- Madagascar is celebrated for its extraordinary biodiversity, characterized by remarkably high rates of endemicism. However, Madagascar is also synonymous with loss, particularly the extinction of its largest animal species and the degradation of habitats.
- The conventional wisdom holds that the island was entirely forested before human settlement, with early settlers decimating most of these forests. Alison Richard, a distinguished anthropologist, has challenged this traditional narrative of Madagascar’s environmental history by leveraging a growing body of research that suggests a more nuanced reality.
- In “The Sloth Lemur’s Song,” Richard weaves a captivating story covering the island’s geological past to its current conservation challenges. Her work critically assesses the narratives of blame, stemming from colonial history, that have influenced perceptions of Madagascar’s environmental issues.
- In a recent interview with Mongabay, Richard discussed her research and conservation efforts in Madagascar and beyond.
The island nation of Madagascar is celebrated for its extraordinary biodiversity, characterized by remarkably high rates of endemicism; approximately 90% of its wildlife is unique to the island, making it an unique and irreplaceable treasure trove of biological richness. This includes a myriad of distinctive species, such as lemurs, chameleons, and a diverse range of plant life, all evolved within the island’s isolated and varied ecosystems.
However, Madagascar is also synonymous with loss, particularly the extinction of its largest animal species and the degradation of habitats. Conventional wisdom holds that the island was entirely forested before human settlement, with early settlers decimating most of these forests. This view, propagated in the early 20th century without concrete evidence, simplifies the island’s environmental history by neglecting the historical presence of grasslands and the archaeological record.
Alison Richard, a distinguished anthropologist, has challenged this traditional narrative of Madagascar’s environmental history by leveraging a growing body of research that suggests a more nuanced reality. In her recent book, “The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present,” Richard weaves a captivating story covering the island’s geological past to its current conservation challenges. Her work critically assesses the narratives of blame, stemming from colonial history, that have influenced perceptions of Madagascar’s environmental issues.
“Probably the single most important misconception is that Madagascar was totally covered by forest before people arrived and destroyed 90% of it,” Richard told Mongabay.”A practical consequence of the emphasis on forests is that, to my knowledge, only one protected area in the whole country explicitly includes grasslands as a habitat type in need of protection. That has to change.”
“The myths about Madagascar’s past also have a more subtle, pernicious impact because, taken together, they add up to a story of blame that was created during the first decades of colonial rule in the early 20th century: Madagascar was a paradise-on-earth until Malagasy people arrived and wantonly, ignorantly, wickedly (choose your adjective) destroyed it. Blame is a terrible foundation on which to build the international partnerships vital for the future – quite apart from the fact that, whatever happened, it was more complicated than the myths would have us believe.”
Richard’s insights are founded on 50 years of research on the sifaka lemur, Propithecus verreauxi, in southwestern Madagascar. Her study of this species, known for its ballet-like movements across open areas, has been instrumental in understanding primate social structures and biodiversity conservation. Alongside her academic pursuits, she has played a pivotal role in establishing and sustaining the Beza-Mahafaly Reserve.
Richard’s career extends beyond Madagascar. Away from Beza-Mahafaly’s dry forests, she has held significant administrative roles, serving as the provost of Yale University and later as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. During her tenure at Cambridge, she implemented transformative changes and major policy reforms, leading to her recognition as a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her contributions to higher education.
Additionally, Richard has been a board member and advisor to various organizations, ranging from NGOs to philanthropic entities.
In a recent interview with Mongabay, Richard discussed her research and conservation efforts in Madagascar and beyond.
Mongabay: How did you come to work in Madagascar?
Alison Richard: There are two answers.
One is that as an aspiring biological anthropologist I was interested in the evolution of social systems. Lemurs break several ‘rules’ common among other primates (such as males being larger than and socially dominant to females), and studying rule-breakers is a good way of gaining insight into rules.
The other answer is that poisonous snakes have always scared me and I did not much enjoy my brief undergraduate experience of watching primates in pouring rain. Madagascar became an obvious choice for my PhD research when one of my professors, the late primatologist Alison Jolly, assured me that not only was there much interesting ‘rule-breaking research’ to be done but also no poisonous snakes and lots of dry forest there!
Mongabay: You started studying sifakas more than 50 years ago. What are the biggest changes you’ve observed in the sifaka population in Bezà Mahafaly?
Alison Richard: The ‘high-level’ answer is that there have been no big changes: from a 50-year perspective, sifaka life at Bezà Mahafaly goes on much as ever. That said, the population declined markedly during the recent drought due to high adult mortality, few births, and low infant survival. Good rains in the 2022/23 wet season were followed by many births in July and August, however, making us optimistic that the population will recover – for now: the long-term survival of sifaka, like many other animals and plants, is very uncertain under the drier and hotter conditions predicted for future decades by climate change models.
Mongabay: Among certain groups in parts of Madagascar, lemurs hold a cultural significance that helps protect them from hunting. However, in some places, that significance seems to be diminishing, ushering in a new source of threat to lemurs. Are you seeing anything like this in areas where you work?
There is indeed strong evidence that fady are becoming less effective in protecting lemurs in some places but, happily, the region of the southwest where I work is not among them.
Mongabay: Over the course of your career working in Madagascar, your research has confronted and overturned many myths about Madagascar. What would you say are the most notable findings?
Alison Richard: I hope my own research has added insights into sifaka behavioral ecology and population dynamics, but I can’t think of any myths about Madagascar it has overturned! I have certainly tried to do that in my recent book, but it draws on research done by others – not me. Writing it convinced me that the single biggest myth about Madagascar is that it was a timeless paradise-on-earth until people arrived, whereas copious evidence shows that Madagascar has always been a place of change.
Mongabay: What are the most important misconceptions about Madagascar that you feel still commonly persist?
Alison Richard: Probably the single most important misconception is that Madagascar was totally covered by forest before people arrived and destroyed 90% of it. The 90% figure was invented early in the 20th century, with no evidence to support it, and yet it is widely cited to this day.
Human activities unquestionably had a significant impact on the island’s landscapes and wildlife, but the prevailing, simple story of environmental catastrophe on the heels of the arrival of wantonly destructive settlers several thousand years ago does not add up: grasslands date back millions of years, evidenced by a wide array of endemic grass species, and indications of a mass slaughter of the megafauna following human arrival are entirely lacking.
Changes in the island’s landscapes varied regionally and through time, depending on how people made a living and also, in some regions, on local climate oscillations. But there’s a lot we still don’t know; for example, it is unclear how much forest clearance pre-dates colonial exploitation in the first half of the 20th century: there simply isn’t evidence one way or the other.
Many important misconceptions persist, in short, and I hope my book will help demolish them, establish a more nuanced history based on new evidence – and acknowledge there are still many unanswered questions.
Mongabay: And how do these affect current conservation efforts on the island?
Alison Richard: A practical consequence of the emphasis on forests is that, to my knowledge, only one protected area in the whole country explicitly includes grasslands as a habitat type in need of protection. That has to change.
In my view, the myths about Madagascar’s past also have a more subtle, pernicious impact because, taken together, they add up to a story of blame that was created during the first decades of colonial rule in the early 20th century: Madagascar was a paradise-on-earth until Malagasy people arrived and wantonly, ignorantly, wickedly (choose your adjective) destroyed it. Blame is a terrible foundation on which to build the international partnerships vital for the future – quite apart from the fact that, whatever happened, it was more complicated than the myths would have us believe.
Mongabay: Over the past decade, environmental degradation in Madagascar has rapidly worsened, from what was already a distressing baseline. What do you think is needed to reverse this trend?
Alison Richard: Although Madagascar has an extensive protected area network and good laws and policies in place, it’s too much a case of ‘in principle’. Most needed for ‘principles’ to become ‘practice’ are honest and effective government leadership, along with continued international investment and collaboration.
Mongabay: How can people around the world assist in conservation efforts in Madagascar? Are there opportunities beyond donating to NGOs?
Alison Richard: Your questions apply to the world at large. I’m a strong believer that civil society – all of us – have an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can, through direct action or simply showing up and giving voice, to halt and reverse the terrifying trends in our planet’s health.
Responding more specifically about Madagascar, donations are certainly important – conservation costs money. There is a role for volunteering too, though lack of familiarity with the language and culture makes it hard to see it as a big role.
Another form of contributing is to visit. Ecotourism provides a revenue stream and also draws attention to Madagascar’s exceptional biodiversity, but it’s no magic bullet: the COVID years showed how quickly external events can drive the collapse of ecotourism, and many important sites on the island don’t benefit directly because they are too inaccessible or lack drama. The downside of air travel’s carbon footprint makes for a difficult trade-off with the upside of ecotourism and hard to know what’s ‘right’ to advocate for.
Mongabay: Last year you published “The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present” which masterfully weaves together threads of your research with your personal experiences in Madagascar. The book has been critically well-received, but it’s likely mostly being read by Western audiences. You’ve mentioned wanting to adapt it — or at least the information and ideas it presents — into a format that’s more accessible for audiences in Madagascar. How do you plan to go about doing that?
Alison Richard: Yes, what is the point of writing a book about Madagascar that many people there can’t read, either because it is in English or because they would not be inclined to read a whole book, even in Malagasy? With this question in mind, I have teamed up with two Malagasy graphic novelists, Pov and Dwa. They are transforming The Sloth Lemur’s Song into a series of comic books in Malagasy, to be distributed free to adults and children, particularly in communities living around protected areas.
After that, who knows… Social media have become a powerful presence in Madagascar, and I have notions of connecting the comic books to social media – but, being a novice, I’m not sure how or if that would work. It’s very much a voyage of discovery!
Mongabay: Changing direction a bit, beyond being an author, anthropologist, and advisor, you’ve also served as the Provost of Yale University and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. From that vantage point, what would you say academia needs to do better to support real-world conservation outcomes, especially given the rate at which environmental degradation is proceeding?
Alison Richard: The short answer is ‘more of what academia is already doing’. Research and teaching about environmental issues are a rapidly growing priority for many universities and colleges and the ivory tower mindset is disappearing, with the boundary between academia and action crumbling. All this is to the good but more is needed, fast. The situation is urgent.
Mongabay: What gives you hope when it comes to conservation?
Alison Richard: We of our generation have failed abysmally, in Madagascar and globally. Signs that conservation is finally becoming a serious issue in today’s world give me a glimmer of hope, but the biggest source of hope for me is the shared commitment to conservation I see in so many members of the rising generation. Malagasy conservationists were few and far between when I started out in 1970, and things have changed dramatically for the better since then.
I would also say that despair simply isn’t an option, because doing nothing is actually making a choice that will ensure the worst comes to pass.
Mongabay: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in the conservation realm? Or working in places like Madagascar?
Alison Richard: The short answer is – “go for it!”. But I’d ask questions before offering real advice. First, what kind of career most excites you? Today, encouragingly, there are many institutions that make a difference for the better in the conservation realm – universities, the not-for-profit community, government agencies, press and media, creative arts organizations – and private businesses too. Make your choice based on what your heart is telling you as well as your head.
Second, what interests you most to learn through formal education or training? The conservation realm increasingly mobilizes a very wide spectrum of skills and experience – from the biological and physical sciences through the social sciences to the arts and humanities. Again, follow your passions, not just what seems important in principle.
Last but not least, if you’re planning to work in another country – be it Madagascar or anywhere else – be sure to find partners there to collaborate with. Conservation is rarely – maybe never, I’d say – a ‘one-person show’.