no choice but to hunt and eat wildlife to survive.

(Reporting contributed by Rivonala Razafison from Antananarivo, Madagascar)

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

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