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Thursday, 6th May 2021

One year on: Conservation in the time of COVID-19

By Emma Irving

For SEED Madagascar (SEED), April 2021 marks one year since COVID-19 became prevalent in Madagascar, international borders closed, most international staff were repatriated, and our way of working changed drastically. SEED’s Conservation Research Programme (SCRP) in particular, has not been the same since.

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The SCRP Research Camp in Sainte Luce awaiting the return of staff and volunteers.

There is an impression that the COVID-19 pandemic has been beneficial for nature. But in the long-term, and particularly for developing countries like Madagascar, this is unlikely to be the case because of the risk that vital activities and protections for the environment will be disrupted or removed. In March 2021, IUCN published a collection of articles discussing the impact of the pandemic on conservation and concluded that the fallout from COVID-19 is undermining global conservation efforts1. Unfortunately, SCRP has not been spared the negative consequences of COVID-19. With the research camp in Sainte Luce closed to protect rural communities, and the loss of staff and volunteers reducing funding and capacity, we have had to prioritise our research. Therefore, some long-term monitoring and micro-projects have not been completed on schedule, and reduced SCRP presence in Sainte Luce may result in less community awareness of local conservation efforts.

When looking back at what SCRP and SEED’s conservation projects have achieved in the last year, though our conservation efforts have been disrupted and slowed, I do not feel they have been entirely undermined! Thanks to the inspiring resilience shown by national and international staff, the conservation of Sainte Luce’s incredible biodiversity has continued in a variety of ways.

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National SCRP Staff providing training for local guides on monitoring protocols to boost SCRP’s capacity.

National SCRP research staff, Hoby and Tsiraiky, enthusiastically took over responsibility to continue the research elements for SEED’s environment and livelihoods projects. This required staff to provide thorough and rapid training to the local guides in Sainte Luce to build the teams capacity and reliability for data collection. Consequently, the national team are now leading SCRP’s intensive multi-week research trips without on the ground support -  a huge step towards  the sustainability of local conservation. The data collected during these trips is vital for helping to conserve biodiversity and support livelihoods in Sainte Luce by informing and evaluating SEED projects.

Since May 2020, six research trips have taken place during which 46 lemur and 92 herpetofauna transects were completed with Project Ala in the S8 littoral forest remnants and corridors, in addition to botanical, seedling survival, and growth surveys. With Project Mahampy, a pilot study of the Mahampy reed (Lepironia mucronata) wetlands was completed, followed by 60 vegetation and 57 water assessments, to better understand the health of wetland ecosystems. Additionally, six counts of the Madagascar Flying Fox (Pteropus rufus) population were completed with Project Rufus to locate the colony after the bats abandoned their roost site in October 2020.

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Heterixalus boettgeri spotted during a herpetofauna survey of Project Ala’s reforested conservation corridors.

When asked about their experience of the previous year, SCRP Team Leader Hoby, who has a wealth of knowledge of local amphibian and reptile species, explained how it was exciting to see skinks, frogs, and chameleons all using Ala’s reforested corridors -although, he is still hoping to spot his favourite species of snake, the Malagasy ground boa during these surveys! While for SCRP Researcher, Tsiraiky, who enjoys conserving all biodiversity but is particularly passionate about lemur research and community outreach, the highlight of the year was the “adventure and increasing our knowledge of the research experience”.

For SCRP’s International Team, being parted from conservation research on the ground has been one of the main challenges during the last year. To keep the daydreaming at bay and make good use of time stuck at home, the team has instead been busy planning ahead. As Madagascar is a leading global biodiversity hotspot, it is no surprise that there is still vast potential for conservation research in the remote southeast corner of Madagascar where SCRP has worked since its establishment in 2010. However, with funding from international volunteers halted, SCRP is diversifying its approach to fundraising in order to make its plans for future research a reality.

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Red-collared Brown Lemurs (E. collaris) seen in the SCRP camp in Sainte Luce.

Over the past year, the team has reflected on previous research and identified where updates are needed, such as repeating the population assessment of the Red-collared Brown Lemur (Eulemur collaris), addressing the disappearance of the Anosy Mouse Lemur (Microcebus tanosi) from forest fragments using updated technology, and building on our inventory of reptiles and amphibians to enable the classification of currently undescribed species. SCRP is also planning to investigate animal groups that have not yet been assessed, such as freshwater fish, microbats, and carnivore populations, of which very little is known about in the area.

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Harandrato, a native tree felled near the Rufus bat roost.

Understanding species population and distribution will help us to understand the levels of threat to these species, where conservation action is required, and indicate the overall health of ecosystems. As COVID-19 has amplified the challenges faced by vulnerable communities in Madagascar, who are already living below the poverty line, there will also be a cascade of consequences for biodiversity as people rely more heavily on natural resources to survive. Therefore, SCRP will seek to understand and respond to the impact COVID-19 is having on the biodiversity of Sainte Luce, by investigating how the prevalence of hunting for bushmeat, tree felling, and fire incidents are changing.

So as the SCRP team look forward with hopeful anticipation to being able to reunite and return to the research camp in Sainte Luce, it is with a sense of opportunity. Conservationists are dedicated to responding to the dynamic challenges that face the natural world, and will endeavour to understand biodiversity and its threats to inform solutions that better protect nature now and into the future. If anything is certain about the last year, it is that SCRP responded to the changing world around them and continue to make a positive impact in Sainte Luce through conservation research and action. This resilience is reflected across all of SEED Madagascar’s programmes and teams, further demonstrating that this is a year to reflect on the opportunities, take stock of our strengths and be proud of them.



References

  1. IUCN. (2021, March 11). COVID-19 fallout undermining nature conservation efforts. IUCN publication. IUCN Press Office, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.iucn.org/news/world-commission-protected-areas/202103/covid-19-fallout-undermining-nature-conservation-efforts-iucn-publication