This article is part of a narrative series of global environmentalists working as part of Billions of trees.
By Félix Ratelolahy
I grew up on the east coast of Madagascar. My parents were farmers, living and working in the bush, using the earth’s natural resources for their livelihood. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor – my friends and I always played doctors and hospitals, but the love of conservation and a deep respect for the forest has always been in my blood.
When I was about 4 years old, I remember being devastated because an area of the forest where we lived had been cut down. My older brother explained to me that parts of the forest needed to be cleared to make room for growing food, but I desperately wanted to protect it. Perhaps my passion for forest conservation stems from that time.
I went to university in western Madagascar to study medicine, but the selection process was difficult. I had chosen natural science as my second option, but looking back I’m happy to say that’s what I ended up studying. I knew, deep down, that my place was in conservation. I have been working as an ecologist for 19 years now and in Makira Natural Park in Madagascar since 2007. Here the partner of Trillion Trees Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) works to restore the precious rainforest.
Makira Natural Park in northeastern Madagascar is the largest remaining intact tropical rainforest in our special country, famous for its incredible endemic biodiversity. More than 80 percent of Madagascar’s plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. And this vast protected area is so rich in biodiversity of terrestrial vertebrates that some groups are only just beginning to be studied. Makira Forest is home to the greatest diversity of lemurs with 17 species, representing 15 percent of the country’s lemur species. The forest also contributes some of the highest rainfall in the country, helping to power one of Madagascar’s crucial hydropower plants.
But there are huge threats to this precious forest. Not so long ago, Madagascar was known as the “Green Island”, covered with vast expanses of lush, green forest. But he has completely changed. Visitors to our country will see that most of the land has turned red; we have become “the red island”.
Twenty years ago all the land I work around was covered with the sights and sounds of the forest – a wonderful and intricate combination of trees, flowers, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. , rivers and waterfalls. Pressures on the forest from agriculture, firewood, bushmeat and mining for precious stones, including quartz and gold, as well as natural threats such as cyclones, mean that these complex ecosystems remain in much smaller areas and are continually threatened.
My ambition is for our island to return to its original color, and our forest restoration work aims to achieve this. We strive to strike a balance between the natural world and the people who live around and depend on it – for Makira, that’s almost 90,000 people.
Overcoming poverty and providing local people with the materials and skills they need to change old ways and adapt to new sustainable agricultural technologies is one of the greatest challenges we face. It is above all the will to change age-old habits and behaviors that is fundamental. And this must be supported by government legislation and regulations.
Many see conservation work as limited to reforestation and tree planting. This is extremely important, and I am proud that since WCS started the restoration project in Makira in 2009, we have restored 1330 hectares of forest in the park, which is slowly starting to return to its original state. Equally essential is working with local people to help establish new methods of agriculture that will turn degraded lands into forests and better protect them. In the buffer zones, we work with people to find new sources of income – for example, through the sustainable production of cocoa, vanilla and cloves, instead of rice. It is equally important to focus on these efforts to ensure the success of the restoration.
This year, we received a large donation from the Trillion Trees ReForest Fund to expand our reforestation work. Our team works with the local people, who help educate about the collection, preparation and planting of seeds, and look after newly planted sites for years to come to ensure the survival and flowering of the trees. Today a lot of my job is monitoring budgets and overseeing restoration work, but what I love most is having time to go into the forest to visit our various sites. catering and see the difference our work makes.
One of my most special moments in Makira was the day we discovered the Silky Sifaka (Sifaka candidus), a rare species of lemur, in the Antasahabe-Andaparaty ecotourism site that we had created. There were rumors that this species existed in Makira, but no one had ever seen it. Over 60 people went into the forest for a week on a mission to find a Silky Sifaka, and there was even talk of a reward for the first sighting. But they were unlucky. I ventured out with a few colleagues and in just 20 minutes we came across a group of five animals. My local guide asked me if I had a magic potion.
We still have a lot of work to do – in Makira Natural Park, in neighboring Masoala National Park and across Madagascar. But by working with our partners and with the local population, we have shown that the challenges we face in protecting and restoring the forest can be overcome. If we treat the forest, which many of us depend on, with respect, it becomes even more special. When people thank us because the support we have provided them in establishing new farming techniques has enabled them to earn so much more of the land, it is worth it.
My activities are just a drop in the ocean of conservation efforts around the world. The most important lesson I have learned from nearly two decades of experience is that animals, plants, and humans are completely interdependent. Conservation is a task for everyone, from small children to older generations, and we need to make people aware of the magnitude of the task and how it can be done. It is a long-term activity, an endless job. But with persistence, respect and trust, and working together, I think we can accomplish anything. We can give Madagascar back the island it once was, in all its green splendor.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), established in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society, is a United States-based nonprofit conservation organization that saves wildlife and wild places around the world through science, to conservation actions, education and inspiration of people to enhance nature. With long-term commitments in more than 60 countries, WCS applies its biological knowledge, cultural understanding, and partnerships to ensure that wild places and wildlife thrive alongside local communities.