The country is suffering a great social, political and ecological crisis which is threatening the survival of much of its biodiversity, unique in the world. Selective logging of Madagascar rosewood is causing a biological crisis unprecedented in the country. Lemurs, one of the most affected groups, are treading on thin ice.
When the French botanist Jean-Henri Humbert set foot on the massif of Marojejy for the first time, in 1948, he was so astonished of what he saw that 7 years later he published Une merveille de la nature à Madagascar, a book which exalted the incredible biodiversity and pristine forests present in the region1. The fact is that Marojejy is possibly the best example of the rich and varied fauna and flora that Madagascar holds and, hence, the best indicator to take notice when the island begins to show signs of collapse. Unfortunately, both the region and the whole of Madagascar live days of uncertainty, and the fear of the disappearance of this treasure is becoming more real day after day.
Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, has an area of just over the Iberian Peninsula and contains a unique biological wealth. Despite its size and the relative proximity to the African continent, it has remained isolated from other continents since 80 million years ago, causing the local flora and wildlife have evolved independently from the rest. As a result, more than 90% of Madagascar’s species are considered unique in the world2. A 90% of reptiles3, 60% of birds4 and 80% of the island flora5 are endemic, as well as some unique lineages of mammals such as lemurs and fossas. However, all are at imminent risk of extinction due to the events experienced in the country in the recent years.
CAUSES OF THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS IN THE COUNTRY
Deforestation has been present on the island since its colonization by humans, approximately 2000 years ago. However, in recent years, the delicate political situation in the country has led to their forests to their limits. With an unprecedented population growth, an extreme poverty (one of the highest in the world 6, 7) and a pressing political crisis, the nature of the island is helpless and besieged by multiple fronts. In addition to the traditional system of slash and burn deforestation, which allows local people to open forests to cultivate, it has appeared an unexpected player led by international companies. Selective logging of species of the genus Dalbergia (rosewood), rare in the forests and precious in the developed world due to its characteristic color and the strength of its wood, has become the main threat for the biodiversity of the island. It must be added, to the direct impact that involves the extraction of specific species of forest, resulting threats that can be even more damaging for the biodiversity, such as poaching, opening roads, habitat alteration, introduction of invasive species or intimidation of local populations by criminal organizations that manage the illegal exploitation8.
Selective logging, present and endemic for decades, took a breather in 2000, thanks to its ban in National Parks. However, due to a deep political crisis occurred in 2009, which ended with a coup d’etat, the situation got out of hand, and criminal organizations took control, entering with impunity in the National Parks of the country9. Many of these National Parks are literally being swept away and looted, and they are nothing more than a mirage of what they were once. Despite the restoration of democracy in 201310 and the promises of the elected president to end the “plague” that selective logging of rosewood was causing to the country11, nothing is being done to fight against poaching.
WHICH COUNTRIES ARE BEHIND POACHING?
China is by far, the major importer of illegal timber from Madagascar. The main reasons are the growth of its middle class, which demands new furniture in line with their new standard of living, and the facilities granted by China due to its lax legislation on illegal timber12. A considerable part of this wood is used to make furniture in the style of the Ming Dynasty, which can be sold for $ 20,000. As there is no control on the illegal timber entering to the country, it is impossible to trace their origin. That’s why, in many cases, furniture and musical instruments manufactured in Europe or North America have been made with some or all with illegal timber13.
BIODIVERSITY IN DANGER
Due to the opening of roads to remove rosewood timber, lemurs and other native species have become the target of poachers. At the beginning of the political crisis of 2009, a huge amount of lemurs and other wildlife were hunted to feed the thousands of loggers who often live in the forest while carrying out the logging. However, later, a luxury market which involved lemurs emerged, supplying restaurants with its meal in the larger cities and selling them as a delicacy.
Although the amount of death lemurs at the hands of poachers is unknown, there are many species that are suffering the impact, many of them in serious danger of extinction like the indri lemur -the largest lemur alive-, the Tattersall’s sifaka or the silky sifaka. The latter, has just a population estimated of 300 individuals. The situation of lemurs is so dramatic that a study of 2012 warned that 90% of the 103 species of lemurs should be on the Red List14. In addition, 23 of them should be qualified as Critically Endangered, the highest threat level.
During this time it has also been an increase of trade of wild animals to serve as exotic pets, mainly affecting chameleons and turtles15, but has also been intensified the smuggling of lemurs16. In fact, a study of 2015 estimated that the number of lemurs captured in freedom for the exotic pet market could reach the creepy number of 28,000 in the last 3 years17.
IS THERE ANY LONG TERM SOLUTION?
There is always a way to make things get better. Here there is some of them:
- Avoid selective logging of rosewood should be the number one priority to reduce the collateral damage it generates. Since 2011 the Malagasy species of the genus Dalbergia belong to CITES Appendix 3, granting them a greater degree of protection and regulating their trade. However, the controls remain inefficient and wood is coming from Madagascar towards the ports of China. In 2013, CITES urged China to increase controls in ports, but nothing was done about it. As indicated in this 2015 article of The guardian18, illegal timber from Madagascar continues entering in large amounts, because Chinese law allows importing timber without requiring export permits.
- Effective monitoring forest by independent observers could yield results. In fact, this system has already been implemented in countries such as Cambodia and Cameroon, achieving good results19.
- DNA fingerprinting is another method that it has recently been used on confiscated ivory to determine which populations of African elephants are being hunted. DNA testing has already been applied recently to track limber in other countries20.
- Finally, it is necessary that each and every one of us avoid purchasing exotic pets from Madagascar if there is no legal certification that tells us we are not damaging them.
With all these solutions, an increase of public awareness and a greater international responsability regarding environmental problems, it may still has a glimmer of hope for wildlife in Madagascar.
- Hobbes & Dolan (2008), p. 517
- Okajima, Yasuhisa; Kumazawa, Yoshinori (15 July 2009). “Mitogenomic perspectives into iguanid phylogeny and biogeography: Gondwanan vicariance for the origin of Madagascan oplurines”.Gene(Elsevier) 441 (1–2): 28–35. doi:1016/j.gene.2008.06.011.PMID 18598742.
- Conservation International (2007).“Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands”. Biodiversity Hotspots. Conservation International. Archived from the original on 24 August 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011.
- Callmander, Martin; et. al (2011). “The endemic and non-endemic vascular flora of Madagascar updated”. Plant Ecology and Evolution144 (2): 121–125. doi:5091/plecevo.2011.513. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 February 2012. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
- Imagen de portada: Alexis Dittberner, n0mad.mu project.