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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: April 2021 - January 2024

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.

July - September 2023 project progress updates 

Over the recent period, notable advancements have been achieved in their research objectives. The team have successfully completed the entire manuscript draft, which is now scheduled for submission on October 31, 2023.
The on-site activities have been primarily dedicated to conservation efforts. This includes collaborating with local community groups, VOI AMI and VOI MITI, to establish a fire-break in the Andranopasy area. This initiative serves as a proactive measure to safeguard the region against potential natural and human-induced fire risks.
Additionally, the team have diligently overseen the progress of transplanted seedlings at two different sites, with preliminary results indicating promising growth rates of 70.44% in Andranopasy and an impressive 83.84% in the Andranomena special reserve, just four months after the seedlings were transplanted into the forest.
The outreach activities have been directed towards local communities in the Andranopasy site, with the primary objective of raising awareness about fire prevention and safety measures to mitigate fire-related risks. These outreach events have achieved remarkable success, engaging 414 women and 361 men, all displaying active participation and a keen interest in understanding the significance of fire prevention for the preservation of baobab forests.
Two crucial meetings have taken place during this reporting period. In an informal meeting with Ferme Aina (Private Operator), discussions revolved around exploring potential collaborations, ethical principles related to sharing benefits with local communities, and adhering to harvesting quotas for baobab fruits. This dialogue sets the groundwork for responsible and sustainable partnerships. Furthermore, an informal meeting with the Scientific Authority aimed to inquire about updates regarding the full draft of the Non-detrimental Findings submitted earlier. This ongoing communication ensures alignment and cooperation with relevant authorities.

Upcoming activities

In the forthcoming months, a comprehensive set of targeted plans has been devised to guide the final phase of the project:
Continued Seedling Follow-up: Sustaining the growth and health of the transplanted seedlings remains a priority. The follow-up process will be diligently continued to monitor the progress of these seedlings. Regular tracking, conducted every three months, ensures that the reforestation efforts are yielding long-term benefits and that each seedling has a chance to thrive in its new environment.
Firebreak Maintenance and Collaboration with VOI: The critical role that firebreaks play in safeguarding the restoration areas is recognized. The firebreaks will be maintained to ensure their effectiveness. Collaboration with local community groups, especially VOI AMI and VOI MITI, will continue to be crucial in this effort.
Field Visit by the Principal Investigator: A field visit by the Principal Investigator is planned during this period. This visit will serve as an opportunity to observe project activities firsthand, assess progress, and engage directly with local communities. An outreach event will be organized during this visit with the aim of:
a) Presenting the findings of the project and
b) Underscoring the pivotal role of local communities in achieving the conservation objectives.
These activitgies align with the initial commitment, made at the beginning of the project, to share project outcomes and create a positive impact on the livelihoods of local communities. Also, the emphasis will be on how their active participation, commitment, and local knowledge have been integral to the project's success.

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