The Missouri Botanical Garden is headquartered in the USA and in 1987 it launched its Madagascar Programme (MBG-Madagascar), which today is committed to understanding and safeguarding the island’s unique, diverse and highly threatened flora, and their ecosystems. Focused in and around 11 Priority Areas for Plant Conservation, MBG-Madagascar collaborates with communities at the local level to protect the rich biodiversity of the island and the natural heritage of the Malagasy people.
Since the 1970s, MBG-Madagascar’s work has focused on understanding and preventing the loss of Madagascar’s uniquely rich and irreplaceable floral diversity. Home to 11,500 vascular plant species – at least 82% of which are endemic – the Malagasy flora stands out as a global priority for research and conservation. For decades MBG-Madagascar has carried out vital work to discover, describe and database flora species through inventory, taxonomic research, assessments of the risk status of species, and analyses to identify priority areas for plant conservation.
Except for its international Technical Advisor, all 90 of MBG-Madagascar’s permanent staff are Malagasy, and all rangers and plant nursery staff are recruited locally. Their work to preserve their floral heritage has helped demonstrate the global importance of conserving and restoring Madagascar’s forest fragments, where many locally endemic plants cling to existence.
World Land Trust (WLT) has been in contact with MBG-Madagascar since 2018 and we formally became partners in 2023, marking the beginning of a project to expand and protect the highly threatened Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika forests which were once part of a vast arboreal expanse covering the entire eastern region of Madagascar. While this forest is the home of a very diverse fauna and flora including over 42 threatened species, it is also seriously degraded, deforested and fragmented, and subjected to ongoing pressures. This reflects the wider situation on the island: up to 90% of Madagascar’s precious natural habitats have already been lost and all of the remainder have been degraded to a greater or lesser extent. Malagasy humid forests (like Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika), hold a good proportion of the country’s biodiversity, also contain fertile soils valued for agriculture and trees sought for timber and fuel wood, and thus have been especially badly impacted.
In 2015, 1,553 ha of Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika forests were designated as a Protected Area. However, due to the reserve’s small area compared to its outer boundary, it is exposed to several threats such as increased wildfire activity and tropical cyclones. Here and throughout the island, these events are worsening with the climate crisis, causing serious impacts to biodiversity as well as human lives and livelihoods.
With WLT funds, MBG-Madagascar will expand the Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika Protected Area by acquiring an additional 200 ha of degraded habitat surrounding the existing protected lands. This will then be restored to native forest with a special focus on improving the status of certain tree species that are now very rare at this site. WLT funds will support 12 rangers as well as other MBG-Madagascar staff working on the project. As part of the project, MBG-Madagascar will also provide 30 tree nursery training opportunities for local people, who will then be compensated to produce and plant the 500,000 native trees on the acquired land: skills that they will then be able to transfer to establish their own nurseries, producing young plants for sale.
Community-based conservation characterises MBG-Madagascar’s approach to all its interventions. The 200 ha of land to be restored in this project will be managed according to rules (locally referred to as dina), developed by and implemented through organised assemblies of local people.
MBG-Madagascar’s first project to be supported by WLT focuses on the humid Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika forests in south-eastern Madagascar – a vestige of a once vast, but now largely destroyed expanse of forest that covered the eastern side of Madagascar. These forest fragments are now the only significant areas of natural vegetation remaining in the Vangaindrano District. Moreover, low-elevation evergreen forest of this type is a seriously under-represented forest type in Madagascar’s protected area network.
The 200-ha extension of the Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika Protected Area will act as a buffer zone surrounding the existing forest. Around 95% of the designated land for this project is deforested and consists of a species-poor shrub savanna, but the remainder represents a unique moist broadleaf forest biome, which across the world is home to some of the world’s rarest species, many of which are still undocumented by science.
Between 2023 and 2028, MBG-Madagascar aims to use WLT funds to carefully restore forest on the acquired land by propagating and planting 500,000 native trees from a selection of at least 70 locally sourced native woody plant species, including those that are now very rare at the site because of selective exploitation. This work will not only expand the protected forest but also significantly contribute to improving its integrity and reducing the risk of degradation by outside threats.
Like most of Madagascar’s forests, cultural heritage and value is rooted in the Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika forests. Described as a ‘hospital’ for the local Antesaka people, it is a source of medicines and also wild foods, and harbours raw materials used to construct traditional houses. It also hosts important water sources that flow from the forest to irrigate crops, especially rice, farmed by local communities in the surrounding landscape. Because of these relationships, the ethno-botanical knowledge and practices of local communities will be central to MBG-Madagascar’s approach to forest restoration, and around 1,000 local people will be employed throughout the restoration project.
Threatened animals and plants
Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika is the last home of lemurs in the Vangaindrano District. At least six species occur at the site, including two species that are currently unnamed and the subject of taxonomic studies. All the lemur species are threatened, but of greatest importance is the Critically Endangered White-collared Lemur. This species occurs in only a few fragments of tropical moist lowland forest in a tiny area of south-eastern Madagascar, where the Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika forests are located. The forests also support a high diversity of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians but, to date, these have not been inventoried.
MBG-Madagascar’s project will also bring increased protection to over 300 plant species, nearly all of which are unique to Madagascar, with some being known only from this site. These include at least 42 species classified as threatened: the most notable being the following Critically Endangered species: Cryptopus dissectus (an orchid), the Dypsis elegans and Dypsis singularis (both palms), and the Dombeya pilosissima (a shrub with beautiful clusters of pink flowers).
Since MBG-Madagascar’s first intervention at this site in 2009, and especially following Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika’s designation as a new protected area in 2015, the site-based team have overseen the activity of community patrols to discourage shifting cultivation and the illicit exploitation of timber. In addition, through local committees, the team have informed and facilitated the sustainable harvesting of natural resources in some specially defined parts of the site.
Grants from different donors have also enabled special time-limited interventions including:
- Improvements to local schools
- Planting of 156,000 seedlings of fast-growing non-native trees on degraded land outside the reserve as an alternative to the wood from native trees
- Voluntary land exchanges allowed to return 59 ha to the protected area, with 85 farmers working land within the protected area to enable them to leave the forest and access land of at least equivalent value outside of the reserve.
- Producing and planting around 75,000 seedlings from 70 native tree species, restoring 59 ha of plots within the forest that have been abandoned by farmers
- Engagement of 1,000 young people in tree-planting activities and raising awareness of lemur conservation
Since the establishment of MBG-Madagascar in 1987, our partner has achieved the following:
- Published scientific research to name and describe hundreds of “new” plant species
- Supported the largest botanical discovery program anywhere in the world in modern times
- Databased information associated with hundreds of botanical publications and hundreds of thousands of herbarium specimens (both historical and recent), contributing to the creation of the most comprehensive freely available database on Malagasy flora
- Identified 79 orphan Priority Areas for Plant Conservation in Madagascar
- Supported masters and doctoral studies of over 100 Malagasy students
- Built capacity within Madagascar’s national herbaria
- Through research and consultations with diverse stakeholders, developed the dossiers enabling the designation of 11 Priority Areas for Plant Conservation as protected areas officially recognised within the national protected area network
- Managed 11 newly designated protected areas for plant conservation in collaboration with local stakeholders to improve their conservation status while improving local livelihoods
As part of this work MBG-Madagascar’s site-based conservation teams have:
- Implemented 35 development projects including the construction or improvement of one clinic, nine classrooms, one dam, three bridges, three markets and scores of wells
- Installed and annually maintained 35 km of firebreaks
- Supported daily patrols from 100 community rangers
- Created six field gene banks
- Each year produced and planted around 50,000 seedlings of native trees for use in the restoration of native forest
- Supported the out-planting of 1.5 million seedlings of non-native trees onto degraded land as an alternative to the use of wood from native trees
- Supported hundreds of awareness-raising events including village film shows, radio broadcasts, biodiversity festivals and nature rambles for students
- Monitored the results and impact of their work, ensuring that the right lessons are learnt and shared