Tell us a little bit about the history of the Sainte Luce Reserve.
I first visited Madagascar in 1987 looking at rare palms of all things… then with a passion for conservation, I founded and ran another NGO for Madagascar, in the UK in 1994, and I opened the first Madagascar office of that NGO in 1997, so I have been here a while. I retired from that NGO in 2009 to concentrate on Sainte Luce Reserve and we founded our new NGO Association FILANA in 2010 especially for the purpose of running the reserve and working with the Sainte Luce community. Sainte Luce has a number of fragments of forest, and our reserve is part of the S17 fragment, the absolute coastal forest on the 17km long beach, arguably the most pristine of the Sainte Luce forests with no village, no homes, no buildings, no development, and no permanent residents except us.
Something that I noticed over the years is that many rural communities suffer negative impacts from conservation that are not adequately mitigated by accompanying measures. For example in Sainte Luce, reduced access to the forests since the protected areas were established have led to changes in the natural resources available to the community.
We decided, rather than follow the already tried and mainly-failed livelihoods approach, to go straight to the heart of the matter, and try to make our reserve, through direct employment, a motor for economic good for the community. I had already been running a volunteering program for over a decade so we already had the skills and a volunteering program was the logical choice for us to begin with… Also, we really needed (and still need) the many skills and extra boost of motivation and enthusiasm that volunteers bring to our reserve. Our volunteering program was established in 2011 and has been running since then. Our NGO is only now about to branch out into some other activities in the wider area and in Fort Dauphin town too.
Where is the Sainte Luce Reserve located?
We were founded in and are based in Fort Dauphin (aka Tolagnaro). We have a little office beside the sea, from where we plan and manage our activities. Fort Dauphin is in the southeast corner of Madagascar, and is served by an airport (code FTU), a deep-water port, and really, really terrible roads. The town has a population of around 60,000 people from mainly the Tanosy and Tandroy ethnic groups.
We are so fortunate that we are surrounded by superb white-sand beaches and endless inland waterways, and we are uniquely surrounded by a number of forest types (albeit all of them highly threatened).
We have the littoral forests on the coast, the rainforests in the mountains, the spiny forests just to the south, and, a mixture of all of those forest types in the transitional forests, where species from all of the forest types are found, living together. The transitional forests are the only places, for example, where you can see brown lemurs (rain and littoral forest species) living alongside sifaka and ring-tailed lemurs (from the dry spiny forests)… Madagascar is truly amazing.
And your staff?
Our committee is made up of myself as president, my administrator who I have worked with for 20 years as treasurer, and as advisory members we have a highly experienced woman who is a teacher of teachers and who specialises in gender equality issues, a now-retired former government official, an environmental processes manager (currently working on coral-reef-repair in Tulear) and members of the elders of Sainte Luce community; one is the village chief, and another is the now-retired former forest committee (COBA) president.
Which lemur species do you work with?
Well I knew you would ask that question and frankly, well, we are not entirely sure, and I don’t think anyone is.
What we do know is that probably our most charismatic lemur is the varika, or collared brown lemur (Eulemur collaris). These are our biggest lemurs, they are cathemeral and start moving through the forest very early in the morning, you have to be up really early to still find them asleep. They are active all morning, then during the heat of the midday they relax and sleep, and then around 2 or 3 in the afternoon they start to move again and often come right into our camp during their afternoon walkabout.
The rest of our lemurs are all nocturnal so you have to be out and about in the evening to spot them, although, they too are often seen at night around our camp. So among our nocturnal species, we know that we have the almost-impossibly-cute bodognohy, or fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius), which is one of our most common visitors both in the camp and in the forest in the evening. Then is is possible that we also have his cousin the greater dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus major) there too. The fotsifeor southern woolly lemur (Avahi meridionalis) is probably the most common lemur in our forest. They are so common sometimes we may see more than twenty individuals on a 200 metre transect walk in the evening. We are still unsure about the identity of our pondiky, or mouse lemur (Microcebus sp.) but it seems we probably have Microcebus sp. saintelucei and anecdotally maybe also another as-yet-undescribed mouse lemur.
Something about our lemurs that may be unusual… in the other forest fragments of Sainte Luce, the smaller lemurs go into torpor (like hibernation) in the cooler months, but in our forest, they are super-frisky and active all year around, right through the winter. It must be because they live on the beach ;-p
How does the Sainte Luce Reserve help lemur conservation? What other duties do you have?
Our absolute focus for conservation is habitat protection and allowing nature to do her thing. We have focused on stopping hunting and destruction of the lemur’s habitat, and we have spent all of our effort on restoration and enhancement of the natural environment through ongoing native-tree planting in areas where people had damaged the forest in the past.
None of our animals are caged, collared, fed or captured, but we do engage with the lemurs constantly via daily habituation. It is only seven years ago that the lemurs fled upon sighting humans, so it is very likely that they were still being hunted when we first started to guard the forest, as they were when (now Dr.) Matthew Banks and I first started to look at the collared brown lemurs in the S9 fragment in Sainte Luce back in maybe 1997 or ‘98.
The lemurs in our forest are now more or less entirely habituated to humans. Our aim is for the animals to entirely ignore us when they see us, but probably this will be impossible, they are primates after all, and are incredibly curious, especially since these lemurs have babies every year, so, we constantly have new youngsters who are super curious and come down tentatively looking for a cuddle (lol… which we don’t allow)…
Employment for Locals
Like I said, our technique for engaging local people in conservation is employment. So we have between 5 and 20 local people (plus volunteers) working at our camp at any one time, depending on what is happening. These people work on basic maintenance of the site, as guides & interpreters, as the security agents of the forest, and all are learning about conservation (plant and animal names & identification, etc), and languages, and wider skills training, on-the-job.
Our reserve is an absolute-coastal forest on a 17km-long beach, meaning we also have a vested interest in the coastline, so, we work on a number of issues such as reforestation of the dunes, and, sea turtle conservation. We are working on the issues surrounding illegal sea-turtle hunting and sea-turtle egg collection, and this month our volunteers are preparing a presentation for the school-children on sea turtles, their importance to the environment, and their conservation.
The west of the reserve is surrounded by a winding brackish river system, which supports a diminishing mangrove forest. So to keep our entire environment in the best possible condition, we need to protect the integrity of the river and mangroves too. Recent research has shown the importance of mangroves to some lemurs, and we know of course that the mangroves support a chain of other environmental assets.
Over the last year, our staff and volunteers have planted over 7,000 mangrove trees around our reach of the river and this work continues. We aim to extend the project to other reaches of the river not within our boundaries as soon as the mangroves start producing propagules again in the warm weather.
What are some of your recent achievements?
The mangrove planting mentioned above is my favourite recent achievement.
Sainte Luce is a community almost entirely dependant on aquatic resources and the diminished integrity of the mangroves must have been causing diminished returns into the local economy. To keep expanding the reach of the mangroves in the brackish water habitat back to their original distribution around the river and lake edges is going to have knock-on positive effects to the marine and coastal environments, and local people’s livelihoods, and we are very proud of this work. The planting has been accompanied by a booklet and song for school children and an information leaflet for adults.
Sainte Luce Reserve is also a palm sanctuary. Dypsis saintelucei is an endemic palm first described here in the Sainte Luce forests, and perhaps only 200 mature individuals remain in the wild. In 2010 we planted 3,000 plants into the reserve to protect this species from extinction. This year, we are concentrating on another critically endangered species, Dypsis brevicaulis.
Of course, we are also very proud of the increase in numbers of the wildlife since we have been protecting the forest. Birds and lemurs are all growing in numbers year by year, and this year we have been seeing even the very cryptic fanaloka (Fossa fossana), an animal normally totally spooked by humans, wandering about the camp even during daylight hours.
What are some goals and expectations you have for the future?
Our goal put simply is to continue to maintain and improve the integrity of this habitat into the future, and make our small reserve a motor generating wider conservation positives into the local area and the region. We want our influence and good habits to be duplicated and we hope that what we do will have positive knock-on effects throughout the other fragments of the Sainte Luce forests.
Over the next two years (and probably forever as we constantly find new things) we are working on compiling a field guide to the littoral forests of Sainte Luce. With regard to the flora, we already have over 100 voucher specimens lodged in PBZT herbarium and about 50% have been identified to species level. This work is ongoing.
We are building a photo library of all the flora and fauna of the forest, from fungi to snails to insects to carnivores, and we aim to produce our field guide as a smartphone application that people can install and use to easily better-understand the littoral forest environment when they visit.
We have a secret goal to expand the size of our reserve, but we can’t talk about that too much at the moment 🙂
We always have a number of projects in incubation…
Why would someone should volunteer at the Sainte Luce Reserve?
We think you should choose us because: well first of all, this is one of the most beautiful places you will see in your life… Next, we are not a volunteering organisation, we are a nature reserve that needs volunteers. So, we have no fancy overheads, no overseas offices … we spend your contribution in Madagascar and for conservation. Every cent is spent here on the ground and in the local community, employing local people. We don’t pretend to be anything that we are not – nothing is faked for your entertainment. We don’t create activity just to give you experience or make you feel important. This is real grass-roots habitat conservation in one of the most spectacular beach-front forests. You will have close encounters with wildlife every day. We have over 15 experience welcoming volunteers to Madagascar, and your health and safety are our principal concern.
We have built a lovely little camp on the edge of the rainforest for our volunteers, with private bungalows for sleeping, nice communal sitting houses on the river and on the beach for recreation, shower and proper flush toilet, solar powered lights and charging for phones etc…
Oh and did we say, we have lemurs? On the beach?
What do you need donations for right now?
Gosh!!! Well our total number-one-conservation-fantasy is to buy a boat to guard the forest via the river system. Our main problem in terms of conservation is patrolling the area, and because of our geography, on the opposite side of a river and lake system that is 17 km long, to have a small boat with a quiet electric motor is our number one fantasy. This is a very big ask, but, well, you asked the question 🙂
We always need donations of small items such as torches, phones, tools, and uniforms for the staff. We currently have a fundraiser online or general donations can be made on PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.