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Rainforest biodiversity

DLC-SAVA Conservation collaborates with the association Vahatra to study the biodiversity in remote rainforests of SAVA. The team included specialists on different kinds of animals, revealing surprising diversity in birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. 47 species of reptiles and amphibians were found, as well as 14 species of small mammals (tenrecs and rodents) and 60 species of birds.

You can read more about these exciting expeditions in the 2018 DLC-SAVA Conservation newsletter and in Dr. Blanco’s Notes from the Field blog series and article “Of Conservation, Conflict, and Conscience,” published in Lemur News: The Newsletter of the Madagascar Section of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group.

DLC-SAVA Conservation collaborates with multiple partners to conduct biodiversity research in one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots on earth. Top left: Butterflies are diverse in SAVA, with new species found in and around the national parks. Bottom left: Mantella frogs use their bright colors to warn predators they are poisonous. Middle: The silky sifaka is endemic to the SAVA region, and is extremely rare and endangered. Top right: Uroplatus lineatus is a type of leaf-tailed gecko. Bottom right: The helmet vanga is a fantastic bird endemic to Madagascar.

Geographic distributions of lemurs in SAVA, and threats to viability

In a collaborative effort, the DLC is partnering with Malagasy scientists and local forest managers to study lemurs in remote rainforests. Researchers from CURSA, the university in the northeast region, are studying the diversity and abundance of lemurs throughout 200,000+ acres of rainforest to understand how many of these Critically Endangered species remain. We are particularly focusing on the silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus) because it is a highly threatened flagship species that only persists in some of the most pristine forests.

In addition to studying ecology and diversity, the team is also studying the threats to those lemur communities. Based on annual surveys, the frequency of human threats to the environment are increasing, including hunting, logging, and clear-cutting forest. The Malagasy team will conduct information campaigns with the communities to understand the socio-economic and cultural reasons behind natural resource use. They will partner closely with the local forest managers to develop strategic action plans that can allow for sustainable development and improving local livelihoods, while also decreasing pressures on natural resources and conserving lemurs and their habitats. You can read more about this project in our December 2020 newsletter and in our blogs.

The silky sifaka, Propithecus candidus, is the focus of ongoing lemur-monitoring research. These lemurs are Critically Endangered due to logging, clearing forest for agriculture, and hunting. Teams of Malagasy scientists and forest managers will lead a campaign during 2021 to monitor lemurs and to develop sustainability projects with communities. 

Is soil health linked to human health?

The degradation of natural environments not only threatens biodiversity, but also the ecosystem services crucial to human health. In a consortium of interdisciplinary scientists, DLC-SAVA Conservation is beginning a planetary health project that combines research and intervention to increase the sustainability and health of farmers in the SAVA region. Specifically, we are investigating the links among soil health, agricultural practices, diet and food security, socioeconomics, and health in rural populations. Our plan is to study the effects of farming practices on soil health via physical, chemical, and biological analyses. In turn, data on diets and population health will allow us to understand how food insecurity and micronutrient deficiencies are related to malnutrition. We will conduct interventions to teach about agroecology methods that improve soil health, as well as about nutritious balanced diets that improve human health. We are extremely grateful to the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine and the seed grant they have awarded our team to jump-start this research!

As detailed in our page on Capacity Building, in 2019 DLC-SAVA initiated workshops on agroecology with farming communities in the SAVA region. We have continued monthly follow-ups with our participants, recording as they begin to adopt the techniques they practiced in the workshops. Next, we will evaluate if implementing agroecology techniques is linked to increasing soil health, improved yields of nutritious crops, improved diets, and ultimately better human health.

Since 2018, in collaboration with Dr. Randall Kramer of the Nicholas School for the Environment, program coordinator James Herrera has been leading surveys in villages to understand the links between agriculture and food security. Thus far, based on surveys of over 300 households in 3 villages, we are finding that food security is a significant issue in the region, with over 70% of interviewed respondents reporting periods during the year when there is not enough food for the household. The reasons include small land sizes, and low harvests of food crops like rice, and cash crops like vanilla. Food insecurity is also linked to household size; larger households have higher food insecurity, but those families with larger land ownings have lower food insecurity. These analyses are on-going, and will be published in the near future.

DLC-SAVA’s new research project combines data collection through interviews, and training workshops in agroecology. We will host more workshops to increase the diversity of skills farmers have for improving their soil quality and yield. We will compare soil and human health before and after workshops to determine if adopting agroecology techniques improves the quality of soil, people’s diets, and ultimately human health.

Workshops focus on improving soil health, diversifying crops, and agroforestry. Already we are seeing great results, with 50% of participants creating their own gardens and harvesting nutritious crops like beans, greens, and squash.

One Health in SAVA

One Health is the study of human health and how it relates to the environment, other animals, and plants. DLC-SAVA has facilitated the research of Drs. Charles Nunn and Randy Kramer from Duke University to study the effects of conservation on disease dynamics. DLC-SAVA Program Coordinator Dr. James Herrera led this project between 2017-2019, investigating the infectious diseases of mammals in the region and how the transmission of disease can be related to deforestation. This project, originally supported by the Duke Bass Connections Program and the Collaboratory grant, is now supported by the US National Institute of Health. You can read more about this work at the Bass Connections page and in our 2020 and 2018 newsletters.

Research led by Nunn and Duke scientists and students has demonstrated non-communicable diseases are also a problem in Madagascar. By surveying over 500 villagers, the research showed that about 50% of people have hypertension.

Duke researchers have been investigating the links between farmers’ land use, changes to animal populations, and the effects on infectious diseases. Between 2017 and 2019, James Herrera (DLC-SAVA Program Coordinator), led this research with Drs. Charles Nunn and Randy Kramer at Duke Global Health Institute. James and Malagasy student, Tamby Ranaivoson, investigated the diseases in small mammals, domestic animals, and people (top left). Small mammals include the endemic tenrec (bottom left) as well as rats and mice. Duke and Malagasy students worked together with local partners to conduct health surveys with local communities (top right). Duke also hosted a small walk-in clinic for the local communities, where Dr. Thierry could see patients, provide diagnosis and medicines (bottom right).

Fuel-efficient cook stove research

In most of the low-income countries of the world, households cook and heat their homes with firewood or charcoal. The same is true for about 75% of Malagasy people, which creates a significant demand for fuelwood, and is a cause for deforestation. The DLC-SAVA Conservation program has long supported the adoption of fuel-efficient cook stove technology. We especially try to promote the highly durable and efficient ADES rocket stoves, which use less than half as much firewood as a traditional firepit. Recently, DLC researchers Drs. Marina Blanco and Lydia Green, with Charlie Welch of the DLC-SAVA program, and former Peace Corp volunteer Libby Davis published a study on the factors affecting the adoption of the new “rocket stoves.”

So far, the highly economical ADES stoves have not had widespread adoption, largely limited because of difficulties in distributing the stoves on a large scale across the region, and the relatively high costs for rural farmers. Currently, there are new plans for ADES to increase their activities in the SAVA region, including finding local storage facilities for economical mass shipments. ADES, DLC-SAVA Conservation, and other local actors are helping to identify qualified local entrepreneurs who can be distributors and can disseminate the use and effectiveness of the stoves more broadly than DLC-SAVA Conservation could do alone. Further, there are several locally manufactured stoves by SAVA artisans that are affordable and accessible, which could stimulate an alternative stove source and support local entrepreneurs as well. We continue to investigate these options, and your donations help us meet our goals.

Emphasizing the need for environmental education

Education is fundamental at all age levels for effective development plans of all kinds, and it is especially true of environmental issues. For 50-70% of children in the SAVA region, they will only have the opportunity to attend primary school. During these formative years, already overwhelmed teachers focus on the basics of reading, writing, math, and history, and environmental education is not part of the curriculum. This means that many of the youth in SAVA will never formally learn about fundamentals like the water cycle, or where oxygen comes from. However, many of the students grow up with farms and forests in their backyards, where they learn about fundamentals of nature through hands-on experience, and knowledge passed down from their elders.

Many community-based conservation programs such as DLC-SAVA engage in environmental education programs focused on youth groups such as primary and secondary school students. At DLC-SAVA, we have had longterm collaborations with the regional educational system to create training opportunities for teachers on how to implement environmental education in their existing curricula. Thus far, over 2,000 teachers from Sambava and Andapa school districts have participated in the program, during which they are trained using a manual created by local education officials and the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG). After engaging in the week-long workshops, our vision has been that the “cascade effect” will lead these teachers to reach far more students than the DLC-SAVA program could alone.

To gather baseline knowledge about children’s perceptions on the environment, DLC-SAVA Conservation conducted research, recently published by DLC researchers Drs. Marina Blanco and Lydia Greene, in collaboration with DLC-SAVA staff Fusiane Razafindrainibe and Lanto Andrianandrasana as well as Alexie Rudman, a student from the Nicholas School of the Environment. The study polled classrooms of students in cities and in rural villages to find out what they thought about forests and their resources, animals, and water. Students almost unanimously recognized that forests take a long time to grow, that trees grow from seeds, and that forests are important for providing resources like medicinal plants, fuelwood, and construction materials. Students also recognized the differences between common domestic and wild animals.

It was also informative to learn that some lemurs are considered taboo to eat, and many felt lemurs could be kept as pets. One application from these results is to include information campaigns advising against the pet trade of wild animals, an important and growing issue in Madagascar. A follow up to this study could delve deeper into children’s knowledge of local plant resources, and their perceptions about ecosystem services they learn from experience in the forest with elders. Another area for future work is to determine how students would perform with surveys focused on the material taught during the teacher training workshops.

At DLC-SAVA Conservation, we believe education is a key element for successful conservation. We engage students at all levels, from primary school, through undergraduate and graduate universities. We know education doesn’t only occur in the schools, and we find opportunities to engage students with the rainforests as their classrooms. DLC-SAVA has a strong partnership with Macolline Private Reserve, which hosts school visits to a lush jungle paradise nestled just outside the city of Antalaha. At Macolline, over 400 students annually take educational field trips to the reserve, with skilled educators like Ertice who can explain the value of the forest for people (left). We also lead workshops for university students in ecology and conservation, especially how to conduct biodiversity research (right).

More information

More information and photos of DLC-SAVA activities can be found in our newsletter archive.


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