21 March 2017

Conservation in Madagascar: MSc field trip experiences

This year’s MSc students have just returned from their exciting field trip to Madagascar. Yannick Woudstra (MSc student) tells us about the students’ experiences with conservation and field work in this biodiversity hotspot. In Part one Yannick looks at Madagascar’s difficult conservation story.

By Yannick Woudstra

'Madagascar periwinkle'

A threatened hotspot 

Madagascar is one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots in the world, but unfortunately also one of the most threatened. 

In order to research and help protect Madagascar’s flora locally, Kew has helped to set up the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC) in the capital Antananarivo. With their own research agenda, KMCC researchers are studying the island’s intriguing flora, collecting herbarium specimens all over the country and supporting Madagascar’s conservation practices. Housing an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience in the local flora, the KMCC is an ideal place to train students in tropical botany. 

MSc students from Kew & Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) had the amazing opportunity to join the KMCC in Madagascar for a field trip to soak up this expertise. 

For two weeks, we travelled around the island to see some worrying conservation problems, but also brilliant endemic flora. In this blog post I will share some of the experiences of this year’s group, focussing on the conservation side of the story. Next week, we will reveal more personal experiences from the fieldwork, and examples of how some of the students are using data collected during this field trip for their dissertations involving Madagascar’s plants and fungi. 

Arrival in Antananarivo 

Arriving in Antananarivo was a shock for most of us. Not only did we suddenly step into a hot and humid climate, we saw a different cultural world as well. It was evident that we were in one of the poorest countries in the world. 

And this is exactly the biggest problem that conservationists are facing in Madagascar. The main threat to biodiversity is deforestation, driven by tavy (also called slash-and-burn agriculture).  

The wood is turned into charcoal for cooking, and the rest of the vegetation is burned to fertilise the soil, which the people will use to grow crops like corn (Zea mays) or rice (Oryza sativa). Unfortunately the crops are very water-demanding and after a few years the soil is depleted of nutrients, so the people move to the next woodland patch. For years afterwards the vegetation is regularly burned to maintain a grassland ecosystem where cattle (zebu) can graze.

Mass deforestation in the west 

Driving from the capital to our first field destination, Ankarafantsika National Park in the dry west, the effects of deforestation dominate the eyeline. Where we should have seen lush green woodlands covering the hills, we saw red soil only covered by grass. The trees we spotted along the roadside were all exotics planted for charcoal production, mainly Pinus and Eucalyptus species. 

Perhaps the biggest problem arising from deforestation is the high rate of soil erosion, obvious from the red colour of the rivers. However, as Bat Vorontsova (Kew’s resident grass expert) explained during one of our breaks along the road, not all of the concerns about the grasslands are anthropogenic. In fact, the grasslands of Madagascar have a very high rate of endemism, comparable to places like New Zealand (Vorontsova et al. 2016). At the moment, grasslands are not included in the protected area network for Madagascar, which focuses almost exclusively on forests (Scales 2014b). 

The KMCC and Kew’s taxonomists are working closely together to learn more about the origin and dynamics of these grasslands. By increasing the fundamental knowledge about Malagasy grasslands, they also hope to raise the awareness for conservation of these biomes. 

In Ankarafantsika National Park we saw what the natural vegetation should look like: tall trees hugged by lemurs. As the rainy season was coming to an end, we found an enormous amount of fungi in the woodlands: in fact they were under every tree! Led by fungal taxonomist Tuula Niskanen, during the field trip we collected over 223 fungi – 150 of which were collected in Ankarafantsika National Park.  

Many of the collections we made will almost certainly be species new to science, as Madagascar is one of the most understudied areas for mycology. Not only mushrooms were collected; we also sampled tree roots and collected many lichens. You can find more mycology in next week’s blog post.

Reforested reserve 

Although perhaps less apparent, deforestation also occurs on the more humid east side of the island. Because of the climate, the hills are still covered in lush green – but it is all secondary vegetation dominated by exotics. The very distinctive traveller’s palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) is the only endemic that jumps into sight. 

On the east coast however, we discovered a very positive conservation story in the Analalava forest reserve. The reserve is a reforestation project, aiming to restore some of the original humid forests to its original form. Although it takes time, the vegetation is recovering well here with a huge diversity of endemic taxa. Here we found the charismatic Uapaca trees (Uapaca littoralis), bizarre looking Lamiaceae (Clerodendrum sp.) and many (regionally) endemic palm species. 

The forest reserve is managed by a local community with the help of Missouri Botanical Gardens (MOBOT). With a firebreak surrounding the forest, consisting of a ten-metre-wide strip of land cleared of vegetation, the reserve is protected from the spread of fire/wildfires. 

Local land owners receive compensation for clearing their land to help establish the firebreak. The forest provides many ecosystem services, serving as a water catchment area to adjacent rice fields, and it also gives local people the opportunity to teach their children about Malagasy nature.  

Poverty and conservation 

Sadly, poverty is rife in Madagascar, and is one of the root causes of the conservation problem in Madagascar. We found that the Madagascan people we spoke to want to improve the unsustainable condition that the country is in, but support is needed. 

More and more conservation projects (including those run by KMCC and MOBOT) are involving local communities and this can benefit both stakeholders. The economic situation for the community can improve, and conservation agencies can reduce their costs. The 200 ha Analalava forest reserve, which is a palm hotspot (Rakotoanirivo et al. 2010), costs only 50,000 USD per year.  

The story continues next week 

Next week I will discuss how important it is that botanists, mycologists and students visit places like Madagascar to collect specimens and make inventories; the role of KMCC herein is invaluable. With Madagascar losing its diversity very rapidly, it is a race against the clock to determine what is growing there: but there is hope on the horizon. 


Rakotoarinivo, M., Razafitsalama, J.L., Baker, W.J. & Dransfield, J. (2010). Analalava – A palm conservation hotspot in eastern Madagascar. Palms 54(3): 141-151. 

Scales, I.R. (2014a). The drivers of deforestation and the complexity of land use in Madagascar. In: Scales, I.R., Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 105-125. 

Scales, I.R. (2014b). Conclusion: the future of biodiversity conservation and environmental management in Madagascar: lessons from the past and challenges ahead. In: Scales, I.R., Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 342-360. 

Vorontsova, M.S., Besnard, G., Forest, F., Malakasi, P., Moat, J., Clayton, W.J., Ficinski, P., Savva, G.M., Nanjarisoa, O.P., Razanatsoa, J., Randriatsara, F.O., Kimeu, J.M., Luke, Q., Kayombo, C. & Linder, H.P. (2016). Madagascar’s grasses and grasslands: anthropogenic or natural? Proc. R. Soc. B 283: 20152262