Monday, March 8, 2010

Duke Lemur Center Report from Madagascar

by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Coordinator
Wed. 2/10 – This morning I flew out of Sambava, to Diego Suarez (also known as Antsiranana). That is only a 45 minute flight but takes you from the eastern wet forest to the much drier climate at the northern tip of Madagascar. Diego is an interesting city with more Arab and Muslim influence. There is a large Comorian community as Diego is the closest Madagascar city to the Comore islands.
Diego also has an enormous bay with only a small outlet into the surrounding Indian Ocean. Because of that strategic fact, the area has an interesting military history, including British forces attacking French Vichy forces here in WWII.
I am in Diego to investigate another potential natural area for DLC to become involved in - Montagne des Francais. It is another area that MBG has studied and found to be a priority area for conservation in particular for its unique flora. I am met in Diego by MBG rep. Jimmy. After a quick change into field clothes, and picking up a Conservation International rep., Monica, as well as 4 local university students, we are off to nearby Montagne des Francais. The students have various interests in natural areas, and are along to take advantage of the outing opportunity. It is nice being out in the forest again with enthusiastic students (some in flip flops only for footwear over the rugged terrain!)
We begin our walk through degraded areas, and the forest improves as we climb gently upward. It is a very different type of forest than at Makirovana – much lower canopy, with a different mix of species which include the widely used tropical ornamental flamboyant tree, in its native habitat. Also in this forest are various species of baobabs, some of which are quite endangered. MdF is a calcareous mountain area, and so not surprisingly our guide takes us to a large cave. It is easy to climb down into, and walk about in, but not very deep, nor with impressive rock formations. Easy to imagine it offering shelter from storms to many over the years. After the cave, we continue into the forest, through a valley with limestone cliffs rising on either side. Large baobabs are growing out of the rock fall at the foot of the cliffs. It is a very beautiful and striking area. Nearer to the cliffs we are shown implanted anchors for the ropes of climbers, put there by a local French tourist operator who brings climbers from time to time. After winding our way through the forest, often off trails through tight, blood-letting shrub stands, we make it back to the trucks by mid-afternoon. We were a bit disappointed to neither see nor hear any signs of lemurs. Crowned lemurs are the only diurnal species in MdF forests.
A meeting has been arranged with local villagers, so after the usual delay we all sit down together on benches outside, arranged in a U shape. The conservation problems in this area are different from Makirovana. The forest is under pressure from local villagers making charcoal to sell in nearby Diego. Any and almost all wood can be cut and made into charcoal by burning stacks of the wood slowly in an oxygen poor situation. The particular village that we meet with is one of the few fokontany to make a real effort to reduce charcoal making. The other approximately 20 fokontany in the MdF area continue to cut trees and make charcoal. Many in the area are said to be immigrants from other regions of Madagascar who are accustomed to making their livelihood directly off the forest. Their practices will not change easily. The villagers that we spoke to seemed a bit frustrated at being one of the few cooperating villages, and did not seem to be completely pleased with what they were getting in return.
Thurs. 2/11 – This morning I participated in a meeting in Diego, with all the conservation and government players in the area. There were reps. from MBG, Conservation International, WWF, Water and Forest Department, tourism, university, and local government officials. Though I was the only non-Malagasy person at the meeting, they were kind enough to conduct most of the meeting in French (rather than in the Malagasy language). I gave a presentation explaining the DLC, and our conservation objectives in Madagascar, and potentially in the area. I fielded many questions afterward. There was much interest in the conservation work that Andrea and I had been involved in at the Ivoloina Conservation Center, where we worked until 2004.
Montagne des Francais is a very interesting area, which is loaded with potential as an ecotourism site, and as an environmental education and training site. Its relative nearness to Diego is what causes the charcoal problems, but the proximity to Diego also makes it a relatively easy trip for school groups and university students. It would be an easy additional half-day option for tourists in the area, different from the other outdoor, natural experiences presently available. In theory local people could benefit from a constant stream of visitors. Too bad that the area does not have more lemur species!
This afternoon I flew to Tana, via Nosi Be (which involved an aborted landing in a thunderstorm and 20 minute fly-about as the storm cleared). Will have to stay in Tana tonight before catching the next flight to Tamatave in the morning.

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