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Conservation field report: Surveys, reforestation and lemurs in Madagascar

Posted on: 5 July, 2024

As you may have seen, we're opening an exciting new play area, Explorers Basecamp, this summer at Bristol Zoo Project. This three-storey adventure playground is based on a field station which you’d find at one of our conservation project sites around the world, for example in Madagascar.

With slides, rope jungles, climbing walls and so much more, Explorers Basecamp offers kids the chance to take on the role of a conservationist through fully immersive play.

As we look forward to its highly anticipated opening, we wanted to share with you what our real-life conservation team get up to in the field and how their work has provided the inspiration behind the concept.

Megan Aylward, Lecturer in Conservation Science, has recently returned from a field trip to Madagascar where she caught up with teams and partners on the various projects Bristol Zoological Society runs out there.

Ankarafa field station

One of our ongoing projects in Madagascar is the Ankarafa field station, which is being built in conjunction with one of our partners, the AEECL (The Lemur Conservation Association), and support from UK-based Grant Associates, FCBS studios, and BuroHappold Engineering. It’s located in Northwest Madagascar in the heart of the Ankarafa Forest in Sahamalaza Peninsula, part of Sahamalaza Iles-Radama National Park (SIRNP).

As always, after arriving in the capital Antananarivo (Tana), there were two days on the road to Antsohihy, the nearest large town to Sahamalaza. March is the tail-end of the cyclone season in Madagascar, so I was anticipating a lot of mud and potential delays due to poor road conditions. I was not disappointed with the mud, but fortunately we made it to Antsohihy within two days as planned.

During the rainy season the road is impassable by vehicles, so we hired a local boat and set sail for Marovato, a coastal village just a two-hour hike from Ankarafa field station.

Since our last visit, the field station buildings have been painted and are looking fresh. With only the kitchen, as well as some fittings and furnishings left to complete, we will soon be ready to expand our efforts to support external researchers to work alongside conservation staff.

After checking in with the AEECL field team, we headed into the forest for transect surveys. One advantage of going to the field at the end of the rainy season is to witness how the forest changes and some of the challenges that come with that. Some of our transects that we had set up in the dry season are now part of streams, and cyclones have led to damage, including fallen trees in a few of our botanical plots that we had set up to monitor phenology (the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year).

Reforestation and rapid surveys

After a brief visit at Ankarafa, the next journey started with a 3am departure on our hike to the village of Androy. We have been working closely with people from Androy in nursery management and reforestation, alongside AEECL. On this visit we spent time checking in on the project, but also conducting a rapid survey of the lemur species in the forest fragments close to this village. The Bristol Zoological Society reforestation managers from Androy welcomed us into their homes, guided us on the surveys, and updated us on the reforestation efforts they had achieved in February during the 2024 planting season.

During our diurnal and nocturnal lemur surveys, we were delighted to see at least four species of lemur in these fragments, including a breeding pair of Critically Endangered blue-eyed black lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons). We have a pair of this species at Bristol Zoo Project, as part of the European breeding programme. We also observed the Northern giant mouse lemur (Mirza zaza), and the fat tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus major), as well as a mouse lemur (Microcebus sambiranensis). This is particularly exciting as we typically only see these mouse lemurs restricted to the Anabohazo forest fragment, in the east of the National Park, so to see it here may represent another population of this threatened species.

We wrapped up our training and surveying activities with some visual surveys of amphibians in Sahamalaza. The next step in our biodiversity monitoring project is to expand the range of species studied to include amphibians, as some Critically Endangered micro-endemic frog species are found only within SIRNP and nowhere else in the world. For example, all individuals of the Ankarafa skeleton frog (Boophis ankarafensis) are found in only a single location in the Ankarafa forest. This species has received almost zero conservation attention since it was first described over a decade ago by current Bristol Zoological Society lecturer, Sam Penny.

The twenty or so species of amphibians resident in SIRNP rely upon forest ponds and streams for breeding, and the conversion of forest to farmland, along with changing climate, means the potential for decreased rainfall and the loss of these breeding sites for these species. We’re therefore looking forward to characterising the amphibian diversity and distribution in detail through this project next year so that we can better understand how to conserve these valuable and rare species.

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