Keepers of Eden
by Jeffrey P. Bonner, President and CEO
stlzoo magazine, July/August 2005
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. It lies in the Indian Ocean, some 248 miles away from mainland Africa and it was formed by a process scientists call "continental drift." Some 165 million years ago, Madagascar pulled away from Africa and life on this miraculous island developed largely in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. It is one of the most ecologically rich places on earth. It has twenty-five percent of Africa's flowering plants and half of the world's chameleons are found there. In fact, almost all of Madagascar's reptile and amphibian species, half of its birds, and all of its lemurs are endemic to the island, meaning that they are found nowhere else on earth.
Lemurs range in size from the tiny mouse lemurs, which weigh about an ounce or so, up to the fifteen-pound indri lemurs and sifakas, which are about the size of a large house cat. Most lemurs live in trees and the majority are also diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, but many other species prefer the safety of the night. They are primarily vegetarians, but again there are exceptions and insects can be an important part of the diets of some species. They are beautiful, gentle, intelligent creatures and people who get to know them almost can't help falling in love with them. Of all of Madagascar's endangered flora and fauna, it is lemurs that have the most charisma.
Like virtually every other wild thing living in Madagascar, lemurs are in trouble. Ten species are critically endangered, seven are endangered, and nineteen are considered vulnerable. They are endangered because the people of Madagascar have cut down over eighty percent of their island's forests. In addition to massive habitat loss, many of the larger species are also hunted for food.
It is hard to imagine the devastation that humans have brought to what many ecologists describe as an Eden, but one way is to look at satellite images of the islands. It is surrounded by a huge brown ring in the waters of the Indiana Ocean. That brown ring is the soils of Madagascar, washing away forever into the sea, the result of unsustainable agricultural practices like slash and burn. Slash and burn, or tavi as it is called on the island, involves going into the forest and cutting down all of the trees. The trees are left to dry out and then lit on fire. The ash from the burned wood provides fertilizer for the crops, but the effect does not last long. The soil is quickly depleted and the farmers move on, deeper in the forest, repeating the cycle.
Acutely aware of the threat to this unique island, several institutions have banded together to form a unique collaborative called the Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), which is now headquartered here at the Saint Louis Zoo. So what is the MFG today? What are we doing and why is it so important? Well, today the MFG is a powerful collaborative with a budget in excess of a quarter-million dollars. It has about forty members with about two dozen from America (including zoos, universities, and natural history museums) about half as many from Europe, and members from Africa and Australia. The MFG has done an exhaustive survey on lemurs throughout Madagascar and developed priorities for biomedical survey work (done largely by the Saint Louis Zoo) and genetic work (done largely by the universities and the Henry Doorly Zoo). We have also undertaken a Conservation Action Management Plan for the entire island. The management plan looks at virtually every group of threatened species, from retiles to amphibians, to fish, to birds, to mammals, and develops clear priorities for working with each group in each major region of the country.
So what am I most proud of? Well, two things stand out - our work with the Parc Ivolina Zoo and our work in the Betampona Nature Reserve. First, at our Malagasy Zoo, I am thrilled by the variety of educational programs we offer. For middle school students we have courses designed to help them pass their national exams, so that they can get into high school. We also offer classes in environmental education and have camps during vacation periods. Similarly, for high school students we help prepare students for the national exams required to get into college. Teacher training is big part of our on-going efforts, with a focus on elementary school teachers. But we also offer courses for adults. For example, we've created an agroforestry nursery with native tress as well as exotic species that can be planted as a cash crop. We also show area farmers how they can improve techniques for rice cultivation, plant alternative fruits and vegetables for the market, and use specific plants to help control erosion.
In St. Louis, we keep critically endangered species of lemurs in breeding groups along with less rare species in contracepted groups, plus we serve as a repository for confiscated animals liked tortoises. This means that we have viable populations for reintroductions or relocations. We also help train professionals in animal management, veterinary science, and field biology.
In the Reserve, we track the progress of our ruffed lemur restocking program, and this effort has expanded into a training program for conservation agents and, more broadly, into lowland rainforest research in general. We now have Malagasy nationals studying phenology (or the cycle of plant blooming and fruit production), as well as Malagasy professionals who specialize in monitoring herps, birds, lemurs, and other mammals. We're also training young college students, all of whom are learning the skills of field biology as they advance through their studies.
There is much more to be done to achieve the MFG's vision of mobilizing zoos, aquariums, universities, and conservation organizations worldwide in an effort to halt the extinction of the unique wildlife of Madagascar, but we are making enormous progress thanks to a unique and historic collaborative effort.