by Julie B. Freund Cowhey
stlzoo magazine, May/June 2006

Julie Freund Cowhey traveled to Madagascar in October 2005, on a "Great Escape with Jeffrey," hosted by Jeffrey P. Bonner, Ph.D., President & CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo.

Most people can probably identify Madagascar as that island off the southeast coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. It's likely that fewer know Madagascar is home to many rare lemurs, chameleons, tomato frogs and countless other indigenous species of flora and fauna. I recently had an opportunity to visit Madagascar with a small group from the Saint Louis Zoo, and all of us were very curious about this unique and interesting country.

One of our first discoveries was that the topography of Madagascar varies considerably. While there, we spent time on beaches, in dense rain forests, in a red desert and in canyonlands reminiscent of Arizona. Despite their differences, these areas are all homes to lemurs.

Madagascar has become one of the world's conservation hot spots for several reasons. Poverty is rampant, and the country lacks adequate food and resources. Consequently, there has been careless, widespread destruction of beautiful forests, as local residents clear the land to plant more crops. Such uncontrolled deforestation severely infringes on the natural habitat of the lemurs and other animals. If nothing is done to protect their shrinking habitats, some of these species could soon be gone forever.

However, with the help of the Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG) and the zoo at Parc Ivoloina in Tamatave, the Saint Louis Zoo is attempting to change these trends.

We visited Parc Ivoloina, which has become the region's center for conservation, education, information and action. There we were able to get a first-hand look at several ongoing programs developed by the MFG, and were encouraged to see that their work in proving effective. The team's in-country staff and office of 36 people are also responsible for operating the zoo facilities at Parc Ivoloina. Their zoo exhibits only endemic animals of Madagascar - including several species of critically endangered lemurs - which better enables the Malagasy people of Madagascar to observe and learn about their country's own unique wildlife.

Parc Ivoloina is also home to an expanding Agroforestry Model Station. Here the staff promotes the protection of important local wildlife habitat by demonstrating sustainable agroforestry practices, such as improved rice paddy techniques, identification of plants useful in erosion control, cultivation of alternative fruits and vegetables, and the careful selection and use of native trees.

One of the most important efforts of the MFG and Parc Ivoloina is the Saturday School program, which provides supplemental classes for children in the villages surrounding the zoo. The classes are an invaluable opportunity to teach local young people about Madagascar's biodiversity and how they can personally contribute to its conservation.

In all, our trip made me extremely hopeful that through the efforts of the Saint Louis Zoo, the MFG and the staff at Parc Ivoloina, the unique, beautiful island of Madagascar will indeed be able to protect its rare species for the future.