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PARTNERSHIPS FOR ENHANCED ENGAGEMENT IN RESEARCH (PEER)
Cycle 9 (2020 Deadline)


Improving human livelihoods through holistic conservation of Malagasy orphaned plants, the iconic Baobab trees

PI: Seheno Andriantsaralaza (s.andriantsaralaza@gmail.com), University of Antananarivo
U.S. Partner: Onja Razafindratsima, University of California, Berkeley
Project Dates: April 2021 - April 2023

Project Overview:
 

ARO Baobab Project from The National Academies on Vimeo. Video credit: Stephane Corduant, Madagascar 

 9-232_Baobab project team
 PEER project team. Photo credit: ´╗┐Stéphane Corduant, Madagascar
9-232_local community training
The loss of medium- and large-sized vertebrates (defaunation) is considered as one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss in the world as it can influence important ecological processes, such as seed dispersal. In fact, many plant species rely on fruit-eating animals to disperse their seeds, which ensures their survival. Thus, the loss of these critical animals can disrupt such vital interactions, potentially leading to local, even global, extinction of the plant species. In the past, many long-lived plant species relied on large-bodied terrestrial animals (megafauna) to disperse their seeds. Unfortunately, many megafaunal communities are now extinct due to anthropogenic activities, leaving these plants “orphaned.” Resolving how they overcome the absence of their animal partners remains a challenge but could help recover them from the verge of extinction. This issue is particularly critical in many of Madagascar’s ecosystems, where the largest extant seed dispersers are unable to ingest large-sized seeds, which is a common mode of dispersal for many Malagasy plants.
Madagascar is facing an alarming extinction crisis, including the loss of large-bodied animal seed dispersers, due partially to poaching and illegal trades. However, almost all targeted conservation efforts in Madagascar rarely consider restoring the missing ecological functions within ecosystems to protect Madagascar’s them. Understanding such disruptions is essential to reduce the risk of extinction of plant species and resolve biodiversity conservation issues in such a hotspot.

This holistic project aims to examine the mechanism ensuring the persistence and regeneration of Malagasy baobab trees (Adansonia grandidieri Baillon), an economically valuable, orphaned, and endangered plant species, to advance solutions to promote its sustainable use to benefit local communities. Specifically, this project aims to (1) characterize the factors allowing its persistence in the absence of its animal partners, (2) evaluate the role of extant native and non-native animals in compensating for the functional loss of their primary dispersers, and (3) provide conservation-targeted solutions that consider local livelihoods. Data will be collected through field observations and experiments, combined with a modeling approach. The results will help natural resources managers identify priority actions that involve key mutualistic species in restoring such a fundamental ecological process.

This project meets the mission of USAID's Community Capacity Project to “conserve and protect local biodiversity and promote the involvement of local communities in the management and restoration of natural habitats while benefiting from an alternative activity that generates additional household income,” The utmost drivers of the threats to the rich biodiversity of Madagascar include widespread poverty, especially among the populations that rely heavily on natural resources. Strategies addressing sustainable use of forest resources to address poverty alleviation should, thus, take into consideration important ecological processes, such as seed dispersal services provided by animals, which can sustain the natural regeneration of economically valuable plants. The iconic baobab trees in Madagascar are not only culturally valuable but also have an important economic value, generating income through tourism and the sale of their fruits, seeds, and bark at the national and international levels. Many of the poor communities in the Western part of Madagascar participate in such trade. Unfortunately, this commercialization has led to overexploitation, leading to the listing of this species in CITES Appendix II. Recently, the permit of harvesting baobab fruits has been suspended due to insufficient scientific data on the real impact of such collection on the regeneration capacity of the baobabs. Therefore, there is a need to find holistic solutions that address the sustainable exploitation of baobab trees while supporting the economic development of the local communities. The project team will collaborate with DREDD (Madagascar’s regional branch of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development) and GSPBM (Malagasy baobab expert group) to restore baobab habitats in degraded landscapes. Local communities will be involved in such activities. This will not only ensure the regeneration of the baobabs but also provide economic opportunity for the local communities, as they will be paid for their work in maintaining the nursery and transplanting seedlings. The researchers will also establish a partnership with a local company to create a sustainable income-generating activity for two local communities near baobab habitats through the sale of fruits to the operator at fair value. The company will also train the local community in fruit processing so they can sell baobab products directly instead of just fruits.

Project progress updates 

In order to improve communication and visibility among partners and the audience, the team decided to create ARO acronym for the project. This acronym has a meaning in both Malagasy and English. In Malagasy, ARO means to protect or to conserve, and stands for Assessment-Research and Outreach for baobab conservation in English. During June-September 2021 reporting period, the team focused on: (1) Animal-focused research activities; (2)  Plant-focused research activities, (3) Nurseries & transplantation; and (4): Baobab fruit trade. 
 
Fieldwork preparation has been ongoing. The team are partnering with scientists from Ary Saina, an association assembling Malagasy conservation biologists who have expertise in field research related to various aspects of ecology. Colleagues from Ary Saina will provide training on animal surveys and observations while also helping collect additional data. 
 
Because USG partner visit to Madagascar to conduct training on field data collection for the project team's students was hindered by the pandemic travel restrictions, training with the US-Partner has been implemented so far via Zoom. Extensive community by the project coordinator Dr. Onja Razanamaro has been ongoing. She trained local community members how to plant seedlings in plastic pots in nurseries. This training was conducted in Andranopasy for 8 women, 13 men, and the nurseryman. However, training could not be completed in Marofandilia, since in this area, the use of plastic materials is not allowed. After the training, the team hired the women to further plant seedlings in 70 000 plastic pots during 10 days. During the two days of training, the team used local-product biodegradable pots to reduce their impact on the local environment. After planting the seedlings, all used pots will be collected into boxes to be transferred to Morondava for recycling. Training was also given to the nursery representatives in both nurseries on such topics as maintenance, sowing, and plant growth monitoring.
 
Nursery site preparation has been also ongoing as well. After a successful appeal sent to the mayor for a larger nursery plot allocation, the team was able to extend their nursery area size in Andranopasy from 340 m2. to 475 m2. This larger size will allow the team to increase the number of planting beds for implementation of seed germination experiments for animal and plant related data collection. So far, the team established 26 planting beds containing 26,000 seedlings in Andranopasy, and 25 planting beds with 25,000 seedlings in Marofandilia.  
 
The project team sowed seeds for 8 baobab species in Andranopasy and for 10 species in Marofandilia. In order to compare the growth rates of seedlings planted in nurseries vs seedlings growing in forests, the team decided to grow 20,000 seedlings collected from degraded forests in the Marofandilia nursery. Past experience in the field showed that many seedlings’ growth in forests is not as vigorous as they do not adapt to severe drought and scarce rainfall. In addition, many seedlings near the parent trees do not survive, which may support the hypothesis of the lack of seed dispersal in baobabs. The team also held their first discussion with the local economic operator PHILEOL (http://www.phileol.com/), who might be interested to work with them to implement the baobab fruit trade in joint collaboration with two local communities in the PEER project sites.
 
Potential development impacts

The research findings are anticipated to inform private sectors about the importance of undertaking both fundamental research related to baobab’s biology and investigation of fruit production in an area before implementing a trade for baobab fruits. A policy document will be framed for this strategy and it will be accessible for private sectors and NGOs.

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