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Omaha Magazine

A Labor of Love: Saving Madagascar, One Tree at a Time

Apr 26, 2023 03:09PM ● By Susan Meyer

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium has long been one of the metro’s most treasured attractions. Ranked among the world’s top zoos, it has become known for its magnificent indoor rainforest and the world’s largest indoor desert, among many other exhibits. The zoo and its expansive Lee G. Simmons Wildlife Safari Park were recently named best zoo and best safari park in the nation by USA Today.

But just as important, and unbeknownst to many who visit the Henry Doorly Zoo, is the zoo’s behind-the-scenes commitment to science and conservation. 

Omaha Zoo’s work in molecular genetics, reproductive physiology, nutrition, and conservation medicine have had a global impact on research and conservation and have played a significant role in elevating the zoo to its world class status. 

“There is a huge spider web of activity that goes on behind the scenes at the zoo, and it is all interconnected,” said Edward Louis Jr., PhD, DMV, director of conservation genetics at the Henry Doorly Zoo. “All of these programs play an essential role in wildlife conservation and in helping us develop a more sustainable future.”

Wildlife conservation focuses on protecting biodiversity—our planet’s diverse network of plant and animal species and their habitats—and ensuring the survival of all species by implementing, and educating others about, sustainable living practices. 

When Dr. Louis joined Omaha’s Zoo in 1996, he initiated a research program called the Madagascar Biodiversity and Biogeography Project. As his interest and commitment to global conservation grew, this transitioned into the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP). The MBP is a non-governmental organization based in Madagascar that has a goal of working with Malagasy communities to restore the relationship between people and their natural environment by developing a variety of community-based conservation and development programs. 

A biodiversity hotspot

Why Madagascar? Located just east of Mozambue off the coast of southern Africa, this island country is considered one of the most ecologically important biodiversity hotspots in the world. 
The island has more than 14,000 plant species and ranks among the top five countries in the world for primate species. Much of its flora and fauna are endemic to the island nation.

It is the world’s fourth largest island, and sadly, the one with the highest poverty rate. With a stunning green, lush landscape, the island features a vast array of unique wildlife and diverse ecosystems that range from arid and spiny forests to dense, humid jungles over nearly 475,000 square miles. Dr. Louis describes it as the state of Texas stretched out like California. 

Saving an eroding ecosystem

Madagascar’s landscape is rapidly changing, impacting the country’s entire ecosystem. The population has increased from nine million in 1999 to more than 30 million people today. This is creating a massive burden on the island’s biomes and wildlife.

Over the past 70 years, the island has lost 55% of its forests and lemurs, Madagascar’s native primates. Lemurs, which are found only in Madagascar, have become the world’s most threatened group of mammals due to unsustainable farming practices, mining, illegal logging, and poaching. 

Dr. Louis made his first trip to Madagascar in 1998. He agreed to attend events as part of the International Society of Primatology’s biannual meeting for a colleague, and was fascinated by the country’s biodiversity and changing ecosystem. Since then, his research in Madagascar has become a consummate passion and large part of his life’s work—the island’s pull growing stronger with each subsequent visit. Dr. Louis has continued to make the trip to the island country halfway across the world several times annually for the past 25 years, where he spends an average of six months conducting research and working with the Malagasy communities toward saving the rapidly disappearing forests and endangered species.

In Dr. Louis’s words, it has grown into a “labor of love.” 

The Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership

Since being named Director of Conservation Genetics for the Center of Conservation and Research at Omaha’s Zoo, Dr. Louis’ program in Madagascar has become one of its flagship programs. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the island’s amazing biodiverse environment at the zoo’s Hubbard Expedition Madagascar exhibit, which was created to spotlight the significant conservation efforts underway.

Dr. Louis, who has a DVM and a PhD in conservation genetics, uses his expertise in molecular genomic technology to catalogue various animal species, including their diet, living and mating habits, and their ecological niches—all toward determining how to best manage animals in the wild and captivity. He has collected photos and biological samples of over 7,000 individual lemurs at over 250 sites across Madagascar, which has led to the discovery of 24 previously undocumented lemur species. 

However, working in Madagascar poses unique challenges. When Dr. Louis and his colleagues first began visiting the country in 1998, there was only dial-up internet service, no cellular phone towers, poor road infrastructure, limited to no running water, and electricity only in the larger cities. This meant that all of their samples had to be physically transported to labs in at the Omaha Zoo to be studied. 

This is slowly changing—there is now generator-powered electricity in a growing number of cities, as well as internet and cellular towers, and molecular equipment has become smaller and easier to transport and power, enabling some of their research to be conducted onsite.

MBP has focused its efforts in four primary regions of the country, where it has built field stations, with each region supporting different ecosystems. These stations, which rely on solar power systems, is where the bulk of their work is conducted. Through their research, they have identified key factors contributing to the decline in the forests and animal life in each region. MBP is addressing these issues with a multi-pronged approach that includes research, education, conservation, and job creation in the neighboring Malagasy communities. 

Making a difference

After more than 25 years, MBP’s efforts are indeed making an impact. 

Extensive community education and outreach efforts that focus on teaching community farmers alternative agricultural practices, resource conservation, and entrepreneurial opportunities have proven critical in their mission. 

MBP has many partners, one of them—Conservation Fusion Inc., founded and directed by Susie Louis—is an international non-profit organization dedicated to working with communities worldwide. They provide education about biodiversity, respect for the environment, and stewardship by advocating more sustainable practices. Their work has been crucial for building trust and cooperation among the Malagasy, noted Dr. Louis.

MBP’s work is ongoing—and for every triumph, new challenges arise. To stay positive, Dr. Louis approaches his work with practiced optimism: 

“I wake up in the morning all fired up and ready to go and by the end of the day, sometimes I feel like I have taken one step forward and two steps back,” Dr. Louis confessed. “And then I start all over again the next day.”

Massive tree-planting efforts

In the southeast region of Madagascar, in an area known as Kianjavato where forests have been rapidly depleting, the combined efforts of MBP have resulted in nearly six million planted trees since 2012. They are now averaging 83,000 trees a month through an eight-year-long collaboration between the MBP, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Arbor Day Foundation. 

This has been achieved via grassroots efforts by and through Malagasy residents. Research has revealed that lemurs play a critical role in the growth of new trees and plant life, explained Dr. Louis. Some lemurs eat the fruit from trees and pass the seeds unharmed in their feces. After the passage through lemurs, the seeds of many species of trees appear to germinate much better than if they were taken directly from the fruit. 

Job creation for the Malagasy communities

The field stations and main MBP office are staffed entirely by local Malagasy, providing stable jobs and economic avenues for many community members. The MBP field station teams perform many critical roles to assist with reforestation efforts and the tracking and studying of endangered species. Some even follow lemurs and collect their droppings. Reforestation teams extract the seeds from the lemur droppings and start seedlings in the nurseries at the field stations. These seedlings are later planted throughout the area. 

“Not only are we making inroads in reforestation and protecting endangered species, but we are also giving Malagasy jobs,” he said. 

With these programs, MBP has paid 57,000 wages to the Malagasy people every year for the past five years, providing a source of income for up to 45% of the community, noted Dr. Louis.

New solutions to environmentally destructive practices

Many Malagasy use open fires for cooking which require wood or coal to burn. This can lead to lung disease, mostly in women and children, due to frequent smoke inhalation. Not only is the production and gathering of cooking fuel leading to deforestation, but it is also threatening the existence of the northern sportive lemur in its last stronghold at Montagne des Français. The MBP introduced fuel-efficient stoves to replace open-fire cooking at this site and others. This alternative reduces the amount of wood burnt, is less expensive, improves indoor air quality, and greatly decreases reliance on forest timber. 

Creating new agricultural opportunities

Efforts in the field station in Lavavolo, a dry, forested area of southwestern Madagascar, have focused on ending the poaching of both the rare and endangered radiated and spider tortoise, as well as reforestation. Through concentrated community education with its partner, Conservation Fusion, MBP has introduced new agricultural practices to provide a source of food and income for the residents. This includes the development of vegetable gardens and aquaponic systems, a gardening method in which plants and fish grow within the same system. Additionally, the organization has taught them about resource conservation and provided other financial opportunities to reduce dependence on the forests. 

Most of the Malagasy people are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow food crops to feed themselves and their families each year. Across Madagascar, slash-and-burn agriculture has been common practice for years. This agricultural method entails using parts of the natural habitat for cropland; once the soil has been depleted, usually after a series of crops, another swatch of forest is burned. MBP is combatting this practice by introducing alternative crops, promoting compost, and integrating native trees for shade, rainwater, and soil retention to reduce landslides.

Conservation incentive programs

Dr. Louis is especially proud of the Conservation Credit Awards Program, which incentivizes local residents to participate in community planting events by rewarding them with credits to use toward sustainable, green items that can help improve their standard of living while reducing their drain on the forests. These include items like solar kits, rocket stoves, bicycles, and sewing machines. MBP has also introduced Hippo Rollers to many MBP communities. These are 24-gallon containers used to carry clean water by rolling them along the ground to make water collection easier. 

Dr. Louis attributes many of MBP’s successes to building trust with the community members and finding solutions that meet their needs. 

“We put our roots down almost 25 years ago and we keep coming back,” he said. “They know they can trust us and they know we have their best interests in mind.”

A botanist’s dream

“A botanist’s dream.” That’s what Cynthia Frasier, PhD, conservation geneticist and research scientist for the Conservation Genetics Department at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls her work with the Madagascar Biodiversity Project. Frasier completed a doctorate degree in plant science with the goal of promoting plant and animal conservation. Madagascar allows her to practice her dream on a large scale.

In addition to plant and animal research, Dr. Frasier works directly with Malagasy students, many of whom are studying to earn advanced degrees in conservation.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. 

“They work alongside us at our field stations and I help them with their research projects,” explained Dr. Frasier. “By working side by side, we both benefit from each other as we may observe things differently and have different ideas as to how to approach concerns in the environment and in their communities. Their input on science, wildlife, culture—everything really—helps to guide our next steps.”

One of the results Frasier is most proud of is seeing nearly 60 Malagasy students complete their masters and doctorate degrees. 

“That has been extremely rewarding, as they will go on to become important environmental advocates and leaders among their communities,” she affirmed.

Frasier said much of MBP’s success would not be possible without the daring leadership of Dr. Louis. 

“He is the definition of true grit,” she said. “Where others might perceive boundaries, he pushes through them. Our Malagasy peers are facing extreme circumstances—population growth, severe weather events, and food crises. We need cross-cutting ideas that consider everything, and Dr. Louis has them.”

“We are laying the groundwork for the Malagasy people,” Dr. Louis added. “Our hope is that the things we are doing in Madagascar today—educating them about respecting their environment and how to adopt sustainable living practices—will ensure the people now and in generations to come will have a viable future.” 

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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