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Notes from the field: Protecting Panama’s waters, conserving Malagasy lemurs and more

© Tyler Kelley

Though news headlines about the state of the planet may seem bleak, they don’t always capture the whole story. Around the world, the work of protecting nature and the climate is happening in the field — and achieving triumphs that don’t always make the news. 

Here are four recent conservation success stories you should know about. 

1. Panama pledges to protect nearly a third of its waters 

The government of Panama is making huge waves for marine conservation by doubling its ocean area under protection.  

In June, the Central American country committed to expanding the Cordillera de Coiba Managed Resources Area — Panama’s largest marine protected area — by 50,518 square kilometers (19,505 square miles). It will now span 98,228 square kilometers (37,926 square miles), larger than Panama’s land size. 

The area will now protect a series of underwater mountains, which provide feeding and breeding grounds for a variety of highly migratory threatened species, including sea turtles, sharks, sea lions and whales.

Experts say this expansion is crucial to helping the region recover depleted fish populations, which face threats from illegal fishing and climate change. The Cordillera de Coiba Managed Resources Area will also establish systems for effective surveillance and enforcement of illegal fishing activities, with support from the Blue Nature Alliance — a global partnership co-led by Conservation International that aims to help double the current amount of ocean area under protection. 

“With this commitment, Panama becomes one of the few countries in the world to protect at least 30 percent of its waters — a global target many scientists say humanity must achieve by 2030 to secure the long-term health of our planet,” said 'Aulani Wilhelm, senior vice president of oceans at Conservation International. 

Even better, noted Wilhelm, at least 66 percent of this area will be highly protected, disallowing extractive activities such as mining. According to the Panamanian government, the remaining third of the area will allow sustainable fishing. 

Backed by Mission Blue and the Wyss Foundation, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and MigraMar built the scientific case for expanding the Cordillera de Coiba Managed Resources Area. The Blue Nature Alliance will work with partners at SkyLight to help ensure these new protections are enforced. 

2. In Madagascar, local forest patrols conserve endangered lemurs 

Lemurs are the world’s most endangered mammals — and in Madagascar, about 95 percent of their population is threatened by habitat loss driven by deforestation. Nearly half the country’s forests have fallen victim to slash-and-burn agriculture and unrestricted charcoal production in the last 60 years, according to recent research

Working with grassroots organizations in eight local communities, Conservation International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature are partnering with Malagasy people to help guard their forests — and the lemurs that depend on them. 

In November 2020, Conservation International trained 24 new forest patrollers in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena forest corridor — a protected area in eastern Madagascar. Equipped with GPS technology and mobile data collection software, the patrollers count lemur populations, identify threats to their habitats and work closely with environmental authorities to report harmful activities such as deforestation and poaching. 

Since the program began, the patrollers have trained an additional 323 people from nearby communities to help monitor the forest and prevent the local extinction of lemurs — including the Indri, Diademed Sifaka, and Black and White Ruffed Lemurs.

“By rallying support at both the grassroots level and with local authorities, this project will protect lemurs’ habitats while providing the data that Malagasy scientists need to further study this important species,” said Harison Randrianasolo, who helps lead the project for Conservation International in Madagascar. 

Working with local teachers, Conservation International also helped to launch an educational program to teach children in the community about the crucial roles lemurs play in maintaining healthy forests, and in Malagasy culture. 

“In Madagascar, lemurs feature prominently in myths and tales passed through generations,” Randrianasolo said. “Through this program, we are working to train the next generation of conservationists in Madagascar to protect lemurs and preserve our heritage.” 

3. Reforesting Colombia’s misty mountains 

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with a variety of ecosystems ranging from sandy beaches to lush cloud forests to snowcapped peaks. 

Just as diverse as this region’s ecosystems are the threats it faces — from mining and deforestation to unsustainable tourism and urban development. 

The good news: Efforts are underway to restore the degraded forests across 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of this unique region.

In May, Colombian President Iván Duque signed an agreement with Conservation International and sustainability management company Allcot to plant 700,000 trees in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Integral to these efforts is the Arhuaco Indigenous community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which will actively participate in the tree-planting initiative. 

“We are talking, in practical terms, of more than 700,000 trees that will be planted and where each of the communities will have its nursery, to plant those seeds and distribute them in this beautiful ecosystem," said President Duque in a recent statement

Upon completion, the project will generate carbon credits that will help stimulate the local economy and support future conservation efforts in the region.  

"The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a sacred land, which many call ‘the heart of the living world’,” said Fabio Arjona, Vice President of Conservation International-Colombia. “Restoring the forests of this region has benefits for all of northern Colombia — from providing access to fresh water to ensuring thriving wildlife populations that support sustainable ecotourism.”

4. Restoring nature to adapt to climate disasters

From long-lasting droughts to severe storms, extreme weather events fueled by climate change are becoming the new normal. 

Working alongside partners in Mexico, Kenya and Fiji, Conservation International is helping communities adapt to the impacts of climate breakdown by protecting and restoring nature. 

“Around the world, rural communities are grappling with the effects of climate change,” said Conservation International-Mexico’s David Olvera, one of the project’s managers. “We are helping them manage their lands to become more resilient to extreme weather.”

For example, in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, where unpredictable rainfall patterns are decreasing agricultural production and threatening local livelihoods, Conservation International — with support from the Global Environment Facility — is working with communities to implement sustainable farming techniques such as planting climate-resilient crops and setting aside areas for conservation to prevent soil erosion. 

In Kenya’s Maasai Mara region, climate-related droughts have exacerbated the impacts of destructive grazing practices on vast grasslands. To address these threats, Conservation International is working with communities to restore degraded grasslands, practice sustainable grazing methods and lease their land for conservation — helping to protect wildlife while also providing a new income stream for landowners.

And on the Fijian island of Viti Levu, local families are partnering with Conservation International to limit the impacts of flooding by planting trees and restoring forests, which can act as natural barriers against rivers that may overflow during storms. 

“These conservation actions are helping communities prepare for climate-related hazards and limit future damage and losses,” said Isaac Rounds, a forest ecologist for Conservation International-Fiji. “It is a win-win for people and nature.”


Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International.

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Cover image: Lemurs in a tree in Madagascar (© Tyler Kelley)

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