Preserving a jungle's wonders Conservation: Human damage to a remote peninsula in Madagascar has eradicated or endangered animals and plants found nowhere else. Yet tourism may be key to its environmental recovery.

Sun Journal

August 27, 1996|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MASOALA PENINSULA, Madagascar -- You can reach this peninsula only by a walk of several days or by boat. If not for that, Masoala might be a place of human settlement rather than the largest remaining tract of undeveloped rain forest on Madagascar, a place that has incubated flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth.

That myriad of species includes types of sea snails, ferns and palm trees. An American entomologist recently identified on the Masoala Peninsula 100 species of ants, some previously unknown.

But ever since humans began arriving on the island about 2,000 years ago, the island's unique ecosystems have been under attack. More than 80 percent of Madagascar's original forests are gone, half of them destroyed within the past 40 years. An unknown number of animal species are gone with them. And the deforestation has led to severe erosion: Hills have lost so much topsoil that much of Madagascar appears scalped.

But there now is an extensive effort to ensure the island's remaining natural wonders are not destroyed.

The conservation effort began in 1990, when foreign donors persuaded the Malagasy government to develop an environmental plan for designating rain forests and other biologically unique areas as protected zones and national parks.

Foreign governments and international agencies then gave millions of dollars to bring the plan into effect. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has given $85 million, its largest environmental effort in the world.

The Masoala Peninsula is a key part in the conservation plan. More than 480,000 acres of the peninsula are to become a national park, about one-fifth of the total area destined for protection. A dedication ceremony scheduled for June was canceled because of turmoil within the government, but it may take place next month.

But the future of this land is far from guaranteed. The people of Madagascar are among the poorest in the world, with per capita annual income of $240. For centuries, they have created farmland for rice and other crops by slashing and burning the forests.

Conservationists hope to preserve Masoala by making forest protection economically worthwhile to the population.

"Conservation has to pay for itself," says Remko Vonk, the Madagascar director of CARE International, the U.S.-based agency in charge of creating a protection plan for the Masoala Peninsula. "The bottom line is that we have to increase the value of the forests for them to be protected. At the moment, the value of an [acre] is the amount of rice you can get from it."

With a $2.7 million grant from AID, CARE officials have been trying to create economic alternatives for the villagers living along the edge of the Masoala forest. Specialists from the San Diego Zoo have visited Masoala and identified seven butterfly species that they believe will sell on the international insect market. CARE wants to teach villagers around the forest how to harvest butterfly cocoons, to be sold to European and American butterfly collectors.

There are plans too for eco-tourism: If all goes well, CARE officials say, the rain forest will attract tourists. Villagers would receive some of the park fees.

But the villagers know little of these plans. In Ambanizana, on the edge of the proposed park, people sound perplexed by the idea of a large area that would be off-limits to them.

"The population does not understand why there needs to be a national park," says Alexis Lava, the village chief, hearing an explanation of what the park would be. Other, better informed authorities raised objections to the proposed boundaries. Municipal officials in Maroantsetra, the largest town in the Masoala area, maintained that they had not been properly consulted by the central government.

"We do not know why the state has taken this decision," says Nicaise Razafindranosa, a councilman in Maroantsetra. "Masoala is mostly the creation of people in Antananarivo," the Madagascar capital. "No one consulted the people of Maroantsetra."

CARE officials maintain that local leaders agreed in writing to the park's boundaries. But they also say that their plan was to create the national park and then work more closely with the villagers around it.

Hanging in the balance are the rain forest on the Masoala Peninsula and some of the world's most exotic creatures.

"Madagascar is like a big Galapagos island," says Matthew Hatchwell of the Wildlife Conservation Society, "and Masoala is the place where you will find things in the best condition."

In Masoala are leaf-tail gecko lizards, forest coconut trees, fruit-eating bats and six species of lemur monkeys -- Madagascar's symbol of bio-diversity.

The full biological array on Masoala still is being documented. A few years ago, the serpent eagle was resurrected from extinction, after being seen on Masoala for the first time in 50 years.

Birds, insects and frogs create an unending racket of peeping and squawking. Ferns grow to enormous size; leaves are long and thin, short and stubby, lanky, sharp, perforated, bulbous.

And their survival, paradoxically, depends on whether the tourists arrive -- visitors who come in large enough numbers, and spend large enough sums, to make the value of the serpent eagles and lemurs more clear to the people living on the rain forest's rim.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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