- Madagascar witnessed a convergence of calamities this year, from the pandemic to surging forest fires to an unprecedented drought.
- Despite growing pressures on its forests, new species continue to be uncovered from the island, with the description of a mouse lemur, several chameleons, and even the world’s ugliest orchid.
- Protected Area management has emerged as a bone of contention between the government and NGOs that manage them, underscoring the challenges of doing conservation in a poor country.
- Here are ten key stories and trends from Madagascar in 2020.
There’s nowhere on Earth quite like Madagascar when it comes to the sheer wealth and wonder of biodiversity. But along with its natural richness, the island nation is beset by grinding poverty and increasingly erratic climate patterns, which threaten both people and wildlife. As in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic compounded many of these problems. But 2020 was not without its bright spots, not least the discovery of yet more species new to science — showing, yet again, just how much of a natural treasure trove Madagascar really is.
Mongabay has rounded up, in no particular order, the big environmental issues of the past year for Madagascar.
The coronavirus pandemic dominated news coverage much of this year, including in Madagascar, which reported its first cases in late March. The immediate effects of border closures, tourists’ disappearance, and difficulties in implementing conservation activities were visible early on in the year.
Over the months, the coronavirus crisis’s longer-term impacts have become clearer, with the country expected to plunge deeper into poverty, intensifying reliance on natural resources like forests that are already under immense stress.
Madagascar witnessed a convergence of calamities this year, from surging forest fires to an unprecedented drought.
Fires and drought
While fires in the Amazon grabbed eyeballs, in this corner of Africa, they raged unchecked for more than half the year; searing core protected areas. At the onset of the burning in May, the dry forests that line the island’s western coast, one of the world’s most threatened biomes, saw a wave of fires. In the last quarter of the year, the rainforests fringing the eastern coast were hit by an avalanche of fires.
In Madagascar’s deep south, 1.35 million people, including 100,000 children, could fall victim to malnutrition this year, as the worst drought in a decade grips the region. Crop failures, pandemic-related restrictions, and sharp increases in prices of essentials have all led to growing food insecurity. Droughts and the attendant famines are likely to become more frequent due to climate change, producing more hunger and distress in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Species: The good, the bad, and the ugly
When you have as much biodiversity as Madagascar does, every year is a year of discovery. 2020 was no different. One of the notable additions to Madagascar’s pantheon of endemic wildlife: Microcebus jonahi. The mouse lemur is one of the handful named for a Malagasy primatologist.
The utterly captivating Voeltzkow’s chameleon (Furcifer voeltzkowi) also made its debut on the global stage this year. There are more than 50 species of chameleons found all across Madagascar. This one featured in Global Wildlife Conservation’s “25 most wanted lost species” since it hadn’t been seen by scientists for more than a century. Scientists scouring the dense forests were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon it lounging in a hotel garden.
Even as new species continued to be unveiled from Madagascar, the IUCN issued a sobering warning about all that we stand to lose. Nearly all 115 lemur species are endangered, and a third are on the brink of extinction. Silent extinctions could already be underway in Madagascar: organisms wiped out from the face of the planet without registering their existence in the annals of modern science. There were some bright spots, like the Malagasy pochard being retrieved from the jaws of extinction by dedicated NGOs working with local communities.
Most people associate orchids with riotous colors and delicate beauty. Not Gastrodia agnicellus, uncovered from Madagascar by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the U.K., and its collaborators. Dubbed the “ugliest orchid in the world,” it has small fleshy brown flowers that resemble a hollowed-out screaming fish. Mercifully, unlike some plants that give off a rotting odor to attract flies that disperse their seeds, it has a musky rosy scent.
Protected areas: Embattled refuges or guardians of hope?
Madagascar’s bouquet of spectacular species is secured primarily through its network of protected areas (PAs). This year the friction between development and conservation played out in these embattled refuges. The environment minister called their management a failure because it did not focus on communities and their needs.
The use of slash-and-burn agriculture to clear land for growing food is one of the primary drivers of deforestation. With three out of four people living on less than $2 a day, the need to support communities in safeguarding forested areas is real and urgent. The NGOs tasked with managing most of the PAs defended their record, noting that forests would disappear even faster without the PAs.
However, not all deforestation is linked to subsistence agriculture. Woodland is also cleared to grow cash crops, as is happening in the Tsaratanana Reserve in the northwest, where marijuana cultivation is eating into the largest block of connected forest in Madagascar.
Marine riches and fishers in peril
The fourth-largest island in the world has great potential to harness its marine resources sustainably. But examples continue to surface of overexploitation because of poor governance, opaque decision-making, and widespread poverty.
In many parts of Madagascar, fisherfolk are dipping into accessible reserves to sustain themselves. However, they’re also feeding global demand, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. This story about sea cucumbers captures the risks they face, breaking laws and endangering their lives to squeeze out small profits in a poor country.
Efforts to sustainably manage commercially lucrative fisheries are fraught, as is the case in the mud crab sector, where the granting of export licenses to foreign companies became a flashpoint. While details about the deal remain murky, what is clear is that long-term efforts by communities to preserve habitats are undermined when people implementing them see the returns shipped away.
(Banner Image: A crested coua (Coua cristata). Image by Rhett A. Butler.)