Madagascar’s forest is disappearing. Today, 9.9 percent of the island country’s original primary forest is left, and with the forest itself, many of the species unique to the island are also disappearing. Sarah Karpanty, assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, has spent the last 11 years working to keep this from happening.
Karpanty first became interested in Madagascar while studying raptors and birds of prey there as a graduate student. She said she fell in love with the island’s diversity of plants and animals, and has continued to do research there since that time. Karpanty sees the importance of her work from a perspective that is mindful of Madagascar’s extreme poverty and how subsistence-level agriculture is taking its toll on the island’s tropical forests.
“Madagascar is a very big island,” Karpanty said, “but it’s sort of a microcosm of problems everywhere. If we could solve some of the problems there, it would be a good first step towards working on the problems on a continent-level basis.”
Currently, Karpanty studies the predator-prey ecology of the island’s many threatened and endangered lemur species. “Lemurs have quite diverse array of predators,” she said.
Very little is known about many of these predatory species, which include raptors, snakes, and mammals. Karpanty’s studies have produced some of the first pictures of non-captive carnivores such as the fossa, a mongoose-like mammal with a long tail and extremely strong teeth. Although the predators prey on endangered lemurs, in many cases the predators themselves are endangered, meaning that the forest must be managed for the survival of both predator and prey species.
This is no easy task. Deforestation on the island has created a highly fragmented forest, cutting wildlife populations off from the larger forest ecosystem and creating difficult management problems.
“There are cases where lemurs and their predators get isolated in these patches of forests, and the predators, doing their natural thing, will wipe out all the lemur individuals,” Karpanty said. By better understanding the predator-prey interaction between lemurs and their predators, Karpanty said she hopes to find better ways to manage the fragments that constitute so much of Madagascar’s forest.
In addition to purely scientific research, Karpanty sees a need to work with the Malagasy, who are the people of Madagascar. The country’s deforestation issues are largely a symptom of the nation’s poverty.
Malagasies use the forest for many products as well, including food, firewood, and construction materials. According to Karpanty, this reality makes it foolish to study the forest’s biodiversity without combating poverty at the same time. To this end, Karpanty also runs a reforestation project that provides training and supplies to help the local people plant native trees on their own land. The goal of the project is two-fold: the people benefit because they will be able to sustainably harvest nuts and fruit from their plots, and the animals benefit because the reforested areas will serve as corridors between larger, forested areas.
The project is now progressing to being controlled most directly by Malagasy people, a situation Karpanty called ideal. While overseeing the current project, she is also working to expand it into other areas. The program is currently limited by funding, but there is great demand from Malagasies to duplicate it in other villages. Karpanty said she dreams of eventually establishing a national reforestation program, such as those in Costa Rica and Panama.
“One thing is certain. In order to save Madagascar’s forests, both aspects of this work are necessary,” Karpanty said.
Through her field studies, Karpanty uncovers more and more about rare and little-known species, but interaction with the local community is just as essential to accomplishing her goal of restoring Madagascar’s ecological health.
“In the long term, you have to alleviate the poverty if you’re going to save the animals,” she said.
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