Madagascar is one of the most diverse places on earth however, despite the conservation interest in the island, very little is known about threatened tree species and where they are found. In this blog, Jesus Carrasco, describes the challenges he identified in his recent MSc work to help identify Madagascar’s most important sites for threatened trees.
A new leaf
When I began my Master project at Imperial College London, all I knew about Madagascar was its location, landscapes, and exotic beaches. It’s also a famous international hotspot for biodiversity, due to the presence of the huge quantity of unique species, including its awesome and iconic baobabs.
The aim of my research was to collate all the information on threatened Malagasy trees and answer the simple questions: where are they and, where are the best places to conserve or improve their conservation status? I found that even in the 21st century, still, Madagascar maintains many secrets for us.
Over 3,000 endemics
I loved working with trees because it provides the possibility to develop actions that have a significant impact on nature conservation. Individual tree species can support their own ecosystems, offering protection, food, and habitat for a considerable number of threatened and non-threatened species.
At the beginning, identifying the current number of endemic known species in Madagascar and speaking with botanical experts, through my research I that there are found plenty of endemic tree species on the island, a total of 3,077 tree species are found there (BGCI). Looking in depth, I found that only a very few (232) of these endemic tree species have been assessed on the IUCN Red List, and only 102 had any distribution maps.
A new challenge
Checking other organisation’s databases, herbariums, and maps, it showed specific information about the situation of trees in Madagascar, but it was very difficult to determinate an actual distribution for most of them. So, it was impossible for me to answer my main question of this research, which I found shocking in the modern day.
My research highlighted just how much we do not know, about the actual distribution of most of Madagascar’s endemic trees species, which is a major concern because we do not really know the threatened status of many of them. So, my main question is, how can we preserve something that nobody knows where it is? And my challenge was born.
Thanks to the available online information, advice and help from experts coming from different organizations, I was able to link the data to trees species locations (from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) – an open-data platform with collection information from many sources) with ‘GlobalTreeSearch’ (from the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)), and conservation threat status (from the IUCN Red List).
Along with some clever science methodologies already published (species distribution models and conservation prioritization tools), linked with the specific location of those trees species which we do know about, I was able to develop maps of potential places where each tree species could be present at this moment and ultimately define priority areas for implementing conservation actions.
What it all means
Using the maps that I created, I was able to indicate areas with the highest potential tree diversity – for example, a site in north Madagascar where you could find 676 different tree species within a km2. I also categorised places according to the level of threat (for example agricultural pressure, slash and burn habitat destruction, and human population size).
I discovered that if your conservation focus is on protecting tree species richness, the East littoral forest in northern, south-eastern, and central Madagascar should be prioritized for protection and conservation action.
This is the moment of communicating and sharing these conclusions, now it is time to implement more effort on the ground determining the presence of these tree species, their main threats, and their real conservation status; working to bring people together to establish the uses and benefits from these kinds of projects.
By selecting priority areas for conservation, we can increase and improve the protection of the most important areas for wildlife. As for Madagascar, now we know where the species are, however, there are still many things to do to preserve flora of Madagascar. Now is the time to redouble our efforts for conservation actions and social engagement to preserve the future of Madagascar’s unique forests and species.
GTC currently works in Madagascar to conserve three Endangered baobab species. In addition to this in 2018, BGCI are launching a project to red list all the endemic dry forest trees of Madagascar, which is being supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF).