Friday, September 13, 2013

Conservation sucks.

I must apologize in advance for the dark nature of this post. In general, it is a pretty sucky time to be a conservationist, and at the moment it is an extra sucky time for me, for reasons I have outlined below. I am cautiously hopeful that a lot of squawking and some persistence will pay off. Fingers crossed...

I spent the last few weeks at Tsimanampetsotsa National Park (TNP) in southwestern Madagascar. This is the same site where I lived for about 10 months while collecting data on lemurs for my doctoral dissertation. You may recall when Madagascar tried to kill me, or the fact that I survived this attempted assassination. TNP is the largest remaining spiny forest parcel in Madagascar and an important habitat for many bizarre endemic animals and plants. Like the eye-less, pigment-less cave fish. They will freak you out.

Blind, pigment-less cave fish (Typhloetris madagascariensis). We-eird.

Anyhow, before this trip, I was last at TNP in April of 2011, so two and a half years passed between my visits. And sadly, time has not been good to my critter friends or their forest home. Habitat degradation (primarily resulting from cattle grazing) continues at TNP but it is no longer the primary threat. Here are a few of the dramatic changes which have taken place that are placing the plants and animals in immediate peril:

1. The radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) which was plentiful in 2011, is at least locally extinct. These are harvested for the luxury bush meat trade and traditional medicines in Madagascar and Asia. In Madagascar these critically endangered beasties sell for about $5 US, and in China they go for up to $60000 USD. The black market trade of radiated tortoises has been a serious problem over the last 10 years or so, but TNP was a strong hold for the species because of local taboo against touching or eating forest animals, and the large and inhospitable nature of the landscape. But someone figured out that tortoises were present, and now the they are gone. Here is a little clip of me admiring a tortoise female in 2010:

2. Direct deforestation is rampant. People are just chopping down and hauling out trees. Even though TNP is a National Park and supposedly protected area. And of course, it is the big old trees which are useful/valuable, so the big ones are being selected and huge open gaps of desert are left. There is plenty of other evidence of human activity, such as fire pits, garbage, and tracks/scat of the dogs that people bring along. Other than occasional dog tracks, I had not previously seen any of this activity. Yowzer. I documented some of this, which you can see here:

And perhaps the worst of all,

3. The lemurs and the Little Bastards (i.e. Galidictis grandidieri) are being poached. Ring-tailed lemurs and Verreaux's sifaka are both endangered and the Bastards are critically endangered. They are being taken from TNP for the alternative meat trade ("alternative" because there are more cows than people in Madagascar, and meat or protein per se isn't limited, although food in general is), and each animal sells for about $2.50 US in neighboring ethnic regions or the larger cities of Madagascar. Southern Madagascar, until now, has been relatively free of hunting because of the local taboos, but outside pressures are now sufficient to warrant harvesting these mammals. My local friends report *hundreds* of smoked animals being brought out of the forest at a time. For two bucks a head. 

F*ck me. Honestly, I wouldn't have expected this in twenty years, let alone in a little better than two. 

How did this happen? Its complicated. Political instability and the breakdown of governmental processes. Increasing transientness with decreasing traditional values. Lack of community communication and conservation education. Non-existent protection. These all contribute. Not to mention extreme poverty and global demand for extractive resources. 

But I mustn't get carried away with the woes of the world and lose focus on the critters I know so well, who need help. The situation isn't completely hopeless. Tortoises could be reintroduced. Trees can be planted. In fact, hope to get some grant monies for emergency conservation work, so that I can head back to TNP in the next couple of months and get a better handle on what is happening and how to best address the needs of the people, forest, and animals. Fingers double crossed that my colleagues and I can accomplish some major changes in time. Because the alternatives suck. 

PLEASE do send ideas, suggestions, or simply virtual hugs. All are needed.

Here are a few lemur pics from this year that I just like.

Hanging on. Barely.

The lemur version of "can I help you?"

What a bad-ass. And check out the snaggle cap!

Awe. Its snuggle time.

PS I never said they were perfect.


  1. Marni,
    I'm devastated and have chills reading this post! It's absolutely horrible what is happening at your site. It's such a frustrating situation for us lemur lovers, researchers and conservationists. I really hope you can get some emergency funding to get back to TNP. I'm now in the midst of finishing my dissertation, but I hope to return to Mada soon. Please let me know if there is anything, specifically, I can do to help you and your lemurs! I do have many ideas regarding community conservation efforts which I have wanted to try and implement in the areas where Lisa, Denise and I work. Something must be done before all these wonderful creatures are gone. Sending hhus your way.
    Love and Lemurs,

  2. Not the little bastards! And the tortoises were just everywhere, it's horrible to imagine that they're gone. Jeez... this sucks... Was that clip of the deforestation below the ridge where all those fig trees were? The big tree looked familiar. If there's anything I can do, let me know.
    PS: Does snaggle cap have a name?

  3. Tara- Isn't it horrible?! Thanks for the offer and well wishes. I will keep you posted as this evolves. Right now, I need cash, so that is the first step.

    Meghan- I owe you a message, Mrs. Palmer ;) Yes, the bastards are now dinner and the deforestation in the video is down by the figs. In many spots there are no plants left at all, so it is really hot and obviously there are no lemur foods. I also found giant lollipops-o-death in the forest (ie death balls placed on sticks) which are set to trap lemurs or bastards. Oh, and Snaggle Cap's name is Snaggle Cap. This may be a problem though, as there seem to be a few snaggle caps. Kinda like Shorttail and Shorttail two.