Mixed Emotions in Madagascar

By Adam Roberts


No more than twenty feet above my head, on a single tree branch,perched the majestic black and white lemur called the indri. Peacefullyhe sat, reaching his arms straight out, slowly, to enable hislong, thin, black fingers to reach the leaves. One by one, heplucked them off and put them in his mouth. It was so quiet forthose few moments that I could actually hear the crunching soundsas he chewed each leaf. Sated for the time being (and probablyfed up having his meal disturbed by the clicking cameras of thegawking onlookers below) he leapt from the branch to the trunkof the tree and, without pause, flew over our heads to anothertree and off from there throughout the dense woods behind us.It was a moving experience.

A few kilometers away from the heart of the secluded wildlifereserve, a wide red dirt road divided the forest. Along this road,open carts haul graphite from the mine to processing plant, presumablyto end up as "lead" in pencils. Gray graphite flakeswhich had spilled from the carts littered long obtrusive linesalong the center of the road. It was a dismal sight.

With the rich green forest in front of me and the dead dry landunder my feet, I couldn't help but wonder whether the approximatelyfive percent of Madagascar's remaining original forest land couldwithstand the ongoing encroachment of mining and logging companies.As we crossed the Mozambique Channel and flew over the land forthe first time, I remember looking out of the airplane windowwondering whether lemurs and other magnificent wildlife used toinhabit trees on land now reduced to vast tracks of lifeless redescarpments. In his book Ghost of Chance, writer William S. Burroughsappropriately describes the land there as "a vast mud-slideof soulless sludge."

On this island off the southeastern coast of Africa, it seemseasy for extractive industries to come in, take what they wantand can profit from, and leave a skeleton of a country behind:to the detriment of both wild plants and animals and the peoplewho live with them.

With its magnificent, unique wildlife, precious but disappearing,Madagascar, the world's fourth largest island and one of its poorestcountries, was an interesting place to host a meeting of the AnimalsCommittee of the Convention on International Trade in EndangeredSpecies (CITES). If the tenth CITES Conference of the Partieswas held in Zimbabwe to bias delegates in favor of reopening thetrade in elephant ivory, then one can similarly presume that theAnimals Committee was held in Madagascar in order to promote theresumption of international trade in Madagascar wildlife - notably,chameleons and geckos, all of which are listed on Appendix IIof the Convention, meaning commercial trade is allowed but regulated.

In 1994, CITES Parties determined that countries should not importchameleons or geckoes from Madagascar (with eight species exempted)since the Management Authority could neither prove that the harvestquotas were scientifically based nor that the export of thesespecimens would not be detrimental to the survival of the speciesin the wild. Unfortunately, the problems there persist and thefuture of many of these species is questionable. From 1993 to1997 alone, over half a million live reptiles and amphibians wereexported from Madagascar including numerous chameleons and geckoesthat were not supposed to be in international trade. Some individualswho favor international wildlife commerce want to see an experimentalmanagement system put in place that would allow a limited numberof reptile breeders to export these species. Of course, this scenariowould facilitate illegal trade as wild-caught lizards could belaundered in through the "breeding" facilities and fraudulentlysold as "captive bred." The reptile "breeding"facility we visited at Mandraka included animals that the caretakeradmitted were not bred there, but were removed from the wild.It is dangerously premature to reopen the trade in chameleonsand geckoes from Madagascar; no resolution was reached at themeeting .



Other important decisions were taken during the course of theconference, however. AWI has advocated the establishment of aWorking Group to examine the effect of using parts and productsof CITES-listed species in traditional Asian medicine. Bears,tigers, pangolins, musk deer and other species are exploited forthis purpose. Although we did not succeed in this effort at theprevious meeting in Venezuela, with the support of the CommitteeChairman, a Working Group was convened this time around. Hopefully,its members will be able to undertake an accurate assessment ofwhich species are used and which countries' medicinal practitionersuse them, what level of trade (both legal and illegal) in thesespecies exists, and what measures could be taken to replace theuse of these animals with herbal alternatives.

The Committee also considered a draft list of species which areallegedly "commonly bred in captivity." Adoption ofthis list, which included species such as tigers and bears, wouldhave made it easier to breed endangered species and export theirparts or products made from them for profit. Currently, CITESParties, most notably the range states for the species, have theability to comment on the registration of such facilities beforethey are established and the species' parts or derivatives findtheir way into commercial trade. At least for the time being,the dreaded "list" has been scrapped.

The Animals Committee also periodically reviews certain CITES-listedAppendix II species which seem to be in significant levels ofinternational trade to see whether or not specific recommendationsshould be made to Parties to ensure that the species don't becomeendangered to the point where they should be uplisted to AppendixI and commercial trade completely cut off. For instance, Partiesshould pay close attention to the exploitation of the hippopotamuswhose teeth are used as a substitute for elephant ivory. In fact,imports of hippo teeth into Hong Kong more than quadrupled from1994 to 1995 and then doubled again from 1995 to 1996. Being presentat the discussions about the future of such species helps ensurethat a precautionary conservation approach will be employed. Withoutour input, many species requiring close attention and specificaction may simply be glossed over.

Although we had many tangible successes during the Conference,it was nonetheless hard to be in a place where the people andwildlife suffer so greatly and the future is uncertain. The manwho organized our wildlife tour after the meeting, Hery Andrianiantefana,told one reporter, " It is taking a long time, perhaps toolong, but gradually we are getting across the message that ourwildlife is our biggest asset." Seeing foot-long chameleonsstretched out on low tree-branches and wild tree frogs squattingon huge rainforest leaves made me a believer in the power andimportance of wildlife viewing - "ecotourism" must replacethe industrial deforestation and desertification that threatensthe future of the country.



Burroughs concludes that "beauty is always doomed"by man "with his weapons, his time, his insatiable greed,and ignorance so hideous it can never see its own face."I don't know if it's too late to save the wild lands and wildlifeof Madagascar; I do know that it's never too late to try.




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Awi Quarterly, Summer 1999, Vol. 48, No. 3