In Madagascar, Newly Discovered Biodiversity Threatened by Political Turmoil

This week the international conservation group WWF released a report documenting recent findings about the biological riches of Madagascar, even as biodiversity on the island remains threatened by the fallout from a political coup that occurred over two years ago.  The WWF report, “Treasure Island: New Biodiversity on Madagascar,” lists 615 new plant and animal species discovered on the island between 1999 and 2010.  Like other Madagascan species, many of the new discoveries are threatened by poaching and habitat destruction, and need international support to ensure their survival into the future.

Located off the eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar has long been recognized as a globally important biodiversity hotspot.  Fully 70% of plant and animal species there are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.  The island’s most famous non-human inhabitants are the lemurs, a group of slightly over 30 primate species (like the white-headed lemur shown at left) found only on Madagascar and smaller nearby islands.  Other endemic species include brightly colored chameleons and geckos, towering baobab trees, the cat-like predatory fossa, and a plethora of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and plants. 

Yet the number of species newly described within the last twelve years shows how much remains to be learned about Madagascar’s biodiversity.  WWF documents a total of 41 mammal species, 61 reptiles, 69 amphibians, 17 fish, 42 invertebrates, and 385 plants newly described from Madagascar since the start of 1999.  Remarkable species highlighted in the WWF report include a gecko that can rapidly change from soft brown to bright blue, a frog with semi-transparent skin, an edible yam plant that could potentially be cultivated as a food crop, and a palm tree that only flowers once its lifetime and then dies.

The report also documents 28 new lemur species described from Madagascar over the last twelve years—a remarkable feat considering that finding new relatively large mammals like primates is extremely rare.  Some of the new lemurs were known prior to 1999, but had been lumped in with other species which were eventually revealed through DNA tests to consist of multiple distinct species of lemurs.  This shows the diversity of lemurs on Madagascar to be even greater than previously realized, making their conservation all the more important.

However even as scientists have been describing new species from Madagascar, conservation efforts on the island nation have been set back by political turmoil.  In early 2009 the democratically elected government of President Marc Ravalomanana was overthrown in a coup staged by the former mayor of the capital city.  Despite protests from international bodies like the African Union, Mayor Andry Rajoelina installed himself as the new president of Madagascar.  Meanwhile dissolution of the existing government led to lax enforcement of environmental laws and an increase in illegal logging and poaching.

Perhaps just as important, Madagascar’s political unrest has hurt the economically important tourist industry and caused the international community to withhold funds that might find their way into the hands of the new government.  Though intended as a means of showing disapproval for the coup, this has led to reduced funding for conservation efforts and other services, again putting pressure on Madagascar’s forests.  Conservationists now risk seeing years of work unravel in Madagascar as poaching and logging spin out of control.

The WWF report released this week serves as a reminder of just how important continued conservation work in Madagascar really is.  While the international community works to restore democracy in the country, hope remains that the political situation can be stabilized and environmental protections restored.  Groups and individuals looking to bypass the Madagascan government and donate directly to conservation groups doing work on the ground can send donations to nonprofits like WWF Madagascar and Azafady

Like in other parts of the world where political upheaval has led to environmental destruction, the best hope for Madagascar’s wildlife is to restore democracy and political stability as soon as possible, with support from the international community. 

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