When Dinasoa Tahirinirainy got a phone call in early October telling him there was a fire at a Missouri Botanical Garden conservation area in Madagascar, he wasn’t too worried.
Tahirinirainy is the park manager of Ankafobe Forest, an area of rare highland forest where fires are common. He deals with three to four fires a year and they’re usually put out quickly with little to no damage to the precious forest.
But this time was different.
The high winds, so strong it was difficult to stand, made it impossible to fight the fire as it spread farther into the forest. Tahirinirainy had to arrange travel for a three-hour journey from Madagascar’s capital to reach the site. By the time he arrived, the flames were 13-feet high and a third of the forest, home to many threatened plants and several species of Madagascar’s treasured lemurs, was gone.
“At that moment, my eyes filled with tears, I felt defeated,” he said.
The fire burned through the night, destroying 35 acres of precious forest staff had been working for years to restore after a previous fire. The loss was devastating, but while the forest was still smoking, Tahirinirainy organized a meeting to talk about how restoration work can begin again.
“This heritage is under our care. We can’t just give up,” he said.
Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, home to thousands of species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The Garden manages 12 protected sites in Madagascar.
Ankafobe Forest is one of the last remaining fragments of original forest within Madagascar’s highly human-modified highland landscape. Malagasy Highland Forests are considered a living “fossil” of what existed extensively in Madagascar before human arrival. It provides critical habitat for many species of rare plants, including at least three species that exist nowhere else in the world like the critically-endangered tree Schizolaena tampoketsana, and endangered animals, such as two threatened lemur species and a critically-endangered frog.
Since 2007, the Garden has supported a community-based conservation project at Ankafobe. The project’s main focus is on conserving the forest and protecting and restoring parts that have been burned in the past. After a 2014 fire, the local staff had spent the past eight years growing seedlings, and planting key species to restore impacted areas to their natural state.
“The local team working on restoration for the last eight years literally saw their efforts go up in smoke,” said Chris Birkinshaw, Curator for the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program.
The fire at Ankafobe Forest started when cinders from burning grassland evaded the project’s fire-fighting teams and leapt the 70-foot firebreak and spread into the forest. The staff and local community members did the best they could with simple equipment: watering cans and spray backpacks to fight the larger flames and fire bats to beat out flames in the grasslands. But heavy winds pushed the flames in every direction.
“There were fires popping up everywhere. We didn’t know which way to turn. It was unmanageable,” Tahirinirainy said.
While some villagers went home around midnight, about 50 people continued to press on throughout the night. By the morning, 100 more people came to join the team. Around 11 a.m. the next day, the wind picked up and changed direction again causing untouched forest fragments to burn. That was when Birkinshaw and Jeannie Raharimampionona, coordinator of the Garden’s conservation team in Madagascar, arrived. When they were about five-minutes from the site, they could already see dark smoke filling the sky.
“There was silence in the car as we were looking at the smoke. I thought, ‘oh my God, this is real,’” Raharimampionona said. “I said, ‘My God, it’s gone again. It’s really gone.”
“The fire damage to the Ankafobe Nature Reserve in Madagascar is a tragedy and heartbreak for the local communities surrounding the reserve and for the Missouri Botanical Garden’s local staff team too. The loss of the vital species of plants and animals it contains is devastating. So much hard work has already gone into understanding, documenting, protecting and nurturing this special place and ecosystem. Now the work must begin again to restore the forest and the lives of the plants and animals that it supports, and those of the local people too.”Garden President Peter Wyse Jackson
Out of the Ashes
Roughly 60 percent of the forest was burned, but staff soon started looking for signs of hope. Resident lemurs found refuge in two nearby unburned forest fragments. Within the burned forest, some mature trees, while singed, escaped the full force of the fire and will likely recover.
“That is the thing that gave me a little bit of hope. We have a little bit of hope in these trees,” Raharimampionona said.
While groups of animals were certainly lost in the fire, staff has continued to see lemurs in the remaining forest – weak, but still there.
The focus now is on the future.
Immediately, before the last traces of smoke cleared the air, the staff met to decide how best to restore the forest. Already, staff gathered the ashes to use as fertilizer to regenerate the forest as they collect and sow seeds of native woody plants. Over the next 14 months, the team will control smothering invasive species and plant a sheltering canopy of pioneer species. Later, they will add 50,000 young trees now being propagated in local nurseries that include especially rare trees and key lemur food plants.
Finally, early season controlled-burns in the flammable grassland surrounding the forest will reduce the risk of future catastrophic fires. Where grassland cannot be burned because of the presence of regenerating trees, members of the local community will be employed to cut the grassland at appropriate times.
The Garden’s team also looked for gaps in fire-fighting equipment, and is discussing adding more large backpack water sprayers that hold 5 gallons of water.
“This forest is part of people’s identity who live in that landscape,” Tahirinirainy said. “It was important for people living in that landscape to talk about how it’s being restored.”
“Protecting biodiversity is never easy and we know that we face setbacks that must be tackled with determination, ingenuity and urgency, learning from these experiences to build new resilience and a more secure future for the Reserve.”Garden President Peter Wyse Jackson
How You Can Help
You can support the Garden’s staff at the Ankafobe Forest in this essential effort with a special gift today.
Public Information Officer