TOPICS > Science

Scientists Create Plan to Save Madagascar Species

BY   April 11, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT

Largest living lemur; Edward E. Louis Jr. photo

Isolated ever since, hundreds of thousands of unique plant
and animal species evolved on the island, most of which are found nowhere else
in the world.

Decades of mining and slash-and-burn agriculture have threatened
many of Madagascar’s
species, but five years ago President Marc Ravalomanana promised to triple the
amount of parkland dedicated to conservation — bringing it up to 10 percent of
the country’s land.

Now, an international team of researchers has combined painstakingly
collected data with newly available computing power to produce a blueprint that
best apportions land to save the most species.

“Basically, we have this amazing country that has
incredible biodiversity unique on the planet, and we also have this amazing
conservation opportunity, because the country is so favorable to protecting
it,” said the study’s lead author, Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist
at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kremen, who began her career studying butterflies in Madagascar,
said most past decisions about what land to dedicate to conservation have been
made by bringing in experts to advise on the issue — a researcher who knows
about lemur habitats, for example, or where certain species of frogs live.

“I’m not critiquing this — it’s better than just
drawing lines on a map,” Kremen said. “But it’s very difficult to
optimize, because what happens is that the people who are the most eloquent
spokespeople, those species will get prioritized.”

In the new research, published this week in Science, Kremen and her colleagues instead
aimed to find a way to include as many species as possible in the conservation
calculations. They compiled data on 2,315 species in six categories: ants,
butterflies, frogs, geckos, lemurs and plants. For each species, they needed
information about the specific latitude and longitude where it had been

Then, they fed that information into a computer model that
weighted the species according to two priorities. Species that had already lost
the most habitat were given priority, and species that only existed in very
small areas were also given priority. It’s only recently that scientists have
had the computing power necessary to examine so much data on so many species,
Kremen said.

Using the data, the computer model created a map of the 10
percent of the country that encompasses the greatest number of species. Because
a number of protected areas have been created already, the researchers also
created a second map that took into account the land that was already
protected, and mapped out the best way to apportion the remaining percentage.

The researchers also found that many of the areas that had
already been protected corresponded well with the model’s optimal scenario.

“That’s extremely heartening for people like me, who
feel the weight of responsibility,” said Helen Crowley, director of the
Madagascar Country Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Crowley and the society worked with the government to
create the Makira Conservation Site in northeast Madagascar. “It seems like
we’ve made pretty good decisions.”

Finding the optimal configuration of conservation land is,
of course, only the first step in a long process of creating conservation
sites. Conservation must compete with mining — one of the few industries in Madagascar
— and the subsistence farming that relies on slash-and-burn agriculture and
provides most of the population with their livelihood.

In the Makira region, Wildlife Conservation Society teams spent
eight months traveling the perimeter of the proposed site. They spoke with
residents about how they use the forest, and how making it protected land would
affect them, Crowley

“They’re not just traditional parks, where you put a
fence around it and that’s it,” she said. “The idea is to engage the
local people in how the parks are managed.”

The research will, however, provide a starting point for
scientists to advise the Malagasy government on where to focus its conservation
efforts. And it could provide a blueprint for future conservation research in
other biodiversity hot spots.

“Around the world, we’re going to have to do this more
and more,” Crowley
said. “You could use this as a model.”