01 Jul 2010: Interview

As Madagascar is Plundered,
A Staunch Defender Fights Back

Primatologist Patricia Wright has spent the past 25 years studying — and protecting — Madagascar’s rich yet highly threatened biodiversity. Now, as many of the island’s remaining forests are being felled in the wake of a 2009 coup, Wright describes how she is helping organize the local residents and international conservation organizations to fight back.

by steven kotler

Patricia Wright has devoted most of her professional life to working on Madagascar, home to a remarkable collection of plants and animals, more than 80 percent of which are endemic to the island nation. For more than two decades, Wright has managed to combine her research — among other things, she discovered two new species of lemurs on Madagascar — with efforts to preserve the country’s beleaguered forests and the many species of flora and fauna they harbor. She was the driving force behind the 1991 creation of Ranomafana National Park, a 106,000-acre World Heritage Site in southeastern Madagascar that has been instrumental in preserving the island’s biodiversity, which evolved as Madagascar was separated from other landmasses for 80 million years.

Earlier this decade, Wright and scores of other scientists, conservationists, and local activists made significant progress in slowing the rampant deforestation of Madagascar — roughly 90 percent of the island’s forests and ecosystems had already been denuded — and in building a thriving ecotourism sector. But in the wake of a March 2009 coup by local politician Andry Rajoelina, the destruction of Madagascar’s forests has resumed with a vengeance. One of Rajoelina’s first acts was to lift a ban on the harvesting of precious hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony, and that decree — coupled with rampant illegal logging in some national parks — has led to the felling of tens of thousands of trees, a surge in bushmeat hunting for lemurs and other species, and a drop in ecotourism, which is vital to Madagascar’s economy.

Patricia Wright
Patricia Wright
In an interview with journalist Steven Kotler for Yale Environment 360, Wright — a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, executive director for the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” — describes what she and others are doing to halt the current plunder before it’s too late. Wright has helped publicize the recent wave of destruction in the world press, has presented information on the decimation of Madagascar’s forests to the U.S. government, and has worked with local activists in Madagascar to halt the illegal logging.

The actions by Wright and others have had some effect, with the Rajoelina government issuing a decree in April banning the logging of precious hardwoods. Yet some illegal logging continues, with a shipment of banned hardwoods leaving Madagascar recently, bound for China. Still, Wright, who just returned from Madagascar, is pressing her fight to save Madagascar’s remaining wilderness, pushing for a genuine halt in logging, backing programs to reforest the island with native species, and working on initiatives worldwide to create meaningful incentives to preserve tropical forests. “Right now there are laws all over the tropics that say once you cut [the] forest, you own it,” she says. “We have to reverse that somehow.”

Yale Environment 360: How important is Madagascar to science?

Patricia Wright: Madagascar is unique. It’s the fourth-largest island in the world and it’s been isolated for [tens of millions of] years. That’s a long time for evolution to take its course. So the things that have happened in Madagascar are very important for us to understand because it’s in a very special position. Only certain animals arrived on Madagascar. You don’t have any ungulates or any woodpeckers — instead you have lots of lemurs. It’s the only place to go if you want to understand these rare ecosystems.

e360: Before Rajoelina came to power, if you had to assess the state of Madagascar’s ecological health, what would you say?

Wright: The state of Madagascar’s ecological health was actually improving. It’s one of the success stories in all of the conservation world. Because of big inputs from conservation agencies — U.S. AID [Agency for International Development], the European Union — the infrastructure of the country improved. The protected areas were being protected. Everything looked really optimistic for keeping the island’s forests in place.

e360: And now? What’s the impact of the current political situation on the island’s flora and fauna?

Wright: That’s the problem with a coup détat: Everyone assumes they can literally take anything they want. So we have major rosewood being
That’s the problem with a coup détat: Everyone assumes they can take anything they want.”
extracted from the beautiful forests in the north. We have a certain amount of lawlessness that’s going on, also in the north. Inside protected areas, the National Park Service [rangers] abandoned their posts because they were afraid. They’ve since returned, but it’s been a very difficult year for protecting wildlife.

e360: So what does all this rosewood logging jeopardize?

Wright: It’s a beautiful rainforest that’s being pillaged, where 13 to 15 species of lemur live, and the chameleons come from. [Madagascar is home to about half of the world’s 150 chameleons, with 59 species existing nowhere else.] Many of Madagascar’s endemic birds live here, too. This used to be the biggest tract of pristine forest in the eastern rainforest. But thousands, maybe millions, of logs came out of there last year.

e360: Rosewood is a rare hardwood we’re all supposed to be avoiding — so who’s doing all the buying?

Wright: My sources are saying it’s going mostly to Asia, to China.

e360: Mongabay.com proposed a three-part plan to end the logging crisis: An absolute moratorium on logging; an amnesty program for traders; and a reforestation program funded by the sales of illegal timber. Would it work?

Wright: It takes a long time to regrow a rainforest. We know from studies in Ranomafana, where there was some timber exploitation in the 1980s, that these forests can recover — so there’s no question about that anymore. But it takes a long time. Even after 25 years we’re still seeing the damage in things like the reproduction of the lemurs. But the damage has already been done, and we can’t go backwards. Reforestation with native trees has to be part of the plan. I think it’s the way to go.

e360: Along the same lines, there’s a new paper in Science calling for rosewood to be added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] list. But would this even do any good considering the current situation?

Wright: Again, it would be a step in the right direction.

e360: Are foreign governments applying any pressure to stop hardwood exportation?

Wright: There has been some, but not enough to make an impact. In the U.S., we have been putting pressure on anyone who buys rosewood from Madagascar to stop, but as far as I know there hasn’t been major pressure put on China.

e360: There have also been reports that the bushmeat trade has risen significantly because of the crisis — what have you found on the ground?

Wright: With the lawlessness, people are not obeying the rules. In Madagascar, obviously, it’s against the law to kill lemurs. They’re an
Without any enforcement, there’s more poaching than we’ve ever seen before.”
endangered species, some of them critically endangered. But the loggers are also hungry, so they’re buying bushmeat for cash. The people of Madagascar are poor and need the money. So without any kind of enforcement of the law, there’s more poaching than we’ve ever seen before. And lemurs are primates, and primates don’t reproduce often — or every year. This means the bushmeat trade will make a major impact on lemur populations in the future.

e360: There are also roving bands of armed thugs running around the national parks — especially in the north — scaring off tourism. Your park, Ranomafana, is not in the north, but have you seen an impact?

Wright: Well, the Madagascar National Park service has put a ban on anybody going into the forest at night because of security problems. Now we don’t have any security problems at Ranomafana, but it does impact our research on nocturnal lemurs. So we have had to make special cases for our work.

e360: You’ve taken a very bottom-up approach at Ranomafana, where you’ve employed and educated a large chunk of the local population. Do you feel that Ranomafana is more protected because you’ve worked so closely with the locals?

Wright: Yes, I think so. We now, at our research station, employ 71 people full-time, with benefits. Each of those people represents a good-sized extended family. And that helps. When I first returned to Madagascar after the coup, the mayor [of Ranomafana] asked to see me. They had held a meeting with all the gendarmes and the traditional leaders and voted to keep this forest intact, to not allow in the problems they’ve been having in the north. We’ve also been working with very remote villages and even those villages have a feeling that this park — these forests — are protecting their watersheds and that the tourism and research in this forest have resulted in a big economic increase for them.

These days, I see people on bicycles in Ranomafana. I see houses improving and people putting their kids through college. This is something they couldn’t afford in the past. It’s really gratifying after 20 years to see that this does make a difference, but it sure does take a long time. Progress is slow, but progress is there. And the people in this region do understand that it’s the national park that has given them this opportunity to increase their income. It’s a good thing...

e360: You have a different relationship with the environment than most conservationists. As a primatologist — especially because lemurs are so long-lived — you’ve been studying the same families of animals since you’ve gotten to Madagascar, so you have intimate and personal relationships with some of these animals. Does that make it harder when they’re threatened?

Wright: I do have a long-term study, now over 25 years. And many lemurs live to over 30. So many of these animals I’ve known for a long, long time. And they do become your friends. You’re following them through the forest and you get involved in the soap opera of their lives:
So many of these lemurs I’ve known for a long time. And they do become your friends.”
who’s fighting with who, and which teenagers are going to exit the group, and what does that mean, not only for the ones who are leaving, but for newcomers who are entering it. We have predation events that occur. They’re very tragic to the families of lemurs, and we feel sad to see some of our friends no longer with us. Having gone through a lot with these animals, I do feel really close to them. The one thing I don’t want is for them to be further threatened by deforestation and hunting. Every day, when I wake up, it’s my goal to make sure that doesn’t happen.

e360: You did something a little unprecedented in response to the crisis — you got all the environmental groups on the island to work together. How exactly did you pull that off?

Wright: It’s a very important part of what’s happened this last year that’s been a collaborative effort. We started early on, when we first heard about the danger to the rosewood.

e360: What did you do exactly?

Wright: First, I alerted the press, and also some of the conservation groups. Then we started organizing against the slaughter. Everybody came together. The first meeting was held at the World Wildlife Fund’s office. Then we put together a document that was published in the newspaper, presented to the government, given to the press, and also given to the U.S. Congress. It was our way of letting the world know that this last remaining rosewood forest was being pillaged.

e360: And you were successful, sort of. In April, 2010, the transitional government signed a decree banning the logging of precious hardwoods. But a shipment of rosewood just left Madagascar for China. So what gives?

Wright: It’s been very difficult because the current government seems to be going in one direction — towards stopping the exploitation of the forests — and suddenly they reverse their verdict. I think this latest reversal took place after they met with the loggers. Either way, the wood got sent to China. It was very discouraging.

e360: Even more discouraging, the European Union voted in early June to suspend all aid to Madagascar. What does that mean both for the Malagasy and for the island’s environment?

Wright: The European Union has been in conversations with the government since last July about having legitimate elections, but nothing happened. So on June 1, the EU decided they have no recourse but to cut
You can’t get these forests back easily. It’s going to take hundreds of years.”
off aid to Madagascar. What does that mean? Well, Madagascar pretty much runs on aid. The EU and the U.S. government have both been instrumental in making the kind of economic progress Madagascar has made in the past five to eight years. It’s amazing, really. It used to be that 80 percent of Madagascar lived below the poverty line; now that’s down to 60 percent. The roads have all been fixed. The tourism industry has been booming. Then suddenly, because of the coup, everything has been put on hold...

e360: Considering how many other biodiversity hot spots are now threatened — and given the limited supply of capital for protecting such places — has the time come to make a global priority list?

Wright: I think so. This is not just Madagascar’s problem. There are forests everywhere that are threatened. If we don’t take this seriously, we’re going to have big problems in the future with climate change, loss of biodiversity. This is supposedly the year of biodiversity, yet we’re finding that the world’s conservation agencies haven’t fulfilled their promise. We haven’t been able to stop loss of biodiversity by 2010. So I think we need to revisit these old issues in a more realistic way. It’s time for these agencies to join together to make a plan that governments of the world take seriously.

e360: This raises a deeper question about the nature of protected landscapes. You created Ranomafana, which became a World Heritage Site in 2007. The whole purpose of designating something essential to the planet’s scientific/cultural heritage is in order to protect it. Is it time we actually had some muscle behind World Heritage Sites?

Wright: Yes. The designation, calling something a World Heritage Site, is important. And not just for Madagascar — for the whole world. But we need some teeth behind those declarations. There’s money for crisis situations when a World Heritage Site is threatened — but I haven’t seen any action. Two of the sites that have been pillaged for rosewood in Madagascar are also World Heritage Sites. They should be receiving that emergency aid.

e360: So can that money be used for protection? Can you use it to hire armed guards?

Wright: I think so — and just releasing those funds would put pressure on the Malagasy government. We need to treat these situations more seriously. As if a country was invaded. This wildlife that’s being eliminated can’t be replaced easily. You can’t get these forests back easily. It’s going to take hundreds of years.

e360: So we need new ways to protect species?

Wright: We have to think up something that’s going to work a little better in the future than what we’ve done in the past. There has been a sea change in how we treat protected areas in the last 20 years. We’ve started to work with the local people — and not just for a year or two years. Rather, working with them for a very long time — training them, capacity building, making their lives better. And making them understand that it’s the protection of the forest that makes their lives better... We have to make sure there’s funding for this because it seems to be very successful. But we have to be very careful and make sure we evaluate what is going on. We’ve had instances in Madagascar when the forest was handed over to the local people, and they just sold it to the timber operators. So you have to be sure people understand what their responsibility is.

We also have to think about reforestation with native species. We have to be thinking about what’s going to be happening to these forests in 50 years, in 100 years. One of the most optimistic things for me is that we had replanted rainforest trees in the 1990s in areas that had been slashed and burned. I didn’t think these trees would actually grow. Now we’re seeing


Madagascar’s Political Chaos
Threatens Conservation Gains

Since the government’s collapse after a coup in 2009, Madagascar’s rainforests have been plundered for their precious wood and unique wildlife, reports Rhett Butler. But there are a few encouraging signs, as officials promise a crackdown on illegal logging and ecotourists begin to return to the island.
them, 15, 20 years later, fruiting and flowering and doing well. That means the lemurs can come back. And they’ll increase the forest by doing their job of seed dispersal. Pretty soon we’ll have more and more forest being reforested by the lemurs. This reforestation is very important, and not just for our carbon footprint. Ninety percent of the forest in Madagascar has been destroyed already — and destroyed to the point that no one can live on it because the soil has been depleted of its nutrition. To get that nutrition back you’ve got to have the forest doing it. Once you have the forest growing up, you get this replenishing below. But in order to do that, you first need to convince the population that it’ll mean something to them. And we have several new programs giving incentives to local people to keep their forest.

It’s very important, incentives to keep the forest rather than cutting it. Right now there are laws all over the tropics that say once you cut your forest you own it. Logging is encouraged by the governments. We have to reverse that somehow. We need laws and compensation for preserving forests and biodiversity.

e360: Does that also mean we need some kind of centralized authority overseeing various conservation projects — a way to give all of these protected ecosystems a solid voice?

Wright: I think the time has come, but that’s a very complex endeavor. You don’t want to add a layer of bureaucracy and slow things down even more, but you do want an effective coalition that’s worldwide. But we’ve reached the point that we’re ready for it. We weren’t back in 1993, when we had our first worldwide biodiversity conference in Rio. Since then we’ve learned a lot. We’ve gathered incredible amounts of data. We have to use that data, put it together, and make a plan.

POSTED ON 01 Jul 2010 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Energy Forests Policy & Politics Science & Technology North America 


Excellent interview -- one of the best I've seen about Madagascar

Posted by Rhett on 01 Jul 2010

Thank you. So much information, so much work to be done. Continue teaching so that more local people learn to appreciate their unique homeland.

Posted by Betty Finney on 27 Jul 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Steven Kotler, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is a New Mexico-based author and journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, GQ, Wired, Popular Science and National Geographic. He is the author of several books, including A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, which will be published in the fall. He also writes a blog about the science of sport for PsychologyToday.com.



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