It Takes a Village: Conservation and Research in Rural Madagascar

August 14, 2022

This summer, the DLC-SAVA Conservation project at the Duke Lemur Center is leading a Bass Connections project on bicultural sustainability in Madagascar. Four graduate students and one postdoctoral associate from Duke, one graduate student from UC Davis and one undergraduate from Macalester College (MN) are collaborating with partners in Madagascar to conduct interdisciplinary research on conservation and development in the SAVA region. Recently, this team shared updates on their work, including this overview of their first few weeks of research; a summary of their research approach and findings so far; and a close look at local livelihoods in the regions.

Madagascar team
Members of the team in Madagascar (Photos: Courtesy of the Bicultural Sustainability in Madagascar team)

By James Herrera

Our team first arrived in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, where we prepared our permits and long-term visas with our partners at the Malagasy NGO, MICET. Next, we flew to Sambava where we began preparing our gear at the DLC-SAVA Conservation office. We then traveled to Antalaha to visit our partners at the regional university, CURSA, where we met with all our team members, including the Agroecology Training and Research team, the Lemur Conservation team and all the teachers and administrators. In the beginning of our field trip, we also attended the virtual Malagasy Scientist Seminar series with Dr. Sarobidy Rakotoarison, who discussed the key topics of our project, such as equitable conservation policy and environmental justice.

Students listening to a presentation
The first meeting of the CURSA team in Antalaha (left) and the virtual presentation of Dr. Sarobidy Rakotoarison on equitable conservation policy (right)

After a night in Antalaha, we traveled back to the Sambava office, packed all our gear into a mini-bus and three SUVs and took the long drive to Andapa. There, we enjoyed a group dinner and had a round-table discussion about the goals of our multidimensional project in which everyone could discuss their expectations for team behavior.

Students enjoying their group dinner
Team members on the mini-bus (left) and sharing a meal with project partners (right)

Next, we took a long, bumpy drive on the dirt roads outside of Andapa. After driving for three hours, we arrived in Ambodivoara, the village where we are conducting our research. This village is on the outskirts of a remote protected area called the COMATSA, a corridor that links two other biodiversity parks. We held a town hall-style meeting with the community to explain the goal of our project and ask for their permission to work together both in the village and in the forest.

Students holding a meeting with the community
Our team met with community members shortly after dawn to discuss the goals of the project and ask permission to work together.

Our team then divided into two subgroups. The forest ecology team was tasked with preparing over 60 bags to be transported by porters to their forest camp, while the social sciences team began piloting and testing the survey instruments to study different aspects of socioeconomics, demographics, farming and land use practices, food security, diet and nutritional health. 

Camille and Tristan on a research field trip
Camille and Tristan from Duke and Jean Tonné begin their 4+ hour trek to the forest camp

The social sciences team also set out to conduct household surveys as well as focus groups and key informant interviews to better understand people’s perceptions regarding microfinance systems, farming practices and market dynamics. Their team was also testing soil quality as it relates to farming productivity and nutritional health. In the meantime, the forest ecology team began their work by setting up the camp, inventorying the gear and measuring and marking the trails they would use to survey for lemurs.

Students testing the soil
Esperio, Angele, and Nestorine go over how to test soil quality using Solvita soil respiration equipment (left); the forest camp site (right)

Shortly into the project, our team had spotted over 200 lemurs, including the rare and endangered silky sifaka. At night, we also caught glimpses of the nocturnal lemurs, which are extremely abundant! In addition to lemurs, we also saw so many amazing species, like chameleons and leaf-tailed geckos.

Students researching the lemurs
Edgar and Jean Tonné collect data on lemurs (left), including the silky sifaka (right), one of the most endangered primates in the world.

Biodiversity of Madagascar
Biodiversity of Madagascar

Unfortunately, people in Madagascar are facing challenges of food insecurity and declining soil fertility, so they often turn to forest resources to meet their needs. Plots of forest are cleared to plant crops because the forest still provides the rich soil needed for productive agriculture. Hardwood trees are also cut to make planks and posts for building materials. 

Cut down hardwood trees
Forest clearing to plant crops and use trees for building materials

To better understand this process, our team member Camille is studying how lemurs disperse the seeds of the trees that they use for feeding, as well as how people use these trees and what they know about lemur-tree interactions.

We are looking forward to another 6 weeks of research, workshops and development with our Bass Connections team, and we plan to continue our work with the community at Ambodivoara throughout the coming years. The people at Ambodivoara are very excited to have the opportunity to work with us, just as we are excited to assist them in developing sustainable solutions to the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

Sunset in Madagascar

Learn More