Location: Madagascar
Center Director: Elizabeth (Lisa) Kelley, Ph.D.
Assistant Director: Bob Merz
Species: Madagascar fauna and flora, with a focus on the diurnal lemurs
Priority: High

Background 

Founded in 2004, the Center for Conservation in Madagascar is one of the original centers of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute. The Center works under the auspices of the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group  (MFG). Formed in 1988, MFG works to help conserve the island’s animal species through reproduction, field research, training programs for rangers and students, and the acquisition and protection of native habitat on the island. And MFG helps to conserve plant species by planting native trees near a protected area and removing invasive plants.

The MFG’s office is located in Tamatave (in northeast Madagascar), but most of the 60+ employees work at either Parc Ivoloina, a conservation education, research and training facility and home to the Ivoloina Zoo, or  Betampona Natural Reserve, one of the few remaining remnants of eastern lowland rainforest.

MFG’s work is among the highest of conservation priorities because many of Madagascar’s animal and plant species, like the highly endangered lemurs, are found nowhere else in the world. The various species of lemur range anywhere from the pygmy mouse lemur, weighing only an ounce, to the indri, which can weigh up to 19 pounds. Lemurs are among the most endangered group of mammals in the world. As recently as 2,500 years ago, lemurs the size of gorillas roamed the island, and birds known as elephant birds roamed the southern coast. Today, over 95 percent of the known lemur types live on the brink of extinction, and many other animals and plants on the island, such as the radiated tortoise and the beautiful rosewood tree, are also at risk of disappearing.

Advancing Conservation Research: Meet Some of the Team

The Center has been instrumental in expanding MFG’s research capacity through sponsoring Karen Freeman, Ph.D., as Director of Research. Dr. Freeman works closely with the MFG staff and advisors. She has also developed a network of colleagues from local and international universities and conservation NGOs to develop and implement MFG’s research program.

In addition to supporting Dr. Freeman, the Center also provides financial support to Juliana Rasoma, Ph.D. Dr. Rasoma received her Ph.D. from the University of Antananarivo (Madagascar) in 2017, studying the ecology of the critically endangered radiated tortoise in one of the Madagascar National Parks locations. Dr. Rasoma is currently both a university lecturer and the MFG Research Coordinator. Dr. Rasoma assists Dr. Freeman in a number of areas, such as supervising research projects of graduate students from the University of Toamasina in Madagascar.

Another central member of the team is the Center’s Affiliate Scientist, Fidy Rasambainarivo, DVM, Ph.D. Dr. Rasambainarivo is one of the first wildlife veterinarians in Madagascar and recently received his Ph.D. through the joint University of Missouri-St. Louis/WildCare Institute Fellowship. Following his graduation, Dr. Rasambainarivo was hired by the Center to oversee several important conservation research programs, including a chicken vaccination project aimed at decreasing bushmeat hunting by increasing chicken production, and a lemur translocation project. In addition to his research, Fidy is working with a partner to establish Mahaliana, a laboratory that aims to provide Malagasy students with access to many of the molecular techniques that the University of Missouri-St. Louis made available to him. Fidy has returned to Madagascar with a strong commitment to advance conservation science and the capacity of Malagasy researchers.

St. Louis Interest

The Saint Louis Zoo has a long history of managing and developing husbandry expertise with lemur species. The Zoo's animal management, veterinary and research staff have assumed leading roles in the science of endangered species reintroduction techniques through the release of captive ruffed lemurs into Betampona. This expertise will help future reintroductions for similar primates.

Conducting Research

Over 50 percent of the Center’s budget is allocated to MFG field research programs. For a detailed description of these research projects, please click here. Here we detail two of these projects.

In 2013, the Center funded Dr. Christopher Golden (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) to conduct research on the use of natural resources by villagers living near Betampona. Dr. Golden found that 60 percent of the families ate an average of five wild mammals in the previous year. Of the 2,253 mammals eaten, tenrec species and the endangered mouse lemur were the most consumed, but the range included other endangered species such as fosa, aye aye and one indri. He also found that, although villagers preferred chicken over all wildlife species, chicken production was low due to regular disease outbreaks. This led Dr. Golden to team up with wildlife veterinarian Dr. Graham Crawford (San Francisco Zoo) to help identify the cause of these outbreaks. Dr. Crawford, along with two poultry scientists, concluded the primary culprit was Newcastle disease (NCD), a highly contagious disease but one for which vaccines have proven very effective. Because a thermotolerant form of the NCD vaccine was not produced in Madagascar, Dr. Crawford partnered with the Malagasy Institute for Veterinary Vaccines to develop it. The WildCare Institute helped support the development and evaluation of a sustainable NCD vaccination program in six villages in Northeast Madagascar, Dr. Golden's primary research site. Based on their positive results, Dr. Freeman applied for and was awarded a Save Our Species Lemur grant (from the International Union for Conservation of Nature) to initiate an NCD vaccination program in 12 villages adjacent to Betampona. In 2018, 12 villagers were trained to administer the vaccine and collect births/deaths/sales/ consumption data needed to evaluate the program. In 2018, after more than six years of applying for grants and implementing the research, the team has been able to begin this important conservation initiative aimed at reducing bushmeat hunting in Betampona. Fifteen months of analyses indicate that poultry mortality from NCD has continuously decreased since the implementation of the program.

Another active research project is the genetic management of the reserve’s critically endangered lemur species. For some species that live there, the Betampona Natural Reserve’s size and isolation is the greatest threat to their survival. The reserve is too small for large-bodied lemur species such as the diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata) and indri (Indri indri) to occur in self-sustaining populations, and the reserve is too isolated for dispersal and gene flow to prevent inbreeding. Consequently, periodic translocations of unrelated individuals will be required to prevent inbreeding depression and local extinction. After obtaining the approval of the MFG and Madagascar National Parks to pursue this approach, the generous donation of an anonymous donor enabled the Center to develop a research plan for the two most critically endangered species, the diademed sifaka and the black-and-white ruffed lemur. In 2018, Dr. Rasambainarivo initiated collection of the baseline data required to undertake and evaluate a translocation program, including: 1) current population size and sex ratio, 2) health assessments of Betampona and donor populations, 3) genetic samples to assess level of inbreeding and genetic diversity of the populations, home range size and location of social groups, and births. Dr. Rasambainarivo and his team were able to make good progress toward collecting the above data for the diademed sifakas in Betampona, whose population is estimated to be no greater than 25. In December 2018, the team collected health and genetic samples from seven individuals representing four groups. They placed radio collars on at least one individual per group and colored collars on the others. They also captured and collected samples from three black-and-white ruffed lemurs and adapted a ruffed lemur vocalization survey by adding two people to locate and collect group size and composition data. In 2019, considerable progress was made leading up to the diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) translocation project.  Following the capture and field biomedical evaluations performed earlier in Betampona, Dr. Rasambainarivo has conducted molecular analysis of the blood samples in order to detect any blood parasites potentially harbored by these critically endangered lemurs.

Building Capacity

Perhaps nothing is more important than building the capacity of Malagasy institutions and people. Through MFG, the Saint Louis Zoo has played a particularly significant role in advancing this by funding the construction of the Ivoloina Conservation Training Center (ICTC). This facility was identified by Malagasy leaders as a priority for educating natural resource managers and biologists. The hands-on field and laboratory training offered at ICTC are rare in Madagascar. The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute has supported Malagasy Ph.D. candidates in important research topics that include the removal of the highly invasive guava plant from Betampona Natural Reserve, behavioral research on the lemurs, and disease transmission between wild and domestic carnivores. This is critically important to managing this and other island reserves.

Providing Education

Through the MFG, the Zoo also supports education programs for primary school children at multiple sites in eastern Madagascar. One such program is the Saturday School. This school is intended for students who demonstrate a high interest in learning, but who may be struggling academically, relative to their peers. The Saturday School provides a forum for students to receive extra lessons as well as receive writing and reading materials. Students who attend also receive free meals, which is an important source of nourishment for most of these students. Recently, the Saturday School program added a Parent’s Club component to cultivate parental involvement in their children’s education. The demonstrated success of the program is the high attendance percentage and the relatively high pass rate of students on the CEPE standardized test. You can read more about this program and the other environmental education programs on the MFG website.

Taking Action

Through the Center’s support, the MFG is working with local villagers to restore Betampona’s forest edge through a project called Zone of Protection. A forest’s edge is subject to the brunt of weather conditions, erosion, encroachment of invasive plants, pollution and human disturbances. Degradation of the edge creates a new edge leading to a cycle of forest loss. Reforestation of the zone is an important conservation initiative to protect the integrity of Betampona’s 2,223-hectare (5,575-acre) lowland rainforest and the large number of animal and plant species that inhabit the reserve. Through the Zone of Protection project, villagers who live near this edge have planted over 96,000 trees representing 54 endemic species.

Partners

University of Missouri - St. Louis
Missouri Botanical Gardens
Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group
Saint Louis University
University of Antananarivo
University of Tamatave
Washington University in St. Louis
Ivoloina Zoo