Skip to content
Thursday, 21st March 2024

Preventing Palmageddon – Planting to save six threatened palm species in southeastern Madagascar

By Paul Allen

February 2024 marked the culmination of nearly three years of hard work for SEED Madagascar’s Project Palms, as nearly 500 threatened palms were planted across protected forest fragments in the Sainte Luce littoral forest. This blog details the inaugural planting and tells the story of how exactly Project Palms got to this point. 

The first planting took place on the 12th of February 2024, with 109 Beccariophoenix madagascariensis (IUCN Status: Vulnerable) and 45 Dypsis brevicaulis (IUCN Status: Critically Endangered) planted across two sites in protected forest fragment S8. The planting was attended by local authorities, 43 members of the community, 12 SEED staff, and guides and volunteers from SEED’s Conservation Research Programme (SCRP).

The day started in the SEED nursery with the team carefully loading the palms into a combined 37 buckets and mahampy bags for transportation by community members. Shortly after, representatives from local authorities arrived, and a planting demonstration was led by SCRP Team Leader Hoby. With the planters trained, the procession of around 60 people set off on the 45-minute walk to the first planting site and the scale of the day really started to feel apparent. An opening speech was given by the head of DREDD Anosy (Regional Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development), seen below, and the first palm was ceremonially planted!

The head of DREDD Anosy gives an opening speechAfter an hour of organised chaos, the day’s planting was finished, and everyone headed back to the SEED’s Conservation Research Camp to celebrate with a Malagasy cocktail (food and soft drinks) and a sit-down. The sit down was much needed, as more than 300 palms were then planted over the next three days across S8 and S17 – the latter of which requires a pirogue (Malagasy dugout canoe) trip to access! 

But how did Project Palms get here? 

Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Project Palms began in August 2021, with the aim of safeguarding six palm species categorised as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. To safeguard these species, the project aims to increase international knowledge of these palms and bolster their populations by planting 300 of each species in protected forest fragments.

The six species:

Beccariophoenix madagascariensis (Vulnerable)

Chrysalidocarpus prestonianus (Vulnerable)

Chrysalidocarpus psammophilus (Endangered)

Chrysalidocarpus saintelucei (Endangered)

Dypsis brevicaulis (Critically Endangered)

Dypsis scottiana (Vulnerable)

Populations of the six palm species are threatened by deforestation, habitat fragmentation, planned industrial mining by QMM, tavy (the clearance of land with fire for agriculture), and community dependence on resources.

Palms are a plant family of high socio-economic and ecological importance1 both globally and in Sainte Luce, where five of the six target species are used by the community. The primary uses of palms in Sainte Luce are to produce lobster pots and construct houses. Considering that lobster fishing is the primary income-generating activity for more than 90% of the 464 households in Sainte Luce2, it is crucial to safeguard these palms.

So that’s why it is so important to protect these species.

Map of Sainte Luce with forest fragmentsBut how do you plant threatened palms?

Firstly, you need to know where the adult palms are located, and then you need to know what time of year they produce the ripe fruits, which produce viable seeds. To get this information, SEED talked to local experts, undertook phenology surveys, and conducted a palms population census encountering 153,616 palms of the six species across forest fragments S6, S7, S8, S9, and S17. Of all the palms observed, only 2,970 (1.9%) were adults!

Once the location and fruiting periods of the species were known, the fruits could be collected, washed, and peeled to extract the seed. The seeds were then washed again and left in the sun to dry for a few days before being sown in the SEED nursery. All seeds were sown in a mixture of natural soil and compost and watered every two days by Bata and Adenos, SEED’s nursery staff. Below, you can see some freshly washed C. psammophilus seeds, February 2024.

A palm expert washes freshly collected C. psammophilus seeds in a bucket
Sosony, SCRP Camp Guardian and local palm expert, washes freshly collected C. psammophilus seeds, February 2024.

​​​​Then the waiting game began; from SEED’s nursery research, the average germination periods of the six species range from two months (C. saintelucei) to nearly seven months (D. scottiana). Once germinated, the seedlings were left to grow in the nursery for at least one year until they were resilient enough to be transplanted into the protected forest fragments. Resilience was determined by comparing the height and condition of individual palms to a planting threshold, which varied by species, set by local palm experts and project staff.

Prior to the palms being ready, planting sites needed to be carefully chosen. The method used for site selection replicated the method used during the trial transplanting of 66 C. saintelucei in February 2023. One year after planting, these palms have a 97% survival rate and have an average height of 40cm! In 2021 and 2022, SEED conducted microhabitat assessments on 20 adult palms from each species. These assessments analysed the microhabitat preferences for a species by investigating a range of factors, such as soil composition, slope angle, and canopy cover. The results from the microhabitat assessments were then used to inform the search for transplantation sites. Local forest experts were asked where suitable sites to plant palms could be, these sites were visited, and microhabitat and feasibility assessments were conducted; if the site microhabitat matched the previously determined microhabitat preferences of a particular species, then it was selected as a possible transplantation site.

Community members walking and carrying B. madagascariensis and D. brevicaulis from the SEED nursery in Sainte Luce
Community members carry B. madagascariensis and D. brevicaulis from the SEED nursery in Sainte Luce, to the planting sites in S8, February 2024. 

​​​​​​After the palms were grown and the sites selected, it was time to deal with the logistics of planting. This was quite the task given hundreds of community members performed a variety of roles, such as digging holes, carrying seedlings, carrying fertiliser, and planting palms over the four-day planting event. With logistics finalised, digging holes could commence – each 40x40x20cm hole was dug three days before the planting to allow the soil to aerate. With the holes dug, it was finally time to plant the palms, all of which were planted with three handfuls of fertiliser a couple of centimetres below ground level to boost water retention.

So that’s the story of how Project Palms got to the inaugural planting on the 12th of February – a lot of hard work. In total, 473 palms were planted across nine sites in protected forest fragments S8 and S17 in February. But the hard work is not done yet, as a further 536 palms will be planted across seven sites in protected forest fragment S9 in April 2024, and at least 725 more during the 2025 rainy season. That’s not to mention the monitoring that Project Palms has started to undertake, as 15% of all palms planted will be monitored for height and condition at months 0, 1, 3, 6, and 12 after planting. At the year mark, palms will be monitored annually until five years after planting – meaning the growth of these palms will be monitored until 2029! The post-transplantation monitoring will help inform potential aftercare and replants and contribute to international knowledge of palm transplantation and survival.

A community member plants a B. madagascariensis
A community member plants a B. madagascariensis during the first day of planting, February 2024.

Safeguarding threatened palm species can be seen to be a complex and time-consuming undertaking that requires crucial local knowledge, significant research, high community involvement, and patience. But it is a vital undertaking, with 83% of Madagascar’s palm species threatened with extinction and many providing crucial livelihood resources, as in Sainte Luce. This planting provides a model of how threatened palm species populations can be bolstered and offers hope for the future of these species, the Sainte Luce littoral forest, and community livelihood resources. 

Project Palms is kindly funded by Fondation Franklinia.

If you would like to support Project Palms to plant 725 threatened palms in 2025, please donate here!