Trees for Lemurs and Lemurs for Trees

The Missouri Botanical Garden: the clue is in the name, really! We love plants – everything about them: we love unpacking their evolutionary relationships, we love to investigate how they mold themselves to their environments, we love discovering how best to propagate and grow them. But, most of all, we love simply reveling in their life-enhancing beauty.

With our passion for plants, it may come as a surprise that in Madagascar, in addition to plant conservation, we are doing our bit for lemur conservation too. The Garden’s Madagascar Research and Conservation Program is supporting community-based conservation at eleven priority areas for plant conservation. While these sites support extraordinary botanical diversity, we estimate that they provide habitat to some 35 species of lemur too—including a number of species new to science.

At seven of these sites our interventions include work to restore forest where it has become critically degraded. One of the locations is the 1553-hectare Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika Forest in south-eastern Madagascar. In April 2020, we were pleased to receive a grant from IUCN Save Our Species, not really for plant conservation, but rather to improve the forest’s integrity as habitat to benefit the small resident population of the critically endangered White-collared Brown Lemur—considered to be among the world’s 25 most-threatened primates.

The critically endangered White-collared Brown Lemur. Photo by Ludovic Reza.

Our aim in this two-year project is to provide support so local people can propagate 50,000 young, native trees and then plant them to launch forest restoration on 20 hectares of abandoned agricultural plots that currently perforate the forest like holes in a slice of Swiss cheese.

The project initially had a shaky start at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Madagascar and the associated government lockdown. As soon as travel restrictions were lifted, Missouri Botanical Garden staff members Fidy Ratovoson and Nambinina Joromampionona purchased materials and mobilized local teams to build four large tree nurseries, each located in a village close to a different part of the forest.

The nurseries were built to high standards—with propagation tables, roofs of shade netting, and fences to exclude free-ranging cows—providing perfect environment for propagating trees and a pleasant working environment for the nursery staff.

One of four tree nurseries the Missouri Botanical Garden supports next to the Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika Forest. Photo by David Rajaonarivelo.

Parallel with the installation of the nurseries, David Rajaonarivelo, an experienced horticulturalist trained previously by the Garden, recruited and trained eleven local people, both men and women, teaching the new recruits best practices for propagating native trees. However, since there can be no seedlings without seeds, two more people were also recruited and trained as seed collectors—tasked with roaming the forest to seek seeds of the target tree species. 

Now, 15 months after the receiving the grant, and despite the pandemic, we are proud to report that at Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika we have developed significant capacity to produce large numbers of high quality young trees of native species. Currently, 54,506 plants of 44 different native tree species have been produced and 33,250 young trees have already been planted in the degraded parts of the forest. As part of our efforts to engage local people in the conservation of their own natural heritage, we are supporting forest picnics for 1,000 local youth to learn about lemurs and to plant these trees.

Tree planting and educational efforts at Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika Forest. Photos by David Rajaonarivelo.

As these trees grow, they will not only increase the size of the forest but also improve its integrity, thereby helping the lemurs to flourish.  And, while lemurs certainly need trees, most Malagasy trees also need lemurs to spread their seeds, enabling colonization and regeneration. Thus, in reality, this project is all about nurturing a healthy ecosystem for lemurs, plants, and people too.

The Ankarabolava-Agnakatrika Forest is home to a number of endangered plants, including Noronhia densiflora. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw

This project is funded by IUCN Save Our Species. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Chris Birkinshaw (Missouri Botanical Garden) and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN.

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