If you’ve ever read updates on the conservation status of species (such as the updates released this week), you may wonder who makes these calls — and how they’re made.
To answer that question, I point you back to January. That is when many of the world’s leading experts on the reptiles of Madagascar gathered in the nation’s capital, Antananarivo, to evaluate the conservation status of each of the island’s species of lizards and snakes in a five-day workshop. This work was invaluable in generating the results that, this week, were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species — the globally recognized standard for measuring extinction risk. This project forms part of the ongoing Global Reptile Assessment, a CI-IUCN initiative to assess the conservation status of each of the world’s approximately 9,500 species of reptile; this effort is organized and run through the Biodiversity Assessment Unit based in Conservation International’s head office in Arlington, Va.
Unfortunately, our assessment revealed that 40 percent of Madagascar’s reptiles are threatened with extinction. Madagascar’s more than 370 species of reptile, 95 percent of which are found nowhere else, are diverse in both the humid east and the dry west of the island, so this discovery highlights threats that are widespread throughout the entire region — principally from habitat loss.
These results, which complement previous assessments of the country’s turtles, mammals, birds and amphibians, reveal a serious threat to Madagascar’s biodiversity. They also threaten the recovery of a tourist industry that was once the country’s second largest source of export earnings — an industry on which many local livelihoods depend.
Diverse Widlife at Risk
My involvement with the Madagascar reptile assessments began shortly after I arrived at CI in September 2010. But facilitating at the Antanarivo workshop introduced me to the process of bringing together specialists, both international and Malagasy, to reach a scientifically informed consensus on the threats to each species and its likelihood of extinction. Much of the information included in the resulting Red List accounts was new data, obtained at the workshop and never previously published —highlighting the value of the workshop setting and of the Red List as a conservation tool and a database.
For me, as a herpetologist who began my career doing fieldwork in Madagascar, it was also a fantastic opportunity to meet with the foremost reptile specialists working on the island.
I spent a week before the workshop visiting Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a reserve close to the capital. This was my first visit to the park during the wet season, and the wildlife was both diverse and abundant; I had numerous sightings of lemurs, frogs and chameleons, as well as boas — and my favorite of the island’s residents, leaf-tailed geckos.
Yet my past experiences in Madagascar provide anecdotal evidence supporting the bleak picture painted by our most recent assessment. Over three months of surveys in 2002 in southwest Madagascar, our survey team located only one patch of good-quality forest. Instead, we found widespread evidence of burning to clear forest and scrub for agriculture and charcoal production. And in 2009, as I flew from the capital to the north of the island, barely any tree cover was visible except for the protected massif of Montagne d’Ambre in the far north. A four-day trek along the base of the Masoala Peninsula in the northeast revealed no evidence of intact forest and few reptiles other than the panther chameleon, a species often found in disturbed areas.
Protecting Biodiversity and People
Madagascar, among the world’s biologically richest yet economically poorest countries, has long been a priority region for CI. It is home to charismatic birds, frogs, and even a giraffe-necked weevil.
But on an island most famous for its wildlife, only the lemurs are better known to most visitors than Madagascar’s chameleons, brightly colored day geckos, and bizarrely camouflaged leaf-tailed geckos. Here, reptiles are a valuable source of tourism, and field guides possess an impressive knowledge of local herpetology.
Madagascar has a well-developed protected area network, but ongoing political instability has weakened protection in many reserves and put others at risk, threatening both biodiversity and the tourist industry. I hope our work in assessing reptiles underscores the continued importance of in-country conservation — and international support — in preserving this island’s natural resources.
Philip Bowles is the Biodiversity Assessment and Ecosystem Program Officer at Conservation International.