Student research: Ryan Marsh helps conserve Madagascar's unique biodiversity

December 1, 2011

More than 10,000 native plant and animal species inhabit the island of Madagascar. Many are endangered by human activity. Others have become extinct. The stakes are high to protect the species that remain, 80 percent of which - including all lemurs - are endemic, meaning they're only found on the island.

Ryan Marsh with a Madagascar forest management group
A local forest management group in Madagascar.

But this biodiversity hotspot has been without a stable government since a 2009 coup, making the already challenging task of protecting its flora and fauna even more difficult. In the absence of government support, conservation groups, volunteers and local residents have turned to forest management groups to help protect the ecosystem.

Ryan Marsh, a master's candidate in the Nelson Institute Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development (CBSD) program, has been studying conservation in Madagascar since 2008, when he first arrived there as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Marsh was evacuated in 2009 as political unrest in the country intensified. Since then, he says, conservation funding has largely been withdrawn from Madagascar. He recently returned to the country as part of the Peace Corps Response program to help build capacity among local forest management groups.

According to Marsh, these groups are crucial to tracking activity in the forests of Madagascar. In 2003, the federal government pledged to increase the amount of protected land in the country from 2 to 10 percent. Large areas of forest were set aside, but without proper resources to manage them, land use within protected areas didn't improve.

"The government was calling out to the conservation community to come help set up community-based forest management," says Marsh. In response, a number of groups formed. Many are outside initiatives, but others consist of self-generated clusters of citizens looking to help manage the forest.

Participants establish the limits of the forest, mark out boundaries, separate the forest into usage zones and issue permits, along with fines, as necessary, to those using the forest.

Household interview in Madagascar
Household interviews are one
part of forest conservation efforts.
Here, a resident uses a rating
system to indicate what factors
are most important to him.

This type of grassroots initiative is especially critical in Madagascar, Marsh says, since the forest service's presence is so minimal.

"The government has no funding for enforcement," he explains. "If the forest is to be managed it has to be by these local people."

While residents want to protect the forest, Marsh says the key is striking a balance between conservation and benefiting the local population. Most of the areas Marsh works in are extremely rural, where people rely on the forest for their well being. Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging of precious hardwoods, gold mining and the harvesting of trees for building and firewood all lead to ongoing degradation.

Conservation efforts are currently focused on reducing residents' economic reliance on the forest - curbing logging and gold mining while allowing for local subsistence use of the forest and incorporating economic activities that benefit the ecosystem and the community.

Marsh studies two conservation incentive programs in the Ankeniheny Zahamena Corridor, a park in the island's Eastern Rainforest Corridor. The corridor is home to half of the biodiversity in Madagascar, making its protection especially important.

Conservation incentive programs are meant to lessen human impact on the forest while increasing the livelihood of local communities. As an example, one program assists residents with intensive rice farming. According to Marsh, the people of Madagascar rely on rice as a major part of their economy. Intensive rice farming allows farmers to get a higher yield without growing on forest hillsides, reducing the incentive to clear trees. Other livelihood projects include teaching residents nutrient-rich farming practices, such as the planting of corn and beans together.

Greater bamboo lemur
A greater bamboo lemur in
Madagascar. Credit CC/wallygrom.

Marsh is also examining a conservation incentive program that pays local people to patrol the forest for activities that are damaging to the ecosystem.

"My work has been looking at how these two programs actually affect forest use," Marsh says. "I'm also looking at how they affect the structure of the local management groups. Are they starting to issue more fines or more permits? Are they doing more regular patrolling?"

Both programs were launched less than two years ago, so major changes have yet to be seen. Still, Marsh explains, residents are becoming more and more involved in the conservation efforts and are excited to combine preserving the forest with bettering their day-to-day lives.

Alongside his conservation projects, Marsh is currently completing a capstone project in Madagascar as part of the Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE) program, a non-degree graduate program administered by the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. The CHANGE certificate's supplementary curriculum and training in interdisciplinary environmental research are meant to complement any UW-Madison graduate program.

For the capstone, Marsh and two other Nelson Institute graduate students, Erik Olson and Brittany Bovard, are studying the critically endangered greater bamboo lemur. Their research is supported by the Aspinall Foundation, a conservation organization based in the United Kingdom.

Only a few hundred greater bamboo lemurs are known to live in the wild. By placing motion-sensitive cameras in Madagascar forests, the team hopes to gather new information about where the species exists.

Ryan Marsh presents his research findings
Marsh presents his research findings.

"We're pioneering a new technique, using these camera traps for arboreal species," says Marsh.

Along with learning more about the lemurs' habitat, the team is also examining the cultural value of the forest to local people, the importance of hunting in their lives, and how potential changes to hunting regulations could benefit local people who rely on the forest as well as the lemurs.

Marsh hopes to return to Madagascar to do his doctorate research, building on his capstone project and his master's work.

"Almost all of the locals are just trying to get by," Marsh says. "From an ethical standpoint, we need to work with them in a productive way. Without local acceptance, no progress will be made."

Jenny Peek is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.