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Thursday, 9th September 2021

Effective research: the crucial step towards conservation action

By Lewis Kramer

As humans we have always demonstrated an unrelenting desire to investigate our environment. Studying various aspects of the natural world has allowed us to understand the fundamental ways in which our world works, identify and characterise the challenges we face, make informed decisions, and try to predict future change. We live in an increasingly unpredictable world, with demands for natural resources growing exponentially and the impact of climate change causing destruction and degradation of pristine habitat and consequently, a loss of biodiversity. Whilst all this was widely acknowledged and accepted by world leaders at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, some 30 years ago,  biodiversity loss remains widespread and continues to intensify.

So, why do we still see this trend? Which species and habitats are affected? How might human action prevent further loss? To answer these, and many other questions, robust, efficient and effective research is required. Research is a vital element of environmental conservation - in fact, it is the absolute foundation on which Earth's rich biodiversity can be saved. When poor or limited research is used to inform decisions and actions, we run the risk of reducing the effectiveness of our conservation actions - so no matter how hard we try, if we are doing the wrong thing because we haven’t done our research right, chances are we will still see a loss of biodiversity across the globe.  SEED Madagascar (SEED) recognises the vital importance of good research in safeguarding biodiversity in the Sainte Luce Littoral Forest of southeast Madagascar, and hopes to provide inspiration and guidance for other conservation projects across Madagascar. 

Although research can often be seen as the slower and more boring part of ‘getting things done’, without the research, action may not bring about what we had hoped. After all, how many of us would buy a second-hand car without first checking its engine, tyres, steering, brakes etc? It is also important that the research being carried out informs us on the issue we are interested in. For example, why would you spend your time researching cars to get you to-and-from work, when a bicycle could easily do the same job? Research must therefore be both thorough and fit for purpose. Research can be defined as ‘the process of systematic inquiry that uses suitable and accepted methods to document critical information and collect and analyse data’. So whether you are researching second-hand cars, or looking at how to save a mouse lemur in the Sainte Luce forest, it is vital that you do this ‘systematic inquiry’ first. Research can be used to determine the validity of a hypothesis, or, in other words, to test a theory or idea, or to assemble more knowledge and generate further questions and theories about what we still don’t know. When looking at conservation research, it is also important that it complements and is contextualised by the knowledge of traditional resource users - in other words, we include the opinions and experiences of those that live in Sainte Luce on the theory or idea that we have. This is an approach which SEED utilises across all of its projects. It is also true that the more research we do, the greater our understanding of a subject will be. For example, if a research team only spends one day per year looking for a specific lemur species, they are less likely to observe them than a team that observes them for 300 days per year. It makes logical sense that the team carrying out more research increases their chances of making important insights and furthering their understanding of the lemurs. 

As we gain more information and understanding on a phenomenon, we can use this to narrow down or broaden the focus of our research so that we are asking the ‘right’ questions to give us even more understanding. This continual inquiry, questioning and learning helps us to then target our conservation actions, and project resources (e.g. time/money/staff), to be more efficient and effective in getting the outcome that we need. Research that accurately reflects reality enables precise project planning to take place, while also serving as a baseline to compare future observations and project progress against. 

Figure-1-Image---Hoby-on-herp-survey-in-Ala-corridor.jpg
SCRP researcher recording amphibian and reptile species found in one of Project Ala’s habitat corridors.

Research also raises awareness, and this is particularly important for geographically remote or inaccessible regions and less well-known subject areas that often lack the recognition they deserve. An example of how research has raised awareness of a pressing issue is SEED’s Conservation Research Programmes (SCRP) long-term nocturnal lemur biodiversity monitoring programme, which showed that three Endangered lemur species (Anosy Mouse Lemur, Thomas’ Dwarf Lemur, and the Southern Woolly Lemur) were threatened by habitat fragmentation and populations becoming isolated. This worrying discovery prompted the need to urgently reconnect the fragmented pockets of forest and the creation of Project Ala (find out more about Project Ala here).

However, it is important to note that simply collecting large quantities of data doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a project will be a success. Ensuring that a conservation project has a clear research question and a clear set of objectives are vital elements. Without these, researchers are unable to tailor methodologies that generate data which accurately reflects what is happening in the real world and that will answer the project's objectives. In addition, specific and measurable project outcomes must be established right at the outset to enable us to evaluate a project’s success at the end. There are many examples of failed conservation initiatives, which are often the result of inadequate or unfocused research and data collection. The repercussions can include failed programmes, waste of resources, and negative/unexpected consequences that can damage the ecosystem and by extension, the communities the project was aiming to help. 

High quality research is a key pillar of SEED’s approach to projects, especially those focussing on environmental conservation. SEED does its conservation research in the littoral forest fragments (Figure 2) surrounding the fishing community of Sainte Luce. These forests are one of the most threatened ecosystems in all of Madagascar (Bollen and Donati, 2006; Consiglio et al., 2006). SCRP has carried out research on flora and fauna in four of the most intact littoral forest fragments in the region over the past 15 years. Each of the fragments, however, display varying levels of degradation – a trend that may increase as livelihoods become limited by climate change and poverty, forcing people to turn to the forests for resources (Roberts et al., 2020). Not only are the littoral forest fragments threatened with intensifying natural resource extraction and climate change, but mining concessions have also been granted to QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM) within the Sainte Luce’s littoral forest, which would see a reduction of 661.8ha (50-60%) of the existing littoral forest (Bollen and Donati, 2006). With a plethora of increasing environmental and human pressures present in the Sainte Luce area, the urgency to understand and promote the biodiversity present within this ecosystem has never been greater.

Figure-2-Image---Eulemur-collaris-in-Sainte-Luce-Littoral-Forest.jpg
Photograph of Red-collared Brown Lemur (Eulemur collaris) in Sainte Luce’s Littoral Forest.

An example of a species of interest found in Sainte Luce’s littoral forest fragments is a type of pygmy leaf chameleon known as the Elongate Leaf Chameleon, Palleon nasus (Figure 3). Although very little is known about this new species of leaf chameleon, it is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. It is experiencing population decline due to habitat degradation and fragmentation caused by Tavy (often referred to as slash-and-burn agriculture), logging for charcoal, and mining (Jenkins et al., 2011). While a good initial understanding of the species has been ascertained through SCRP’s long-term monitoring scheme and a community-wide genetic barcoding project in 2016, key knowledge gaps still exist and require more research. A broad and detailed understanding of Palleon nasus’ biology and ecology is necessary to safeguard the future of the species and inform conservation action. Conservation actions ranging from habitat protection, restoration, and potential translocations as mining operations begin cannot be effectively and efficiently implemented without detailed research and understanding of this species’ population size, distribution, and trends, and habitat requirements.

Figure-3-Image---Palleon-nasus-on-researcher's-finger.jpg
Photograph of Elongate Leaf Chameleon (Palleon nasus) on a researcher’s finger.

A well-thought-out research plan is undeniably an integral part of any effective conservation project. Research can take many forms, and must be guided by the nature of the subject. Furthermore, it is important to assess the environment surrounding the research focus as a failure to do so may result in ineffective conservation action, harming the conservation efforts of Palleon nasus and other species. 

It is SEED Madagascar and SCRP’s aim to better understand the Palleon nasus found within the littoral forest fragments surrounding Sainte Luce and to use robust research to guide further necessary conservation efforts and protect the species from current and future threats. These goals, however, cannot be achieved without support. For more information on Palleon nasus and SEED’s involvement in helping preserve the southern littoral forest please visit: https://madagascar.co.uk/projects/environmental-conservation/new-species-chameleon-research. If you are interested in contributing towards the research and conservation of this unique, rare, and charismatic species, then please visit: https://madagascar.enthuse.com/cf/a-new-species-of-chameleon.



References

  1. Bollen, A., & Donati, G. (2006). Conservation status of the littoral forest of south-eastern Madagascar: a review. Oryx, 40(1), 57-66.
  2. Consiglio, T., Schatz, G. E., McPherson, G., Lowry, P. P., Rabenantoandro, J., Rogers, Z. S., ... & Rabehevitra, D. (2006). Deforestation and plant diversity of Madagascar's littoral forests. Conservation Biology, 20(6), 1799-1803.
  3. Jenkins, R.K.B., Andreone, F., Andriamazava, A., Anjeriniaina, M., Brady, L., Glaw, F., Griffiths, R.A., Rabibisoa, N., Rakotomalala, D., Randrianantoandro, J.C., Randrianiriana, J., Randrianizahana , H., Ratsoavina, F. & Robsomanitrandrasana, E. 2011. Palleon nasus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T172773A6915062. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2011-2.RLTS.T172773A6915062.en. Downloaded on 23 June 2021.
  4. Roberts, S. H., Harris, S., Strang, K., Guy, J. A., Rossizela, R. J., & Chmurova, L. (2020). Palms on the Brink: Conservation Status of the Threatened Palms Dypsis saintelucei and Beccariophoenix madagascariensis in the Littoral Forests of Sainte Luce, Southeastern Madagascar. Palms, 64(4).