The day starts early, but it started much earlier for Patrick Ranirison, who hiked 19 kilometers over muddy secondary roads to meet us on the paved Route Nationale between Ambilobe and Antsiranana in northeastern Madagascar. Patrick works for the Malagasy NGO Fanamby, and is its landscape manager in the Andrafiamena Protected Area. After a quick hello in his French-tinged accent we are back on the road to Daraina. Located at the heart of the Loky-Manambato Protected Area, Daraina is one of last strongholds of the Endangered golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli).
It’s my first time in Madagascar, let alone the Sava region where Dariana is located, but Patrick has been coming here for a long time. In 2003 to 2006, he and a team of biologists discovered more than 70 species and 4 genus new to science, one of them a tree that is unique to Madagascar, with strikingly beautiful white flowers from the Bignoniaceae family, Rhodocolea ranirisonii, named aptly for its discoverer.
Much of Madagascar’s flora and fauna is endemic, meaning it can be found nowhere else. Many people have heard of its entirely endemic group of primates, the lemurs, which includes the golden-crowned sifaka. They are among the 93 percent of Madagascar’s mammals that are endemic. The huge island also boasts endemism among nearly 100 percent of its amphibian species, more than 95 percent of its reptiles, and nearly 90 percent of plant species. The Loky-Manambato protected area, which is about 2,500 square kilometers in size, is bordered on one side by the Manambato River and the other by the Loky River.
Here species from two ecosystems converge creating an “ecotone". This “ecotone,” or zone of transition between distinct ecosystems, is believed to harbor some of highest levels of endemism in the country and allows for elevated species richness because it offers conditions suitable for a wide range of taxa.
After a short flight from Diego to Sambava and a smooth ride through towns where the aromatic smell of the vanilla drying process wafts along the road, we’ve made it to the junction where the real adventure begins. It’s dark now and the zebu, a breed of cattle, own the road. Herds of zebu crowd the single-track, unpaved thoroughfare and stubbornly resist moving. Patrick tells me there are three sections to this 50 kilometer journey: the first part is good road, the second part is about 10 kilometers of bad road, and the third part is good again. But after the first 3 kilometers of bone-jarring, rutted, washed-out road, I start to think that “good” is a relative term and get ever more nervous about the “second part.”
In 2005, Fanamby, through government accord, was given the task of administrating Loky-Manambato as a multiple-use area or category 5 protected landscape under the IUCN protected area classification system, which allows for conservation as well as some sustainable use of natural resources. Since then Fanamby, with support from Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund (GCF), has been developing a multiple-use management plan and an endowment fund to support management of the protected area. This is a considerable task due to the inherent challenges of the local context. Daraina has only basic infrastructure, dispersed settlements and forest fragments that occur across the landscape.
One of the purposes of my visit to Loky-Manambato is to assess the conservation status of the golden-crowned sifaka, whose population of an estimated 10,000 individuals is found only within the dry deciduous and semi-evergreen forest fragments of Loky-Manambato (Figure 2). Due to its low population size, restricted range, and human pressures on its habitat, the golden-crowned sifaka has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN. I am also in the area to validate the ongoing monitoring program implemented by Fanamby. This cutting-edge program integrates a customized tool for the assessment of protected-area management effectiveness as well as on-the-ground surveys of forest integrity and sifaka population counts conducted by local communities.
Additionally, I am here to provide technical assistance to support Fanamby, in their work with local communities to create a plan for the rational use of water resources. The forest fragments of Loky-Manambato play an important role in the regulation of the 6.7 million cubic meters of surface water flows produced here annually. Water originating in these uplands is the main source of the Loky and Manambato rivers and is essential for the production of hillside rice and maize, which are staple crops in the region. However, in order to maintain the regular and stable flows that downstream populations rely upon, a fair and reasonable water use plan is needed.
After getting our truck stuck in the thick mud in a countless series of “mud hole entrapments,” we decide, in the interest of time, that it’s better to continue on foot. Eight kilometers of trail through sun-drenched pastures and a steep line of hills lie between us and the Bekaraoka Forest, one of the last remaining blocks of forest in the Loky-Manambato. Not long after entering this dry forest, Patrick hears the distinct grumbling and movements of a group of three sifaka in the canopy. A sifaka alights on a branch, clinging tightly to the trunk, its tail dangling through the canopy, while it deftly plucks leaves for lunch. After a time the group grows accustomed to our intrusion and swings down lower to investigate. Since the sifaka is not hunted in this area it is relatively unafraid of humans, which allows us a close encounter.
The sifaka species of lemur is relatively safe from hunting pressures; habitat degradation is the driving force threatening its survival. In fact as we watch the group, the voices of gold miners can be heard nearby. The forests and rivers here are pockmarked with holes dug by the explorations of gold miners, and to the locals this forest is known as the “golden forest.” The presence of this valuable resource is a huge challenge for forest conservation and sustainable development as informal settlements spring up and then disperse overnight in response to rumors of new deposits of gold.
After three days exploring the remaining forest fragments and gaining a deeper understanding of Fanamby’s work, , it is time for me to return. That these “golden” forests are precious is an understatement in terms of biodiversity and natural resources. Our hope now is that through the development of sustainable economies that drive conservation, these forests will forever remain known as the “golden forests”— not because of the gold deposits underlying them, but because of the persistence of the golden-crowned sifaka.