Saving Madagascar’s biodiversity

From ToxicLeaks

Madagascar, a global hotspot of biodiversity[edit | edit source]

The island nation of Madagascar has been an independent country since June 1960, after a centuries-long and often difficult historical journey under France, Portugal and other European nations. The population of Madagascar, estimated at 27 million people, is genetically linked to sub-Saharan Africans and Southeast Asians, with some Arab-Middle Eastern influence; the Malagasy language is most closely related to that found in a specific part of Borneo in Indonesia, with other tribal languages thought to be more akin to Bantu. The people living on the 587,000-square-kilometer island in the Indian Ocean, some 420 kilometers across the Mozambique Channel from the African mainland at its narrowest point, show a remarkable breadth in their own diversity – and it’s that diversity of Madagascar that sets it apart.

In part because of its physical isolation, the island developed its own unique ecosystem and it is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Approximately 95 percent of Madagascar’s reptiles, 89 percent of its plant life, and 92 percent of its mammals exist nowhere else on Earth. Despite its relatively small size, Madagascar and its dozens of smaller islands boast 3,000 miles of coastline critical to marine life and birds, with some of the world’s largest coral reefs. Its mangroves, critical to carbon sequestration and protection from rising seas, are the most extensive in the western Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, so much of Madagascar is threatened – or lost – in the face of unsustainable development and climate change.

Threats to the island nation’s biodiversity[edit | edit source]

Almost 20 years ago, Madagascar was identified as one of eight of the planet’s “hottest” biodiversity hotspots, defined by the breadth of species and their high endemic, or native, rate. That’s coupled with a loss of 70 percent or more of a region’s primary native vegetation and habitats, indicating that the ecosystem is stressed and fragile. Scientists regard Madagascar as among the world’s most vulnerable.

In April 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species listed 863 species of Madagascar’s plants, reptiles, birds, insects, marine life and mammals. Of these, 102 were critically endangered and 242 were endangered. Another 113 were considered vulnerable. Six, including the Madagascan Dwarf Hippopotamus, live on in recent oral tradition but are now extinct.

Not far behind them are the critically endangered lemur, found only in Madagascar and so critically endangered that 95 percent of the 111 species were identified as on the brink of extinction in 2018.

“From the tiny mouse lemur to the iconic ring-tailed lemurs, these animals represent about 20 percent of all primate species in the world,” said Global Wildlife Conservation. “This assessment not only highlights the very high extinction risk Madagascar’s unique lemurs face, but it is indicative of the grave threats to Madagascar biodiversity as a whole.” They face a rise in hunting and many other issues.

Some of the damage is linked to economic and residential development, or to slash-and-burn farming practices and the use of woods fuels. Madagascar’s biodiversity also is threatened by illegal mining operations, including sapphire mines that destroy lemur habitats and gold mines that damage wetlands. A January 2019 paper found that illegal artisanal mines operated even in Ranomafana National Park.

Deforestation continues at an alarming pace, particularly with increased demand in China for preferred woods including the endangered Dalbergia xerophila and Dalbergia abrahamii of Madagascar. Between 1999 and 2015, the annual deforestation rate was 0.4 percent, much of it attributed to illegal logging. The illegal wildlife trade threatens lemur and other species, but also the island’s endangered tortoises.  

Ploughshare tortoises can be sold illegally for up to $200,000 on exotic pet markets and fewer than 1,000 are now believed to survive in the far northwest part of Madagascar, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Madagascar. An IUCN report says 43 percent of freshwater marine species face extinction.

Biodiversity protection: An appeal from global scientists[edit | edit source]

In April 2019, a group of 16 researchers from five countries published a paper in Nature Sustainability that warned of dire consequences to Madagascar’s biodiversity if its government failed to act now.

“Last chance for Madagascar's biodiversity,” written by scientists from IUCN, the University of Antananarivo, WWF Madagascar and other international conservation organizations, was published as the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) meeting in Paris began.

"The United States has the Statue of Liberty, France has the Eifel Tower,” said Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy of the University of Antananarivo. “For us in Madagascar it is our biodiversity (the product of millions of years of evolution), which is the unique heritage we are known for around the world. We cannot let these natural wonders, including 100 different types of lemur found nowhere else, disappear.”

Dr. Herizo Andrianandrasana, a leading Malagasy conservationist, stressed that only those who illegally traffic in rosewood or endangered wildlife or mineral mining benefit, while the people who live in Madagascar – many of them in chronic and extreme poverty – bear the climate and environment costs.

A path forward for President Rajoelina and Madagascar[edit | edit source]

The Nature Sustainability paper authors directed their work toward newly elected President Andry Rajoelina and urged him to take immediate action, making biodiversity conservation a priority of his five-year term. Yet Rajoelina himself has been linked to the illegal rosewood timber trade, and he has been accused of cozying up to business and industry while the national resources are plundered. That didn’t deter the scientists, led by Dr. Julia Jones of the University of Bangor in the UK. "Since his election President Rajoelina has given positive indications that he recognizes the importance of Madagascar's biodiversity,” Jones said, noting that the research group stands ready to assist him.

The authors laid out five policy proposals for Rajoelina, urging him to end corruption and environmental crime, and to ensure that all infrastructure development protects Madagascar’s biodiversity. They asked for investment in creating protected ecosystem and wildlife areas, and for the government to support the role of local communities in managing their own stake in Madagascar’s natural resources. They also appealed for forest restoration and remediation efforts to offset the impacts of harvesting fuel wood.

 “Our co-authors, and the many other active Malagasy and international scientists who care about Madagascar, are all ready to help the new president ensure that his term can deliver the turning point needed for Madagascar and its wildlife,” Jones said. But they made clear that Rajoelina needs to act before it’s too late for the flora and flauna, for the threatened lemur, and for the world beyond them.