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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UN Conference: Save Biodiversity Before It’s Too Late

Oct. 27, 2010 – By: Nick Engelfried

By the end of the week, delegates from close to 200 countries hope to agree on new measures that would dramatically reduce plant and animal extinctions by the year 2020.  At a United Nations conference in Nagoya, Japan government officials are considering issues that include protection of plant and animal habitat, restoration of degraded ecosystems, reducing pollution that contributes to biodiversity loss, and who is entitled to profit from the vast genetic riches of plant and animal species in developing countries. 

An international agreement to protect biodiversity has become increasingly important as more and more species are pushed toward the brink of extinction.  A study authored by 170 scientists warns that a fifth of the world’s vertebrates—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—are in imminent danger of extinction if current trends continue.  Yet previous efforts to slow the loss of species have produced mixed results at best: countries that have ratified the international Convention on Biological Diversity were supposed to have significantly slowed global extinctions by this year, and have largely failed to do so. 

Many policymakers and environmental groups now see this month’s meeting in Japan as a chance to re-energize worldwide efforts to protect biodiversity.  There have already been some promising developments: last week India announced it will become the first country to incorporate services provided by nature into economic analyses, and China has rolled out a new plan to protect species and ecosystems within its national borders.  On Wednesday Japan, the chair of this month’s discussions, said it will devote two billion dollars to help developing countries conserve their natural resources.

Yet with negotiations set to end Friday, it remains to be seen whether countries can agree on concrete and achievable targets for protecting species.  Developing countries, where much of the world’s species diversity is located, have said they need more help from industrialized nations if they are to successfully prevent loss of rainforests and other species-rich ecosystems.  So far it’s unclear whether European nations will commit to giving the same level of aid Japan has.  Meanwhile the United States, which has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, is extremely unlikely to participate in any large-scale aid program.  The United States is attending this month’s meetings only as an observer, and not an official participant in the negotiating process.

Also at issue is who should reap the economic benefits of global biodiversity.  Scientists have long pointed to the potential for finding new cures to disease as one of the principle reasons preserving genetic diversity of plants and animals is important.  Yet some developing nations, including Brazil, charge that companies based out of developed nations have been allowed to profit from discoveries that could not have been made without access to the biological riches of the tropics.  Brazil is in favor of adopting an Access and Benefits Sharing Protocol, which would require developing nations be compensated when corporations make use of their native species.

In the best case scenario, negotiations would end Friday with adoption of sweeping measures to prevent habitat loss, pollution, over-fishing, and other leading causes of species decline.  The international advocacy group Avaaz is urging that governments commit to set aside 20% of the planet’s land and water for the permanent protection of biodiversity.  Avaaz is circulating an online petition in favor of this goal, which by Wednesday had accumulated more than 300,000 signatures. 

The next three days will determine whether world governments are able to follow through on these ambitious goals.  If they are, it will be a hopeful sign for millions of threatened species for whom time is quickly running out.

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried