Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Updating Seminal Book on Madagascar’s Biodiversity

by Marsea Nelson

  The leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) is one of many species endemic to Madagascar. © Robin Moore/iLCP​

CEPF Grantee: Association Vahatra​
Project Title: Madagascar’s Protected Areas: A Bilingual Book and Associated Database Reviewing Their History, Biodiversity and Guiding the Future
Grant Amount: US$183,000
Biodiversity Hotspot: Madagascar and Indian Ocean Islands
In 1989, a landmark conservation book was published: “Madagascar: Review of Conservation and the Protected Areas.” At the time, the number of Malagasy people working in conservation were few and only a handful of protected areas on the island had been declared. 
Today, the text is largely out of date, and that’s a good thing, because in the 30 years since its publication, there’s been massive exploration of the country’s biodiversity (conducted more and more by local conservationists). Some 2,500 species have been described and, as a result, many new protected areas have been declared.
The book needs to be updated and, with help from a CEPF grant, that’s exactly what the organization Vahatra has set out to do. It’s a massive undertaking: The resource, which includes both French and English text, includes species inventories, protection status, current management details and ecotourism information. Once complete, it will provide a strong base for biodiversity conservation decision-making by stakeholders—from government and local authorities to civil society and tourism operations.

The Endangered crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus). © Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

         Lessons Learned

Challenge 1: Holes in the data set
Though the data on Madagascar’s biodiversity is strides ahead of where it was when the book was first released, there were still gaps in the data.
Solution: Factor the gaps into the project plan
The CEPF grant was developed in stages. The first six months of the project, Vahatra visited sites where there were little or no data and conducted inventories. Some sites lacked specific information—on bats, for example—and biologists visited these areas to fill in the missing information. 
“The data set still has holes but it’s relatively complete,” said Project Lead Steve Goodman. “That phase of the project is done, though we continue doing inventories and adding data.”
Challenge 2: Obtaining data owned by others
“For the previous 10 years, there had been lots of internal discussion within certain organizations to write this book,” said Goodman. “But it takes a huge effort and important levels of funding, and it never materialized for other organizations to get the ball rolling.”
Because the project wasn’t led by them, there was some initial hesitation from these organizations to contribute their data.
Solution: Communicate the benefits and give credit
Six months into the project, Vahatra, in collaboration with project co-lead Madagascar Biodiversity Fund, met with the other organizations and explained the benefits that the book would have for Madagascar’s entire conservation community.
Afterward, most of the other organizations came onboard, realizing that the permanent numerical archive would mean they no longer had to store large amounts of physical documents. Local universities were encouraged, too, because the project meant that the research done by their students and collaborators would be widely available and would reach a larger audience.
Another incentive to sharing data: When the book is published, the logos of the contributing organizations will be included. “It’s an important symbol of their participation,” Goodman said.
Challenge 3: Thousands of hard copy documents
Though most of the needed data for the book already existed, much was found in hard copy format only. That meant scanning and organizing thousands of documents. 
“There were warehouses filled with documents that hadn’t been archived. Some had been partially eaten by rats and were covered in dust,” Goodman said.
Solution: Employ a committed workforce
When developing the project’s plan, Vahatra recognized that cataloging the hard copy documents would take many hours, and they budgeted accordingly. Students from the University of Antananarivo were employed to take on the daunting task. 
“Graduate students are looking for work, and these are people whom we have high confidence in,” said Goodman. “We’ve been lucky to engage them to do some of this time-consuming, and sometimes boring, work. They’ve helped out enormously.”
Challenge 4: Making the information available to everyone
At around 1,000 pages, it’s not feasible to print enough copies of the book for everyone who might benefit from it. 
Solution: Create a complementary website
A website is being developed in tandem with the book, and will likely prove of considerable use to conservationists, bio-geographers, protected-area agents and even eco-tourists. The website will include species lists of the plants and vertebrates known from the different protected areas, plus supplemental documents and links. In addition, it will be continually updated, tracking new discoveries.
Challenge 5: Falling behind on the timeline
As a large, multi-faceted project, the creation of the book has involved dozens of people’s input and participation. 
“Everyone has their own priorities and schedules. It’s just the nature of the beast,” Goodman said.
That, coupled with obstacles like frequent electricity outages, prevented Vahatra from sticking to the project’s original timeline.
Solution: Communicate your progress and propose a Plan B
When Goodman realized that the project was behind schedule, he shared the reasons for the delays with the CEPF grant director managing the project. Goodman then explained how Vahatra would take steps to prevent any further delays. Part of that process involved patience and persistence with contributors.
“Sometimes you have to put a little bit of pressure on people and emphasize past deadlines and organize new deadlines that will be adhered to,” Goodman said.
Challenge 6: Staying positive amidst obstacles
There’s currently a large amount of deforestation occurring in Madagascar. Much of the country’s biodiversity is in jeopardy.
“The cold reality is that many of the sites we’re hoping to protect either won’t be protected or, if they are, the habitat will still partially or entirely disappear.”
Solution: Focus on your goals, and block out the noise
“At Vahatra, we remain dedicated to documenting biodiversity in Madagascar,” said Goodman. “No matter what happens, these data exist. They are not hidden somewhere. They are available to everyone and hopefully will be used to move on to a new phase of conservation in Madagascar.”