Imagining a Future Without Wildlife in Madagascar

National Geographic Explorer Dr. Christopher Golden and his team of Harvard Planetary Health Scholars spent six weeks in Madagascar to better understand the human health impacts of environmental change. This series of stories will document this journey across Madagascar through the personal experiences of these students.

By Camille DeSisto, Harvard University undergraduate and Planetary Health Undergraduate Scholar

Trekking through the forest in Madagascar, the wildlife that most quickly captures the curiosity of many are the lemurs. Their primate charisma comes in part from strikingly beautiful features that intrigue the viewer. Why are these lemurs important to people?

Exclusively endemic to Madagascar, lemurs fulfill a vital ecological niche. Yet many Malagasy hunt lemurs, birds, and bats, among other animals. In our stay adjacent to the Makira Natural Park, we witnessed people hunting and eating wild birds and tenrecs caught within the folds of the forest. However, wildlife is becoming much more scarce, and hunters lamented the dearth of many types of animals in the forest. In this same community, we lived in houses made of plant fibers and materials, ate food cooked on firewood, slept on mats of woven reeds, and shaded ourselves from the harsh sun with the canopy of trees. Plants, just like animals, are critically important, and in fact inseparable, from Malagasy life.

A teenager living outside the Makira Natural Park slingshotted a Malagasy paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata), holding it moments before cooking it. Photo credit: Camille DeSisto.

It is difficult to reconcile the need for food with the long-term need for wildlife conservation. It is clear that hunting at current rates drives certain wildlife species’ populations down to unsustainable sizes. Habitat destruction and fragmentation add to the problem. Not only is this harmful in terms of destabilizing food security, it also creates a cascade of harmful environmental impacts.

A hunter living near the Makira Natural Park holding a juvenile common tenrec (Tenrec ecaudatus). These are the most fecund mammals on Earth, and can have up to 32 babies in a litter. Photo credit: Rebecca Gaal.

Gnawing on a tiny fruit, the black and white ruffed lemur we saw was blissfully unaware of the importance of her actions. Lemurs are essential for the functional diversity of plants, and in a country where the vast majority of flora and fauna are endemic, preserving this diversity is critical for sustained environmental and human well-being. Many lemurs, birds, and bats are not just bushmeat for humans, but critical seed dispersers, meaning that the size of their populations affects a multitude of plants species. With higher populations comes more seed dispersal and greater seedling establishment. This reshapes forest community structure and floral biodiversity, potentially improving human access to plant resources. In addition to seed dispersal, bats and other wildlife contribute to floral diversity through pollination. Without dispersal and pollination, the forest would be unrecognizable.

The alteration of floral composition from the loss of these animals will impact human health by limiting access to food, medicinal plants, and other forest products.

A black and white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata) perched in the canopy of the Makira rainforests. This species is the top taste preference of all bushmeat species for local Malagasy people. It is also a 95-percent frugivore, serving an important seed dispersal role for regenerating the forest. Photo credit: Rebecca Gaal. Special support provided by FUJIFILM.

As I peer around the robust buttress roots of a nearby tree, I am struck by the strength of the forest. How can a place so strong and lively be simultaneously so vulnerable? The answer lies within the complex relationships that create a web of dependency between humans, animals, and plants. These connections are both beautiful and dangerous. But vulnerability is not fragility, and the resiliency of the forest, just like the resiliency of the Malagasy people, is inspiring.

We must understand and care for the invaluable animal-plant interactions that breathe life into the forest and all of its inhabitants. Human life depends on natural resources that these connections provide, resources that are threatened with unsustainable levels of extraction. Stewardship of the land is essential for the sustained health of humanity; to ignore the vital role that humans play in shaping the environment is to sabotage people and all the natural things to which we are connected.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Dr. Christopher Golden is an ecologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an explorer at National Geographic. His research investigates the nexus of trends in global environmental change and human health. He received his BA from Harvard College where he created his own curriculum integrating courses in ecology, medical anthropology and development studies. He then received two graduate degrees from UC Berkeley: an MPH in Epidemiology with a focus in Nutrition, and a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy and Management focusing his studies in wildlife ecology and ecosystem services. Since 1999, Dr. Golden has been conducting environmental and public health research in Madagascar where he created a local research organization called MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research). In the local language, “mahery” means strength and this organization has been the sole research organization operating in Madagascar’s largest remaining tract of rainforest. This group supports 20 field staff and he has trained nearly 25 Malagasy university students in field research methods. Over the past several years, he has served as lead investigator on several research efforts: 1) the investigation of terrestrial wildlife declines in Madagascar on food security and human nutrition; 2) the investigation of marine fishery collapses in Madagascar (and across the globe) on food security and human nutrition; and 3) intervention analyses to determine solutions to wildlife harvest unsustainability and local health crises.