Meeting Madagascar

Entrance to agroforestry demonstration plot managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden in Analavelona. Photo by Robbie Hart.

Madagascar is home to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s largest international research program with more than 200 local staff members, all of whom but one are Malagasy. The Garden has had a research presence in Madagascar since the 1970s, and currently co-manages 13 protected sites jointly with local communities.  Recently, a few Garden researchers went to see the Garden’s sites in Madagascar in person for the first time and spent weeks immersed in the Garden’s work there. They shared their biggest takeaways from the experience.  

Brock Mashburn with a local guide and Garden botanists Patrice Antilahimena and Richard Razakamalala, both MBG botanists. Photo by Brock Masburn.

Brock Mashburn, PhD student and Philip and Sima K. Needleman Fellow at the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development 

 Brock Mashburn was amazed not just by the sheer size and scale of the Garden’s conservation projects in Madagascar, but also by how incredibly embedded the Garden’s science and conservation staff are in the local communities where they have active conservation projects.  

 “The projects employ local staff, often providing some of the only income opportunities available to entire villages outside of agricultural production,” he said. 

 He was also impressed to observe that the Garden was seen as an icon of science, conservation and,  beauty, throughout the country.  

“I visited remote governmental offices and homes of village chiefs that would have prints of the Climatron or Henry Shaw’s home or the Japanese Garden taped all over the walls of the room,” he recalls. “The program that has been built in Madagascar is highly respected and we need to leverage the prestigious position the Garden holds there to continue to push for the growth of science and conservation in a country with one of the most threatened floras in the world.”  

Members of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s staff in Madagascar. Photo by Robbie Hart.
Nisa Karimi in a forest in Andrafiamadinka, Madagascar. Photo by Alex Linan.

Nisa Karimi, Assistant Scientist in the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program

Nisa Karimi, who recently joined the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar staff, was likewise surprised by the scale and scope of the Garden’s work in Madagascar. The program is the foundation of invaluable scientific work including describing new plants species, biodiversity studies, and essential conservation efforts for threatened plants and the animals that depend on them. On top of that, the Madagascar team is actively engaging local communities in all aspects of conservation. 

 “Because of this incredible network of conservation sites and field staff, the Garden has unmatched infrastructure and capacity to assist visiting researchers and even tourists who may wish to have a more authentic introduction to Madagascar’s incredible biodiversity,” she said.  

Looking down from an outcrop onto the Garden’s field station in Ambinanitelo, near the Analavelona conservation area. Photo by Robbie Hart.
Alexander Linan with Garden collaborator Hasina Rakouth, Garden Botanist Richard Randrianaivo, and our two local field assistants Ola and Asimo.

Alexander Linan, Assistant Scientist in the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program 

The large range of activities the Garden’s 100+ staff members undertake through the Madagascar program made a major impression on Alex Linan, also a relatively new staff member in the Africa and Madagascar program. Of course, the Madagascar program has local staff members focused on botanical exploration and hands-on conservation, but there are many others in support roles like accountants, administrators, drivers, and data specialists who all play a vital role in keeping the world-class program running.  

“I was aware that the Garden had a major presence in country, but seeing all the staff in action was impressive to say the least,” he said. 

At the conservation sites, Linan was “blown away” by the nurseries that propagate thousands of native plant seeds to be used in restoration projects.  “I was also amazed with the on-site staff who engaged in community driven conservation, taking great care to work closely with local communities surrounding protected areas to protect and restore the forests,” he said. 

The Garden botanists he met, who had the amazing ability to spot a particular tree species in the midst of dense forests, made a lasting impression, too.

Seedlings propagated for a Garden restoration project in Amabalabe, Madagascar. Photo by Robbie Hart.


Robbie Hart with Senior Curator Dr. Armand Randrianasolo and other Garden staff and students at the Amabalabe conservation area.

Although Robbie Hart has spent most of his career at the Garden, the 2023 trip was his first opportunity to visit Madagascar. He, too, was impressed by the scope of the program and its reputation in the country for science, conservation and community engagement. 

 “This program has such expertise and capacity in plant discovery, identification, and conservation, and it’s clear that we are making a real impact to understand and protect the island’s extraordinary biodiversity,“ he said.  “The fact that, within one program, we have unparalleled scientific capacities, and also an on-the-ground land management presence with local experience and relationships with local communities, offers real opportunities for cutting-edge initiatives joining science, conservation, and livelihoods.” 

Also inspiring was the diversity of projects the program entails. Some initiatives include documenting and supporting climate change resilience of human communities and natural environments, connecting wild food diversity to nutritional health, linking restoration of biodiverse forests to support for education, agroforestry projects that seek to provide stable income in ways that support the conservation of nearby protected areas, and linking exploration of tree diversity to the behavior of the lemur populations that make their home in Garden-managed conservation areas.   

“This is just a smattering of the current activity I encountered in a short visit, but I hope it shows the incredible successes and potential of the Garden’s Madagascar program to support sustainable livelihoods that harmonize economic activities with the conservation of natural resources,” he said.   

Garden staff members Rigali and Lora digging for edible yam for a Garden nutrition project in Madagascar. Photo“Garden staff member Rigali and Washington University collaborator Dr. Lora Iannotti digging for an edible yam as part of a Garden project on nutrition and wild foods near the Analavelona conservation area. Photo by Robbie Hart by Robbie Hart.
Armand Randrianasolo, Senior Curator in the William L. Brown Center, collects a plant specimen in Madagascar. Photo by Robbie Hart.
A sifaka lemur at the Amabalabe conservation area, where a joint Washington University and Garden project is underway to monitor tree species eaten by lemur populations and educate two Malagasy Ph.D. students in primatology. Photo by Robbie Hart.
Sandra Andrianarivelo and other Garden staff ascending the Sakanila River by boat to reach the Amabalabe conservation area. Photo by Robbie Hart.
Cliffs above Analavelona. Photo by Robbie Hart.
A chameleon in a papaya tree in an agroforestry plot in Analavelona. Photo by Robbie Hart.
A Missouri Botanical Garden truck returning from the Analavelona conservation area through Sothwest Madagascar. Photo by Robbie Hart.
A baobab in the spiny forest near the Analavelona conservation area. Photo by Robbie Hart

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