Biocultural Sustainability in Madagascar (2023-2024)


Natural and human systems are linked in dynamic feedback loops. Millions of people around the world, and especially those in low- and middle-income countries, depend on local natural resources such as trees, wildlife and water for their livelihoods. However, there is global debate about the extent to which current livelihood strategies are sustainable.

In Madagascar — a global hotspot for both biodiversity and extinction — eight out of ten people live in the remote countryside, relying on the forest and land for food, water, shelter and culture. Traditional practices may be sustainable at the subsistence level, but the current rates of forest loss and hunting threaten 94% of lemurs and 63% of endemic plants with extinction, eroding key ecosystem services. Biodiversity loss drives a feedback system where millions of people face food insecurity, malnutrition, and poverty. There must be a balance between biodiversity conservation and the livelihoods of local people who depend on the land.

Project Description

Building on the work of a previous team, this project team will aim to achieve three specific outcomes: 

  1. Test the hypothesis that the lemur and tree interaction networks surrounding forest frontier communities are resilient to disturbances such as resource extraction. In partnership with Malagasy collaborators, students will quantify lemur population viability and investigate lemur-plant interaction networks using lemur observations, fecal samples and local ecological knowledge surveys. They will analyze this data using network analysis and population modeling.
  2. Model the feedbacks among farming and forest use practices, socioeconomics, food insecurity and nutritional health. Partnering with local health workers to follow up on the previous team’s fieldwork, the team will measure innervations (relating to the nervous system) and locally relevant indicators of socioeconomics, farming and forest-use practices, dietary diversity, food insecurity and health. Students will model the feedbacks between land and wildlife use and human wellbeing to test the system's sustainability.
  3. Evaluate and refine the strategic conservation plan co-created by the local stakeholders, the Bass Connections team and the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) to promote co-benefits for ecosystems and people.

Anticipated Outputs

Action plan for sustainable livelihoods and biological conservation; preliminary data and proof of concept for larger grant submissions; at least three professional publications; public-facing media 

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 4 graduate students and 4 undergraduate students who are from a range of disciplines in the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Global Health Institute, Sanford School of Public Policy, and the departments of biology, sociology, cultural and evolutionary anthropology, arts and humanities. Ideal candidates will be motivated, independent thinkers and team players who have experience working in collaborative projects inclusive of other cultures. Students participating in fieldwork must display excellent cultural competency and inclusivity. These students must be eager to learn the Malagasy language and prepared to live in remote, challenging field conditions. While not required, previous international fieldwork experience and/or French language skills would be beneficial for students participating in the fieldwork.

The graduate students in this project will develop new skills, both in the field and at Duke, will contribute significantly to work for their Ph.D. and master’s theses, and will be coauthors on conference presentations, publications and reports. They will have the unique opportunities to develop mentoring skills that are crucial to their professional development. Undergraduate students will gain research and development experience with a unique ecosystem in Madagascar. 

All students will have the opportunity to engage with their Malagasy peers, experiencing a culture quite different from their own, and contribute to real conservation and development work that supports the livelihoods of underserved communities. Participants will learn language skills, with the Duke team learning Malagasy and the Malagasy team learning English. Students participating in fieldwork will learn data collection techniques, Malagasy language skills and cultural competency. 

Selected students will have the opportunity to travel in Summer 2023 during an optional summer component. Camille DeSisto will serve as project manager. 


Summer 2023 – Spring 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional): 1 Ph.D. student, 1 master’s student, and 2 undergraduate Duke students travel to Madagascar and participate in field research and development
  • Fall 2023: Curate and analyze data; discuss ecology and social sciences; Malagasy team continues data collection and participates in analyses and virtual weekly meetings
  • Spring 2024: Complete data analysis and work toward dissemination of findings; Malagasy team members continue to perform the research and development activities, especially co-leading the sustainable action plan


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

This Team in the News

Meet the Winners of the 2024 Bass Connections Student Research Awards

Collaboration and Community Partnerships are Key to Conservation Efforts in Madagascar

The Evolution of an Evolutionary Biologist

See earlier related team, Biocultural Sustainability in Madagascar (2022-2023).


Image: Chameleon, from It Takes a Village by James Herrera

Chameleon on a thin branch at night.

Team Leaders

  • Camille DeSisto, Nicholas School of the Environment–Program in Ecology–Ph.D. Student
  • James Herrera, Duke Lemur Center – SAVA Conservation
  • Charles Welch, Duke Lemur Center
  • Anne Yoder, Arts & Sciences-Biology

/graduate Team Members

  • Chone Chaowai, MIDP 2 Year Masters
  • Tristan Frappier-Brinton, Biology - PHD
  • Melissa Merritt, Master of Environmental Management, Ecosystem Science and Conservation
  • Dania Nasir, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Nanditha Satagopan, Master of Environmental Management, Ecosystem Science and Conservation, Geospatial Analysis

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Helen Morris, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Maya Reilly
  • Dedriek Whitaker, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • John Strouse, School of Medicine-Medicine: Hematology

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Centre Universitaire Régional de la SAVA
  • Ambodivoara Community Forest Management Organization