[From CASE Reports, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1996]


Connecticut Researchers Drawn to Mysteries of Madagascar

MADAGASCAR. The word elicits visions of a land of exotic animals, plants, and tropical rain forests, but this island is far more varied than most people may realize. Approximately one thousand miles long (about the size of France), Madagascar lies 350 miles off the coast of southeast Africa in the Indian Ocean. The land contains a wide variety of habitats: tropical rain forest-the image most commonly associated with it-dry forest, spiny forest, and savannah. Hundreds of animals and plants found nowhere else on earth have evolved on Madagascar because it has been isolated from the mainland for about 120 million years. As a result, with the exception of organisms that could negotiate the watery divide, there were few invading species, and none that had sudden, drastic consequences for the island. But sometime between AD 0 and 400, humans came to Madagascar, and several centuries later, certain native species started to become extinct-lemurs, giant tortoises, flightless birds, and pygmy hippopotamuses. Pressures on Madagascar's environment and natural resources have been increasing rapidly ever since, but much remains that is unique and that needs to be protected so that future generations can continue not only to make a living but also to savor the island's great variety.

Two Connecticut residents who are working to preserve the island's ecology are Robert Dewar and Alison Richard, a husband and wife team who have made Madagascar the locus of their research. Richard, Provost of Yale University and Professor of Anthropology, studies the lemurs of Madagascar-their diet, reproductive behavior, distribution, and social organization. Dewar, Professor of Anthropology and Chairman of the Anthropology Department at the University of Connecticut, is unearthing the history of humans on the island.

Professor Richard began her research on lemurs in 1970 at the suggestion of one of her professors at Cambridge University, where she had obtained her undergraduate degree in archeology and anthropology. She became fascinated by the animals, and by Madagascar, and made them the subject of her doctorate in primate biology which she received from London University in 1973. Her research has focused primarily on lemurs, but she has also studied howling monkeys, macaques, and other primates.

Professor Dewar received his bachelor's degree in anthropology from Brown University in 1971 and his master's and doctorate in the same field from Yale University in 1973 and 1977. His research has explored changes in Madagascar's environments made by one particular species of primate-humans-and the repercussions these changes have had. In particular, he has focused on the history of human settlement and its impact on the ecology of the island.

These two researchers not only share their interest in Madagascar and its environments, past and present, but also combine the perspectives obtained from their research to help in the struggle to preserve this unique and valuable region. Integral to their philosophy of conservation is the idea that one doesn't rely solely on preserving species by putting them in a "box" (e.g., a zoo or preserve) and hoping that they survive as a gift to future generations. Rather, there is a need to integrate the ecological history of the island and its species in efforts to find the best ways to save the land, while at the same time including the local populace in conservation efforts as both participants and beneficiaries.

Professors Richard's and Dewar's approach to ecology is a contextual one that comprises an examination not only of the species and their roles as they now exist, but also of the ecological history of Madagascar. In the case of the extinctions that have occurred, what may have caused them? Human activity? Natural catastrophes? If the former, how did it happen, and can similar occurrences be prevented in the future? What niches did the extinct species fill and what species may have taken their place? How did current species come to fill their particular niches? "To study the environments of Madagascar as though the history of the last two thousand, three thousand years didn't exist and without any understanding of that history, means you're working with one hand tied behind your back," notes Professor Richard.

Understanding the ecological history of a region may help predict the potential effects of changes in the current environment, and the lack of such historical knowledge can have unexpected consequences. For example, at one point in Professor Richard's early work, she and her co-workers fenced off an area to protect it from grazing by cattle and goats. Sometime afterward, a vine began to grow rampant, killing the trees. Her first thought was that an invading species had taken hold, but the local people told her that the vine was native and that the cattle and goats fed on it, thereby keeping it in check. Another possibility emerged: perhaps giant lemurs and tortoises had fed on the vine in the past and, when these species became extinct-most likely through competition with the imported herds of domesticated animals-the cattle and the goats moved into those niches. Removal of non-native elements from the environment had unexpected results because those non-native elements had taken over an essential role. As Professor Richard points out, "You've removed the introduced elements, but you haven't restored what was there before."

Professor Dewar approaches the historical aspects of Madagascar's ecology by examining the role that people have played in changing the island's environment. The diversity of habitats is matched by a diversity of human economic strategies, each of them suited to a particular local ecosystem. Rice farming, slash-and-burn agriculture, fishing, hunting, and cattle- and goat-herding are ways that people eke a living from the land and have an impact upon it. One aim of Professor Dewar's research has been to determine whether any of these activities played a part in the extinctions on Madagascar. His results so far lead him to believe that perhaps no single cause was responsible for all of the extinctions in all of the places. Of the human activities, the introduction of cattle and goats most likely contributed significantly to the extinctions. These animals became feral and spread, outcompeting the native grazers and browsers. Humans thus had an indirect effect on the ecology of the island. He observes that, paradoxically, the greatest changes occurred in the regions where human population density was the lowest, and the regions of earliest human habitation-the coasts-were often the best preserved. Professor Dewar emphasizes that the agents responsible for environmental change in the past are not necessarily the ones at work today, and that much research remains to be done in resolving the various factors and their contributions.

Today, however, the increasing rate of environmental change in Madagascar is primarily the result of a growing population that exploits and damages the environment over wide areas. It is in the efforts to halt this destruction that the historical ecology of the two Connecticut researchers intersects the second aspect of their approach-the involvement of people living adjacent to protected areas and, in particular, of those who live in proximity to the reserve of Beza Mahafaly.

In 1975, Professor Richard joined with Professor Guy Ramanantsoa, of the University of Madagascar, and Professor Robert Sussman, of Washington University, to initiate the Beza Mahafaly Project. They wanted, in Professor Richard's words, to "undertake a grassroots conservation effort that instead of being imposed from the 'top down' would be welcomed by the local communities participating in a joint effort to conserve their resource." The project would provide for setting aside a nature reserve that would also serve as a research and training site for students from the School of Agronomy at the University of Madagascar. Professor Richard and her colleagues chose Beza Mahafaly ("Mahafaly" means "can make/render happy"), which is in the District of Beavoha in southwestern Madagascar, because it contained resources that were not being preserved by other conservation projects and because the local population was enthusiastic and eager to cooperate.

In addition to protecting the plants and animals within it, it was anticipated that the reserve would also benefit people. First, it would provide a research site where Malagasy students could do basic research, learn conservation methods, and put those methods into practice. They would also work on animal husbandry and range management-topics that would be of practical benefit. The project would also help researchers determine the environmental consequences of these activities; that knowledge would then be used to help design animal-management practices having less impact on the ecosystem.

Second, in addition to providing a research and educational venue, the preserve at Beza Mahafaly would attempt to involve the villagers living around the reserve in the conservation efforts, while simultaneously permitting improvement in the economic quality of their lives. Professor Richard points out that approaches to conservation differ in developed countries from those in developing countries. In developed countries, conservation efforts are generally part of a national agenda, and for the most part, the direct sacrifices that people must make are few. But in developing nations, national governments do not have the resources to monitor projects in distant areas, and the activities that damage the environment are most often the population's only short-term means of survival. Humanitarian, ethical, and political concerns preclude uprooting people and denying them a livelihood, and the imposition of restrictive laws by outsiders often alienates the people.

One of the key factors in selecting the site was the willingness of the villagers to collaborate with the project and to relinquish their rights to use the area. They considered the forest and the animal life it supports to be sacred, and were unhappy that people from areas several miles away were beginning to hunt some of the most endangered endemic species, including the lemurs and tortoises. By cooperating with the Beza Mahafaly Project and the establishment of the reserve, the villagers were able to protect the forest and the animals from intruders.

Other advantages to collaboration were economic. By 1985, the project and its financial base had grown large enough to support construction of a schoolhouse, repair of the road to the market town, work on renovation of an irrigation canal, and the digging of wells for fresh water. But the reserve also benefits the local people on an individual basis. Some participate in the research that is being done at the reserve, assisting Professor Richard with her lemur research, for example, by recapturing and tagging the animals and entering biometric data into the solar-powered computers that they have learned to use. Others are employed as extension agents for the reserve. These jobs provide wages to people who would otherwise be herding or hunting-or perhaps poaching-in the reserve. Other economic benefits result from ecotourism and the markets it provides for cottage industries.

The project at Beza Mahafaly is also training a new generation of Malagasy in conservation and education. Students at the reserve are learning to manage it; the hope is that these young people will go on to play leadership roles at the national level. Some of these students have come to Connecticut to acquire the additional education that they need to fulfill that goal. One of them is Joelisoa Ratsirarson, who received his doctorate in Ecology and Environmental Biology from the University of Connecticut in 1994 and now holds a postdoctoral position in Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. However, Dr. Ratsirarson spends most of his time-eight to nine months per year-at Beza Mahafaly, where he teaches at the field school and does research in conservation biology and ecology, with an emphasis on pollination systems of plants and on the complex web of life forms that exist within the "pitchers" of the rare carnivorous pitcher plant, Nepenthes.

Although the success of the Beza Mahafaly Project is far from guaranteed, progress is being made. In 1985, the central government made the reserve a permanent one, and in 1992, the local villages began forming community associations in order to take a more active role in the project. Professor Richard continues to be involved in the management of and fundraising for the project as she continues her research on the lemurs of Madagascar. Although there are days when she is pessimistic about the success of the conservation efforts in the island nation, she still has hope and feels that as long as a chance for success remains, such efforts must continue. Thus, this summer, she again traveled to Beza Mahafaly for several weeks. Also this summer, Professor Dewar traveled to the northeast coast of Madagascar, where he looked for sites of early inhabitants of the island, hoping to learn more about what they did and how their activities may have affected the island's environment.

Madagascar will survive only through of the cooperation of all who love it-as a homeland or an ecological wonder-and the project at Beza Mahafaly is part of the effort to ensure that the land will remain a treasure for generations to come.--Gail Schmitt, science writer.


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