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CONTACT: Janet Basu, News Service (650) 723-7582;
Stephen Sautner, Wildlife Conservation Society
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Wendy Driscoll, Care International, Nairobi, Kenya
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Stanford scientists help design Madagascar park to preserve rare species ­ and sustain the people living nearby

Masoala is one of those remote versions of paradise that seems utterly logical to protect as a nature preserve. An isolated peninsula sticking out like an opposable thumb on the east of the island of Madagascar, it holds the nation's last large rainforest, a lush and virtually unexplored wilderness that is home to some of the rarest animals on Earth, including wide-eyed lemurs and a serpent eagle once thought to be extinct.

Yet the new 840-square-mile Masoala National Park, officially dedicated Oct. 18-19 by the people of the Malagasy Republic, is in a region where eventual destruction of the wilderness seemed inevitable because local residents were dependent on slash-and-burn rice farming to survive.
Photo courtesy of David Parks

The green frog, species Boophis also is unique to Madagascar.

A former reserve here lost its protected status years ago, and planners of the new park knew they must draw its boundaries not only to preserve rare species but to offer a better livelihood for the 45,000 people who live on the peninsula. "Unless the needs of the local people are considered, they have no choice but to continue with their traditional land use practices, leaving them in poverty, with both the land and biodiversity devastated," said Claire Kremen, a research associate with Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology (CCB). "The future of the park requires that people be able to support themselves and better their lives without the temptation to cut down the forest."

Kremen (Stanford B.S. '82) holds a joint appointment with CCB and as an associate conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). She led the planning team that designed the park for an international consortium that includes the Madagascar government, the WCS, CARE International, the Peregrine Fund and the people of Masoala.

Integrated conservation and development programs have been devised for existing nature preserves, but Kremen said to her knowledge this is the first time a major preserve has been designed from its outset on both scientific and socioeconomic principles.

In consultation with local communities, Masoala's planners sought to preserve natural habitats while respecting the traditional boundaries of villages. A long-term management plan is being implemented for the park and its surrounding waters. To help villagers better their lives yet sustain the forest, work is under way to build markets for renewable resources, such as ecotourism, butterfly farming and the sale of individually cut trees to buyers of high-value "certified sustainable" wood.
Photo courtesy of Phil Guillery

Conservation agents, specially-trained members of the local population, visited scores of villages on the Masoala Peninsula to learn about the population and what villagers considered to be the local forest necessary for their use. Here a conservation agent uses a Global Positioning System receiver to determine the latitude and longitude of the village.

Kremen said, "Madagascar can be proud of this model accomplishment. It is a great victory for biodiversity and humanity, and an opportunity to protect the nation's unique species far into the future. The establishment of the Masoala National Park is an extraordinary and inspiring story, of people coming together from many disciplines, social strata, nationalities and ideologies, to create a common vision for sustainable management of a region of both exceptional biological richness and economic potential."

Satellite maps and ground truth

Planning for the park took place during an intensive three-year campaign by a consortium of the Malagasy Parks Board and Malagasy Forestry Department and international non-governmental organizations. Most of the scientific data was collected by two teams: biologists led by Kremen and noted Malagasy conservation biologist Vincent Razafimahatratra; and village surveyors, 20 local Masoalans trained by Jocelyn Rakotomalala of CARE.

The teams started with topographic maps and satellite imagery provided by the Missouri Botanical Garden and the U.S. Geological Survey, to chart the rugged terrain and the vegetation of the 1,500-square-mile peninsula. At Stanford, Center for Conservation Biology scientist Andrew Weiss and a crew of undergraduates began the laborious task of entering contours, hydrology and settlement data into a Geographic Information System (GIS), a multi-layered set of maps that was used by the planning team to analyze the scientific and human dimensions of the park's design.

The biology and village survey teams set out to find the "ground truth" of these maps. The bulk of their work had to be conducted over 15 months, by tramping over steep, steaming, forested terrain with no roads, even between villages. Locations were recorded in the field using satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) instruments. Locations and data about the settlements and biology were sent to the Center for Conservation Biology and integrated into the GIS maps.

The task was to establish a scientific basis for choosing which parts of the peninsula to set aside as most crucial to support the peninsula's rich diversity of species, and how much forest to leave outside the preserve as a functional buffer and support zone in which to develop sustainable economic alternatives to forest destruction. Using the GIS system, the project's scientists and managers could produce analyses and maps that proved crucial in presenting the park plans to the government and decision makers.

The stakes were high. Masoala is the largest untouched wilderness on Madagascar, an island isolated from nearby Africa for hundreds of millions of years and home to thousands of species found nowhere else on earth. Some, such as the red-ruffed lemur, the gigantic palm Marojejya darianii and the carnivorous pitcher plant, Nepenthes masoala, are found only on this peninsula.

At strategically located sampling sites, Kremen, Razafimahatratra and a team of dedicated Malagasy students conducted biodiversity inventories of birds, mammals, selected insect taxa and one of the world's most diverse collection of palms. They assessed the potential influence on diversity of gradients in rainfall, elevation, soil type, distance along the peninsula and distance from the forest's edge into the forest.

Butterflies show the way

To find out how many different types of terrain should be protected, they relied in part on work that Kremen and colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London had done earlier, studying a group of brown "wood nymph" butterflies that have differentiated into more than 60 different species across Madagascar. Each species occupies its own niche; the butterflies are an indicator that different types of soil, moisture and other conditions support a different mix of plants and animals in each of those habitat types.

It was the first time that this application of butterflies as an "indicator species" was used to design a nature preserve.

To find out how large an area should be protected, the scientists assessed the ranges needed by wide-foraging animals like red-ruffed lemurs and the Madagascar serpent eagle, a species feared extinct, but rediscovered by the Peregrine Fund during the surveys.

Meanwhile, Rakotomalala went to work with his village survey teams, many of them local residents, often with little formal education because of the remoteness of their region. They canvassed the peninsula's populated region to learn the people's source of food and income, and to map out the areas of nearby forest that the villagers considered to be their traditional territory, even if they did not officially own the land.

Photo courtesy of David Haring, Duke University Primate Center

Lemurs, like this aye-aye, are primates that exist only on Madagascar, an evolutionary island separated from nearby Africa for millions of years. Masoala National Park represents the largest sanctuary in the island nation for these and thousands of other unique creatures.

Most of the people on the peninsula cluster near the coastlines and on the eastern border of the forest. Using the GIS maps, Kremen and her colleagues found that 369 square miles already had been deforested from slash and burn farming, and that the forests on low slopes near human habitation were at greatest risk from further deforestation. Forestry expert Philip Guillery of the Wildlife Conservation Society used the GIS data to predict which areas would be best for sustainable tree harvesting ­ cutting individual trees and transporting them by rivers rather than by cutting new roads.

These analyses showed that the forested zones most useful for people also were the areas where the forest already was seriously threatened. The planners proposed that this land should be designated as outside the core protected area, and used instead as a multiple-use management area. "The multiple-use zone would ultimately prevent the spread of deforestation into the core protected area while providing a more than adequate substitute for the slash-and-burn subsistence economy in this zone," Kremen said.

The result was a proposal for Madagascar's largest national park, a protected area covering half of the peninsula with a corridor to the mainland that may one day be extended to the next nearest wildlife preserve. It included management plans for 380 square miles of multiple-use forests bordering the park and protection for nearby coral reefs. The proposal's core is an economic strategy that provides incentives for local people to manage the forest and coastlines for timber and non-timber products, to prevent large-scale environmental destruction.

Guillery since has worked extensively with a village whose woodcutters have taken special training to learn sustainable tree harvesting techniques. This year, they made a modest profit, part of which the village leaders plan to invest in a clinic or a school.

Meanwhile, Germaine Tsizas of CARE, the national project director who pushed the technical proposal through many layers of government, escorted the elders of Masoala villages to other regions of Madagascar to see the completely denuded and unproductive landscape left by long-term slash-and-burn farming. Most of the elders declared their interest in learning new farm methods, and CARE is now working with villagers to improve irrigated rice productivity, reduce fallow times through crop rotation and diversification, and bring farming produce to local markets.

Examples like these, plus the respect for local preferences shown by the planning team, meant that the park had strong local support when the government held hearings on its fate.

The Masoala project was backed by funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development and has been strongly supported by the U.S. ambassador to the Malagasy Republic, Vickie Huddlestone. The Netherlands government currently is underwriting the park's sustainable management project.

While the people of Madagascar celebrate their new and largest national park, several of the people who worked hardest to plan it were not present. Razafimahatratra died of a heart attack in June; Tsizas died in a drowning accident only weeks after learning of the park's final ratification in July. Kremen was on the other side of the globe, attending a meeting of ecologists at the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Northern California to discuss how preserves like Masoala can serve as model systems to learn how to protect other vanishing natural systems.

Kremen said the future of Masoala's rich and fascinating wilderness is by no means assured. Population pressures still could overwhelm its residents, and global change could disrupt its ecosystems.

"Everything depends on the ability of CARE, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Malagasy government to implement the sustainable management plans around the peninsula, and to adapt them over time to changing circumstances," she said.


Relevant links: and

Video clips are available from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

For downloadable high-resolution color images and a map showing the location of the park,
go to the News Service ftp site at

By Janet Basu

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