Madagascar is an island off the southeast coast of Africa, well-known for its spectacular biodiversity. Over half of all known chameleon species can be found here, as well as tenrecs, lemurs and baobabs.
Many of the species found in Madagascar are endemic, meaning that they are not found anywhere else in the world. This makes the region even more important, as medicines and other such uses may be sourced from plants here and nowhere else. The unique beauty of the area is important to conserve, as we will never have a replica.
Mahamavo is located in the Northwest of Madagascar, and consists of dry forests, wooded grassland-bush land mosaic and several large mangrove areas on the coast. It is located in the region of Mahajanga at an average elevation of 469 feet above sea level. Mahamavo is sparsely populated at 23 people per mile and the greatest natural threats to the area are droughts and cyclones. The warmest month is October, with an average temperature of 33.9˚C at midday and coolest is July with an average of 16.9˚C at night. The temperature is relatively constant all year round, though it does decrease significantly at night. August has on average the greatest amount of sunshine, peak rainfall occurs during the wet season in January and dry season occurs around June. The climate in Mahamavo is humid and classified as a tropical savanna with a tropical dry forest biozone.
These forests and wetlands hold incredible diversity, Diurnal lemurs such as Coquerel’s Sifaka and the Common Brown lemur are present in this area, as well as 5-6 nocturnal lemurs.
Two notable species found in the Mahamavo region are Oustalet’s and Angel’s chameleon.
The wetlands in the region are home to the critically endangered Madagascar fish eagle and the endangered Humbolt’s heron.
Fossa are carnivorous cat’s endemic to Madagascar, found in the Mahamavo region, as are Uroplatus geckos.
The Madagascar flying fox and the Nile crocodile are also found in the Mahamavo region.
Vegetation found in Mahamavo forests include Commiphora, Dalvergia, Hildegardia, Fernandoa madagascariensis, Croton elaeagni, Alchornea perrieri, Dalbergia spp., Euphorbia stenoclada and Delonix spp. Biogeographically the Mahamavo region is located between Northern and Western species pools, this results in a wealth of incredible species being present, but as always there is still so much more to be discovered.
Threats to Mahamavo
Threats to Mahamavo, including the Mariarano and Matsedroy forests, include fire, climate change, coal production and the expansion of agriculture.
Human activity is present in the Mahamavo region, particularly the Mariarano forest where communities rely on the forest for food, fuel, building materials and medicine. The wetlands are used for fishing, which is the main resource for the coastal communities present.
Human populations in the Mahamavo region are found in the Dry forests, such as Mariarano, where several thousand people reside. Subsistence farming is common here, where rice, maize and manioc is grown, and Zebu is kept. Sources of income include mat-weaving, raffia palm harvesting, charcoal production and forest resource extraction.
The most common fuel in Madagascar is wood and charcoal. This means that charcoal production is in high demand, which has caused large scale deforestation. Although forest fires are illegal, there is little official enforcement. Many local villagers may value the natural forest highly, but outsiders are known to come to the forests to produce charcoal. Local people have little power or incentive to prevent this, and a fear of conflict acts as a deterrent. In order to produce charcoal a license is required. However most people involved in charcoal production in these areas are unaware of the need for licensing, and as there is little official presence it is of no concern. There are no charcoal plantations in the Mahamavo region, meaning that it all comes from the burnt forest itself. The current production of charcoal is not sustainable in Mahamavo, particularly as dry forests regenerate very slowly.
Timber extraction also causes huge problems for the conservation of forests. The wood is sold as construction materials. Yam is often grown in burnt forest clearings, preventing forest regeneration. Slash-and-burn techniques are used to clear pastures for Zebu as well as crops. Agriculture and Livestock contribute 60-80% of the income for the local population.
As there are no land rights in Madagascar, if a farmer’s land becomes drained of nutrients and is therefore no longer fertile, then the farmer has permission to clear an adjacent piece of land, usually done through the slash and burn technique, wherein vegetation is first cut and then burned before planting begins. The same applies for zebu grazing.
As well as the obvious habitat loss caused by the slash and burn technique, it can also result in the death of animals which are unable to outrun the fires. The knock on effects of slash and burn include soil erosion and decreased land fertility.
Lemur hunting occurs in the forests, with the most common target being the common brown lemur. Coquerel’s sifakas are not hunted as local populations believe it to be fady (taboo) to do so as they have some very human-like features. However immigrants to the area rarely follow this rule and hunting still occurs. Lemur traps are used for hunting, and are indiscriminate as to which species they capture.
Darts and blowpipes are used to hunt birds such as Helmeted Guinea fowl. Madagascar fish eagles are hunted by stealing the young and using them as bait to lure the adult into a trap. The African Darter and Nile crocodile are also hunted in the wetlands around Mariarano. Feral cats and dogs may be involved in competition with endemic species, resulting in the over-predation of smaller mammal species found in the forests.
Any species that causes damage to a farmer’s crops is seen as a pest, this includes lemurs which eat from fruit trees. This can result in traps being set out, as most farming in the Mahamavo region is subsistence farming, therefore there is a thin line between having enough food for the whole family and having to go without.
How do we Protect an Area such as the Forests of Mahamavo?
- Provide educational facilities focusing on sustainable agriculture and use of forest resources.
- Develop alternative livelihoods, for example sustainable charcoal production which would protect the forest, improve soil in degraded areas and provide a stable income for locals.
- Reduce the consumption of charcoal through the introduction of cleaner and fuel-efficient cooking stoves. This would also reduce the incidence of disease arisen from fuel, reduce the destruction of forests and decrease the cost of living.
- Introduce alternative energy sources such as solar power.
- Establish research stations to implement and maintain management efforts.
- Develop small-scale ecotourism to provide constant employment in the area, as well as increase the incentive for locals to protect the forests.
- Utilise local culture to benefit conservation. Fady (taboo) differs between villages; in some areas, when the head of the village dies they are buried in the village grounds, then the entire community ups sticks and settles in a new area. The area where the former monarch is buried then becomes sacred, and no one may enter it. In this way, various regions on Mahamavo are protected through Fady.
Barriers to Implementing a Conservation Plan
Many locals simply are not aware of the international value of many of their native species. Over 70% of Madagascar’s population reside in rural areas, and only 3% have access to electricity, thus resulting in biomass being their main source of fuel.
Education on the importance of species found in the region is very much needed, because if the global significance of Madagascar’s ecosystems and their inhabitants are unknown to the locals, it is difficult for them to take pride in protecting their native regions, or to feel the urgent need of this protection to happen. Many locals, being unaware of the protected status of certain species, do not know that they are committing a crime when certain animals are hunted. It is important for the region to have educated citizens on the status of their immediate environment, protecting the area.
I will be travelling to the Mahamavo region in June 2016 in order to aid with this important research. I will be investigating the abundance of important endemic plant species in the area, and how their proximity to local populations, soil pH and climate impacts their growth. In this way my research will help to advise which areas are of most value to conserve in the region. I will also be using this research for my third year Bioscience undergraduate dissertation, as I hope to go into a tropical forest ecology research career in the future, with a key focus on botany.
If you would like to read more about what I will be doing, or are interested in supporting my project, then please visit one of the link below.
Below is a video from Operation Wallacea, who I will be undertaking my research with.
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