Madagascar is one of the world’s most important hotspots for biodiversity, containing a huge number of species found nowhere else on earth. It is also the only place in the world where lemurs are found in the wild. Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, with 92% of people living below the poverty line. This means that local people are forced to resort to unsustainable livelihood practices, causing forest destruction, degradation and fragmentation. Consequently, Madagascar suffers from extraordinarily high rates of habitat loss, with 90% of its original natural vegetation estimated to have already been destroyed. We are working on a number of projects in northern Madagascar that are helping to safeguard the futures of wildlife on this unique island.
The most pressing threat to species in Madagascar is deforestation, either as a result of slash and burn agriculture to remove the forest for cattle grazing and traditional agriculture, or from illegal logging. Reduced habitat availability, and increased fragmentation, means that remaining populations of animals have become more and more isolated, and at greater risk of genetic deterioration and extinction. For lemurs, the additional threat of hunting adds further pressure to their already imperilled populations. Consequently, 94% of lemurs are now classified as threatened with Extinction, making them the most at-risk group of large vertebrates.
Our core project in Madagascar is based in the Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park on the Sahamalaza Peninsula in north-west Madagascar. Much of this work is run in partnership with AEECL - the Association Européenne pour l’Etude et la Conservation des Lémuriens – a consortium of 30 European zoos that aims to safeguard the future of Madagascar’s lemurs. We have a field station in the Ankarafa Forest, where we are investigating factors that affect populations of the Critically Endangered blue-eyed black and Sahamalaza sportive lemurs, and the Endangered Sambirano mouse lemur. We are also involved in reforestation work in Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park, in an effort to reverse the degradation and loss of forests in this area.
In addition to forest habitats, Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park also contains coral reefs and an extensive area of mangroves. We are working with local Malagasy NGO, Mikajy Natiora Association (MNA), to study the Madagascar sacred ibis and to understand the threats to this colonial waterbird. A population survey in 2017 suggested that this Endangered bird is in decline and the mangroves, on which it depends, highly degraded. We are working with MNA to create a long-term conservation plan for this species.
Finally, we have recently begun to investigate the impact on biodiversity of human-dominated environments (such as vanilla and cacao plantations) in northern Madagascar, and the use of these habitats by lemurs and other wildlife. Appropriate location and management of such plantations may have significant biodiversity benefits and create viable habitats for many species, including primates. Importantly, they also represent a more profitable and sustainable way for local people to use (and potentially expand) the remaining forests.
We use an evidence-based approach to conservation and work with local NGOs and the Malagasy government to create informed conservation management plans for these species and the region. For example, we conduct research on lemurs in Sahamalaza in an effort to better understand their behaviour and ecology, and are beginning an experimental approach to determine the most effective method(s) for reforestation. Our research scope has also included bats, birds, reptiles and amphibians of Sahamalaza, and we hope to extend this to invertebrates in the near future. In order to make a real difference, it is imperative to work with local people to help save their natural heritage. We have implemented development programmes and conservation education to include help with cultivation, reforestation, fire control and protection, schools and the provision of drinking water.
We are also involved in maintaining a population of blue-eyed black lemurs in human care. Bristol Zoological Society has undertaken research on the nutrient and energy requirements of captive blue-eyed black lemurs and other lemur species to optimise diets and learn more about their physiology and nutritional needs. This knowledge can in turn be used to inform conservation measures in the wild. We are involved in the captive breeding programme for the blue-eyed black lemur. This programme aims to establish a self-sustaining captive population of the species which can serve both as a model population to study the lemurs’ biology, as well as a source of animals for possible future reintroduction projects.
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