Fighting Fire to Save Threatened Trees in Madagascar

One of the rarest trees in the world is Schizolaena tampoketsana. Locally known as Sohisika, it is known from about 130 mature plants located in a few tiny forest fragments on the highlands of Madagascar. The tree is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and one of the biggest threats to its continued survival in the wild is fire.

A Sohisika tree, Schizolaena tampoketsana, in flower. Photo by Jeannie Raharimampionona.

Much of the Malagasy highlands are now covered with vast expanses of fire-prone grasslands—resulting from centuries of human-caused burning. The few remaining areas of forest, along with their resident fauna and flora, are vulnerable to dry season grassland fires stoked by strong winds.

On the night of August 7, 2021, a large fire swept over the landscape and approached the 88-acre Ankafobe forest—one of those remaining sanctuaries for the Sohisika trees. Members of a local group known as VOI-Sohisika sprang into action. Rushing to the front lines of the advancing fire, they beat back the flames and saved the forest from this latest threat.

Much of the landscape around Ankafobe is now blackened but, thanks to the courage and commitment of local people, under the leadership of Solofo, Ando and Tahiry, the forest survives, along with its precious Sohisika trees.

Since 2006 The Missouri Botanical Garden has been working in collaboration with VOI-Sohisika and a national non-governmental organization known as MAMPITA to protect the Ankafobe Forest. In addition to protecting the Sohisika, Ankafobe is also home to other threatened species such as the brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus).

A brown lemur, Eulemur fulvus, in Ankafobe forest. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw.

One of the important lessons to be learned from this experience is successful conservation requires genuine local engagement.

At Ankafobe, the Garden has an established and long-term commitment to nurturing interest in nature. Both Ando and Tahiry, two of those who led the fight against the August 7 fire, participated in nature camps held in the community in 2014.

Success also requires building local capacity for conservation management. Ankafobe Forest is not seen by local people as a Missouri Botanical Garden site, but rather as their own.

Ankafobe forest in Madagascar’s central plateau. Photo by Chris Birkinshaw.

These sorts of relationships are critical to preserving Madagascar’s rich and unique biodiversity. According to the IUCN, two-thirds of the island’s plants are at risk of extinction from threats such as invasive species, timber exploitation, unsustainable land use practices, and fire.

While not all fires are necessarily bad—native savannas need occasional fires—in 2020 satellite photos revealed an extraordinary 64,000 landscape fires in the Madagascar. The majority were caused by humans. Fires are so frequent Madagascar has now been christened as the “Island of Fire.”

All the more remarkable then that, until now at least, Ankafobe remains a pocket of green lushness in the otherwise charred landscape of Madagascar’s central plateau.

We are grateful to the Rainforest Trust for their support for the conservation of the Ankafobe Forest.

Written by Jeannie Raharimampionona, Dinasoa Tahirinirainy, and Chris Birkinshaw

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