Madagascar - Ankazobe Commune in the Analamanga Region of the central highlands
Site (part of the Madagascar Research and Conservation Program)
Mid-elevation evergreen humid forest and grassland
Protected Area with co-management by Missouri Botanical Garden and the local community
Jean Jacques Rasolofonirina and Dinasoa Tahirinirainy, Missouri Botanical Garden-Madagascar Research & Conservation Program
Area of the site: 135 hectares
Date of initiation: 2004
Institutional collaborators: Malagasy Government; Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG); Université d’Antananarivo; Nature Fund; Rainforest Trust
Ecological importance of the site
• Rare fragment of highland forest.
• Habitat for the critically endangered endemic tree Schizolaena tampoketsana.
• Habitat for the critically endangered frog Anilany helenae.
• Habitat for three lemur species.
• Water source
Restoration efforts underway
The Ankafobe Forest is a one of the largest of the increasingly rare fragments of highland forest surrounded by the vast anthropogenic and fire-prone grasslands of central Madagascar (https://mbgecologicalrestoration.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/a-tale-of-two-highlands-part-ii-ankafobe-madagascar/). In the recent past, the forest had been degraded by exploitation for timber and charcoal extraction, and by wildfires. MBG-Madagascar has been active at the site since 2004, seeking to restore the forest, to the greatest possible extent with given knowledge and know-how, to the extent and condition it enjoyed a few decades ago according to historical records, relevés, and photographs. Between 2004 to 2022 we worked to conserve and restore the forest by:
1) Promoting natural regeneration by preventing wildfires from entering the forest. This is achieved through the annual maintenance of 6.5 km of double firebreaks encircling the forest, and by supporting fire-spotting patrols and fire-fighting teams during the dry season; controlling the alien invasive plant Desmodium incanum, which is rampant in degraded parts of the forest and can smother young trees. The natural regeneration of the forest is tracked through a series of four 0.1 hectare permanent plots;
2) Propagating native tree seedlings of various species and out-planting them to aid recovery of badly degraded parts of the forest. Reconstructive restoration (i.e., in which a large part of the native tree flora is planted) at the site is informed by an array of horticultural and silvicultural experiments to define best practice in this highly challenging social and ecological environment. In these experiments, we have sought to compare various restorative interventions as: use of mulch, use of green manures, seedling inoculation with mycorrhizae, use of organic fertilizers, and use of wind breaks. Experiments were also undertaken to elucidate the influence of both forest edge proximity and slope aspect on tree seedlings’ survival and growth.
Much achieved and then lost
Formerly the forest was threatened by shifting cultivation, exploitation of wood for timber and charcoal, and wild fires. While the first two of these threats are no longer evident, wild fires remain a serious concern. Over the last 15 years, efforts at Ankafobe were very successful and the site was seen as a model for both restoration and community-based conservation in Madagascar. But all that changed tragically on October 6 and 7, 2022 when, stoked by ferocious winds, cinders from a multi-pronged grassland fire that had evaded the project’s fire-fighting teams leapt the 70-foot-wide firebreak and spread into one of the forest fragments, which had been partially degraded by selective timber exploitation in 2004. Once within the forest, the flames consumed about 35 acres of forest before finally burning itself out. Fortunately, the two nearby forest fragments escaped burning and at least some of the resident lemurs were able to find refuge there.
Proposed restoration of the burnt forest
Despite the severity of the fire that impacted the Ankafobe Forest in October 2022, highland forest like this is far too rare to abandon and we have therefore decided to begin restorative work here once again. Our first task is to make sure that the enriching cinders scattered over the now-bare forest floor are not lost to wind or erosion, and that the exposed soil is protected from both sun and the compressing impact of rain. Thus we are turning the cinders into the soil and sowing the entire burned area with locally-collected seeds of native woody pioneer species. Then, over the next 14 months, we will invest in controlling alien invasive species (which could easily take over the site if given free rein) and propagating 50,000 seedlings of an array of tree species native to this landscape in village nurseries, that we will then plant below the sheltering canopy of the pioneer species. Finally, by making controlled early season burns in the grassy zone between the forest and the firebreak, we will make sure we never again have to face the consequence of catastrophic fires.
As an extension of the work at Ankafobe, the team is also seeking funding to launch a long-term, community-led initiative that would transform the village of Andranofeno-Sud, located just 2.5 kms from the forest, into a model EcoHealth Village. Andranofeno-Sud, like many other towns and villages in Madagascar, is a sterile environment largely devoid of native vegetation despite the exceptionally rich Malagasy biodiversity. The community-led initiative seeks to transform this village and its surrounding landscape into a demonstration site showing the power of an ecohealth approach for human well-being, with ideas including shelter belts of native trees, home gardens with lush vegetable plots, productive fields of dynamic agroforestry, attractive green public spaces for relaxing and socializing, and thick hedgerows of native species linking the village to adjacent forest fragments. The village would become a model for Madagascar and the world showing how local people can more fully embrace their natural heritage and benefit from their native biodiversity.
Our vision is not just to restore native forest at Ankafobe, but to build something that is better than what we had before. Over the years we have observed that forest fragments, which once dotted the landscape around Ankafobe, have become increasingly rare and more degraded. So, we propose to invest in collecting seeds of as many native tree species as possible from all of the forest fragments that remain within 5 km of the Ankafobe protected area. This will enable us to conserve and progressively aid in the restoration (including by natural regeneration) of the Ankafobe forest over the coming decades while at the same time making an important contribution to the conservation of as much as possible of the acutely threatened flora of Madagascar’s unique highland ecosystems. These interwoven efforts of restoration and conservation are beneficial to local people in many ways, not just in generating income from green employment, but also in helping to retain slender and fragile links to their natural heritage.
For more information, see this 2015 article in the Natural History of Ecological Restoration about the forest.