Saving Madagascar, One parcel at a time

Duke-supported private reserve is one man's lifeboat of biodiversity
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Nov 27, 2013

For more on Duke SAVA Conservation in Northeastern Madagascar, please visit Duke Magazine, Winter 2013 or the Duke Lemur Center. To see where else we went on our 2013 visit, view the interactive Google Earth map, or view a Pinterest photo tour.

The extended cab pickup rolls to a stop on a two-track between the rice paddies and we pile out in front of a forested foothill.

Rabary Désirè, our host and guide, leads us single-file along the balance beam of a dike between the paddies for a few meters, past a freshly painted boundary sign for the nature reserve, and then steeply upward, piercing a stand of bamboo on a narrow foot path made out of steps cut into the clay. The temperature drops 10 degrees immediately.

Désirè is up the slope and quickly vanishing around the bend as his party of panting vezaha -- white foreigners -- reaches the first level crest.

SAVA map tourView an interactive map of all of SAVA Conservation's activities in Madagascar CLICK HERE for an interactive Google Earth map or HERE for a Pinterest photo tour.

Through gaps in the forest canopy, we can see across 10 kilometers of paddies, dotted here and there with grazing cows and plumes of smoke, to the dark shoulders of Marojejy National Park. Deforestation caused by slash-and-burn agriculture and the desperate need for cooking charcoal reaches halfway up Marojejy's steep flanks  then stops in a sharp line where the dark-green edge of the park's rainforest begins.

But here inside Antanetiambo it's dark and fragrant, and the breeze rustles through the vegetation.

"Le petit reserve" is a 35-acre lifeboat and  classroom that Rabary Désirè has assembled with his earnings from guiding research expeditions in Marojejy. He also tossed in a $10,000 environmental prize he traveled to California to collect three years ago. That would be enough money to support an entire family for a few years in Madagascar, but he used it to expand Antanetiambo.

"Because I am working with primatologists," he explains. "They know the life of lemurs, and they advise me that these parcels ought to be connected, on behalf of biodiversity."

Islands like Madagascar hold a special status in biodiversity. On an island, cut off from the admixture of new blood, species undergo genetic changes that will help them adapt to their isolated surroundings -- or lead them to fade from history. At least 80 percent of  Madagascar's species are found nowhere else on Earth because it has been an island for 88 million years.  

"The first word you teach people is 'endemic,' " Désirè says, meaning unique to Madagascar.  

He's about 60, but he has a 100-year vision for Antanetiambo. Duke's SAVA Conservation project is his partner, paying for the new boundary markers, providing a DukeEngage student for the summer and supporting trackers who are in the reserve every day watching for the small population of bamboo lemurs. These guides are cheaper and less stressful to the animals than radio collars, explains Erik Patel, the Duke Lemur Center's conservation director for the SAVA project and Désirè's partner in field research for more than a decade. In a reserve this size, trackers and researchers are going to be able to make almost daily observations once the animals become acclimated to their presence, Patel says.

During the summer of 2013, DukeEngage student Cameron Tripp (T'15) mapped the boundary of the Antanetiambo reserve with GPS, and then conducted a thorough census of all the humans and livestock living around it. He also plotted the size and locations of three kinds of bamboo, the preferred food of the bamboo lemurs. (Read more about his project.)

Aside from figuring out just how much land Désirè has assembled at about $1,000 per acre, Tripp's work is important for determining how much range and food is needed to sustain the lemur population.  

This warm afternoon, in addition to admiring what Désirè has assembled, we're hoping for a glimpse of the bamboo lemurs. We're also told there should be some mouse lemurs in here, but they're nocturnal, tiny, and very difficult to count in any systematic way.

We climb still further, traversing a 30-degree slope of slick mud and grasping the foliage for handholds. A few in the party have muddy bottoms from slipping and everyone is wishing they had brought more water.

Rabary Désirè stops again and makes a loud, long hoot. It's not a lemur call, it's a non-human signal the guides use to relay their positions. Barely audible in the distance, it is answered in kind.

He's a natural, almost compulsive teacher, pointing out edible fruits and impressive spiders on all sides, explaining the origins and uses of several plants and veering off the trail at one point to share a heavy, noisy beehive he had found on a tree trunk. "We have to hurry him along sometimes because he's stopping every few minutes to explain something," says Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center conservationist and leader of the SAVA Conservation project.

Several times on the tour, Désirè also pauses to point out "the gap," a finger of land stabbing into the reserve's eastern flank that is still owned by others. It clearly bothers him, but before the year's end he hopes to have it. And after that, there are other areas he covets to round out and expand this little island. As we reach one edge of the reserve, we see the property line sharply demarcated by which side has been under the machete. 

Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder says the overwhelming impression she has on returning to Madagascar after a 15-year absence is 'connectedness.'  In addition to the GPS signals researchers are using, cell phones are abundant, even where electricity isn't. At one point on the Antanetiambo tour, Patel pulls out his cell phone and tries to call a guide named Jackson who is out of range of the hoot on the other side of the reserve.

Connectedness also has a downside for Madagascar, which was long forgotten and out of the way. Internet connectivity is fueling an international sex tourism economy, and  globalization has accelerated the loss of rare and endangered hardwood trees like rosewood, which are poached from the remaining forests and smuggled out of the country's sea ports.

Ninety percent of Madagascar's ancestral habitat is gone and lemurs are now considered the most endangered mammals on the planet. Conservation here can feel like a race.

Désirè "all the time" guides student groups through Marojejy National Park. Though these students live within view of the park's foggy massifs, "it is the first time they've ever been in primary forest," Désirè says. "Many of them have never seen lemurs. The plants and animals, are very new."  But Marojejy is a sweaty, vigorous three-day trek that only high school-aged students could handle.

Desire RabaryA patient and encyclopedic research guide, Desire Rabary has used his own money to assemble the nature reserve.

Antanetiambo reserve is closer to the city of Andapa than the national park and easily accomplished by a day trip. Désirè hopes it might also become a stop on the eco-tourism tour. "People coming here from France, Germany and America are not impressed by the buildings," he says. "They are impressed by biodiversity, by life."

Désirè stops and hoots again, and the call is suddenly returned from much closer. We round a bend and find Desiré Razafimahatratra, a quiet and slightly sweating guide in his late 20s who shows us on his GPS where two bamboo lemurs were spotted two days ago just a few feet away from where we stand. No sign of them today, he whispers in French.

After an hour, we emerge on the far side of the reserve, lemur-less but no less inspired. Descending a slope with commanding views of the paddies stretching west, we pass through a small collection of weathered homes. This was considered a "cursed village" for reasons nobody remembers, Patel says. "People here are a lot happier since we've been here," he adds. A public library built by Patel's charity Simpona at the crossroads across from Désirè's house has been very popular. So have its Duke-supported English classes.

That library has also helped Désirè  become even wiser.  Over a rice-intensive lunch cooked by his wife, he speaks with Yoder about the big bang and evolution in his heavily accented English.

Désirè says he expects Patel to carry the reserve forward when he's gone. "It will be real thick forest, and more researchers will come here, and more tourists. We'll be more famous." He laughs triumphantly. "That has been our dream."

For more on Duke SAVA Conservation in Northeastern Madagascar, please visit Duke Magazine, Winter 2013 or the Duke Lemur Center. To see where else we went on our 2013 visit, view the interactive Google Earth map or view a Pinterest photo tour.