Earlier this year, Missouri Botanical Garden Botanist Patrice Antilahimena embarked on a field trip to a protected area managed by the Garden in southern Madagascar. The dry forest, thick with spiny plants was unlike anywhere he had collected before. But the trip was exciting for another reason: Patrice knew it was likely he would make his 10,000th collection – a major milestone few botanists hit in their career.
As the trip neared its end and Antilahimena hadn’t yet collected the 10,000th number, he began to worry it wouldn’t happen this trip. Finally, at the end of the last day he collected a species belonging to the ebony genus, Diospyros. He knew the plant, which he found growing in a dry stream, would be of interest to the Garden’s Precious Woods Project, and it meant he had hit the milestone he had been striving for.
“I was very proud for that,” he said. “And I did it just in time.”
Patrice is the first Malagasy botanist to reach 10,000 collections, although two colleagues, Richard Razakamalala and Désiré Ravelonarivo, are not far behind and will likely hit that target this year. These milestones are important achievements for the Garden’s program and a cause to celebrate. They reflect the leading role now played by Malagasy botanists in the documentation of their island’s flora.
Changing of the Guard
The Garden has conducted research in Madagascar since the early 1970s
, and established a permanent base there in 1984. Initially, the Garden’s work focused on the discovery and description of the diversity of Madagascar’s unique, but poorly understood, flora.
As the botanists collected, studied, and documented Madagascar’s remarkable flora they soon realized it was quickly disappearing before their eyes largely due to deforestation. It became essential to expand the Garden’s work to include conservation. And it also soon became clear that conservation required working in partnership with local communities.
“Rural people in Madagascar are very poor and barely eek out an existence by clearing land to plant crops to feed their families. But if local communities are given a chance to develop alternatives, our experience has shown that it is possible to meet the twin goals of improving livelihoods and conserving biodiversity,” said Pete Lowry, Director of the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program.
Today, the Garden’s conservation work includes an in situ conservation program that protects the natural habitat at key sites of exceptional botanical diversity — the Garden co-manages 11 newly-established protected areas — and ex situ conservation efforts to save species that would otherwise be lost by carefully growing live plants in nurseries and using them in secure plantations.
All of this is done hand-in-hand with local communities. Conservation is achieved using a science-based, holistic approach that focuses on improving livelihoods, education opportunities, and the health of the people in the community, while at the same time working to conserve biodiversity. This leaves communities better off than they were before while offering a brighter future by bringing them closer to achieving sustainable use of their natural resources and protecting their unique biodiversity.
Malagasy staff play a key role in the Garden’s work, including decision making and program management. The Garden’s senior staff, many who have worked in Madagascar since the program’s beginning, have helped train the current generation of highly qualified Malagasy field botanists who are now at the forefront of discovery.
“The elegant transition that the Garden has made in the last three decades is a from plant discovery dominated by foreigners to Malagasy-led plant discovery and conservation,” Lowry said.
Antilahimena has been with the program for nearly three decades now.
He made his first plant collection in 1996 of Barringtonia, a plant he knew from his childhood could be used to start fires without matches. It was that familiarity with plants that made him want to learn more about the Malagasy flora. Antilahimena’s first collection was made on Nosy Be, an island in northwest Madagascar, and he enjoyed the experience, even the camping in the rain. He loved being in nature.
But he admits that in the beginning, he didn’t know exactly the correct protocols for making a high-quality plant collection. That’s where the Garden came into play. With its long history in Madagascar, knowledge of plants, and experience with botanical inventory work, the Garden was uniquely positioned to train botanists in Madagascar, Antilahimena explained.
“There’s no one better than MBG,” he said.
Antilahimena connected with a Garden researcher Simon Malcomber when he was working as a field assistant for another project. Malcomber provided the training that helped Antilahimena soon become a prolific botanist. Foreign researchers, who bring specialized knowledge of their research groups, and locals have both played essential roles in making the Garden’s program work, Antilahimena said.
“Local people know the place. They know very well where to go, and how to work with local people” he explained.
Going forward, many parts of Madagascar still remain unexplored and new species are discovered almost every time botanists venture into them. As Antilahimena and his colleagues enter the third decade of field work, they have begun to train the next generation of Malagasy botanists who will carry the flame forward.
Antilahimena does still have big plans for the remainder of his career. He intends to keep collecting plants as long as he is able and hopes to hit another milestone before he finishes: 20,000 collections. However, he says, it would be great to have a younger person to train and to help him with this task.