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Cycle 9 (2020 Deadline)

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

PI: Seheno Andriantsaralaza (, University of Antananarivo
U.S. Partner: Onja Razafindratsima, University of California, Berkeley
Project Dates:

Project Overview:
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.

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