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Interview with Christoph Schwitzer: Part 2

Lemur Conservation Network volunteer Jen Tinsman recently had a chance to interview one of the leading lemur conservationists in the world, Dr. Christoph Schwitzer. Dr. Schwitzer currently serves as the Director of Conservation at the Bristol Zoological Society. He is also the Vice Chair for Madagascar, and Red List Authority Coordinator, of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Vice President for Captive Care and Breeding of the International Primatological Society, and Executive Secretary of the Association Européenne pour l’Etude et la Conservation des Lémuriens, a consortium of European zoos dedicated to lemur conservation. In addition, Dr. Schwitzer is one of the esteemed project advisors for the Lemur Conservation Network. This week’s blog is part two of two of this interview.

Tell me a bit about the threats to biodiversity in Sahamalaza and the programs that respond to those threats?

As everywhere, the main threat is habitat loss. In Sahamalaza, it’s slash-and-burn agriculture for rice cultivation. There’s the ever increasing threat of poaching as well. It was first primarily a threat for the blue-eyed black lemur because they are bigger and cathemeral so you could hunt them during the day. However, since we’ve been out there it’s become more and more apparent that the situation for people became so desperate that they were starting to hunt Lepilemur as well. Hunting Lepilemur was taboo, among most of the people living there, but still they managed to poach a couple of study individuals of one of my PhD students. They roasted them and ate them. So that is certainly a big threat that wasn’t present when we first started there. For the smaller species that are being poached I don’t think this is yet unsustainable. They reproduce quicker than they are getting poached, but for the Lepilemur it’s a problem because they have the same slow reproductive rate as the larger lemurs. So poaching and habitat loss are the big threats.

Dr. Schwitzer in the field

Dr. Schwitzer in the field

What we are doing: we do a couple of pretty much pure development interventions. We build wells in the villages most affected by annual droughts. We have a long waiting list of villages that all want wells. We can only do maybe two a year because they’re quite expensive, and we always have to wait until the height of the dry season. If you don’t do it at the height of the dry season, your hole maybe too shallow. So it’s always a bit tricky but we usually do one or two a year. They have manual pumps so they last for a while and they don’t break, which is essential because people don’t have the means to repair them. We’re trying to improve the health of these communities, because when I first got there people were literally drinking out of muddy puddles in the dry season. And that’s getting a lot better now I think.

We also build schools and renovate school buildings.

When I first went there I would say the percentage of children of age who were enrolled in primary school was at 60%. Now we are nearing 100%.

That was not only by building schools – we’ve only actually built one big school in the main village, we also renovated quite a few schools. The main thing we’ve been doing is employing additional primary school teachers. We now have 69 full-time primary school teachers on our pay roll. We pay half of their salaries, and the other half is being paid by the parents of the school children. That arrangement works very well because the parents actually pay their half in commodities, rice, beans, sugar, and stuff like that, and we pay in money. The teachers are over the moon; they really like that.

Every year we send a team of people in to ask questions to the parents, children, and teachers to see how the program is going. We get very, very good feedback on that. I must say I like it the most out of all our interventions and the people there do as well. The beauty of it is really that we were able to increase enrollment.

Also we have contracts with every single one of these teachers that stipulate that the teachers don’t just teach, but they also take part in our community events. For instance, every year we build a fire break around a forest fragment – one of the fragments of the Ankarafa Forest. We usually have 300-400 people helping us with that, including lots of teachers and the school classes. They come with their classes. The children don’t just get formal education, but they actually do hands-on conservation. They build a fire break, they go to the forest, and they see lemurs. We hope they like it and spread the word, and when they do it rather than get it taught, it’s easier for them to remember.

The teachers also take part in our reforestation campaigns.

That’s another thing we do, an annual reforestation campaign, where we plant around 60-70,000 seedlings each year.

The way we do that is we pay 70 community gardeners for a defined contingent of seedlings, who also plant the seedlings. These tree planting events are again big, big community events, where everybody is helping. We even have the military help with it and various other stakeholders. The teachers come to those as well with the schoolchildren, and it all works out nicely.

Our next step in the primary school thing is to do a curricular intervention. We have never done that before. Actually I’ve always thought I don’t really want to tell teachers in Madagascar what to teach, I’m sure they know best what to teach and how to do that. So it needs to be done really well in order for it to work. It has been done successfully in some places and we’re going to model what other people have done a bit. We’ll do teacher training so they know what we think they should teach. Then we monitor that, and we see how it goes.

We also try to get people away from slash-and-burn agriculture towards more intense, irrigated rice cultivation. What we do is we give people training courses in irrigated rice cultivation, and then we give them the means to do it by renting out agricultural equipment to them for a very small fee. We have stores of agricultural equipment that are managed by a local community association, and they rent the equipment out to the local farmers for tiny fees. Then we do competitions in irrigated rice cultivation so that the farmer with the highest yield on their newly irrigated rice field wins a prize. That prize is agricultural equipment so that it spreads the word, but it also gives them the means to do more irrigated rice cultivation.

This is really important because we have to overcome that whole network of fady (taboos) and ancestral beliefs. If your biggest wish in life is to become an ancestor in your afterlife, then of course you believe that the easiest way to become an ancestor is to do exactly the same as your father and your grandfather have done, so people are reluctant to adopt new ways. It’s the same everywhere in Madagascar. People are sometimes reluctant to adopt modern technologies because they think ‘who then tells me that I still become an ancestor if I suddenly start irrigated rice cultivation.’ So we provide good incentives. That’s one way to get people away from slash-and-burn and that seems to be working reasonably nicely.

Up until 2008 I was very upbeat about it, and then came the political crisis and we went back 10 steps, 10 years. Now we are sort of building it up again.

We were quite fortunate that we are in the northwest where there isn’t that much rosewood and ebony, so at least we didn’t have those issues on top of everything else.

We are just now building two satellite field stations, which we always wanted in the forest fragments furthest away from our main field station so that we can also deter illegal activities in those forests. With the field stations, we also employ what is called ‘park local committees,’ which are essentially park rangers. We give Madagascar National Parks the means to employ additional park rangers, and we monitor what they do by having them sign in and out at our field stations. So that’s basically a bit of direct protection even though they haven’t got executive powers. They can only report illegal activities, but that’s enough as Malagasy people are mostly law-abiding. That always plays in our favor – when we put signs up saying, ‘don’t go here; this is a national park,’ most people respect them. It’s the same with these patrols.

I was always against fortress conservation, even after reading John Oates’ book Myth and Reality in the Rainforest. Our approach in Bristol is really the opposite of the fortress, so we’re  working with local communities, trying to ameliorate people’s livelihoods, and helping them help themselves and help the forest. But after that political crisis in 2009, there was no other way than actually improving law enforcement somehow, and we put these additional park rangers in.

How do you measure the impact of your efforts?

That’s always a really tricky one, and one of the big problems in conservation: how do you actually measure conservation outcomes? We struggle with that, as everybody else does, and especially with primates because it’s difficult to count them. All we have is halfway decent population estimates, and whether the population increases by 100 animals a year or decreases by 100 is almost not possible to measure

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So what we can measure is outputs, and we can measure inputs. We do all that, so we know exactly how much money we spent on stuff, we know exactly how many schools we built, how many children are taught by how many teachers, how many seedlings we plant, how many courses in rice cultivation we give, how many attendees, and so on and on.

That’s all sort of outputs, and we are just hoping they translate into conservation outcomes. It’s slightly ridiculous, but that’s what most people do. We are actually on a bit of a mission to improve that by trying to figure out the best ways of monitoring the actual conservation targets, which are the lemurs in this case. Actually we don’t only work on lemurs. We work on amphibians in Sahamalaza, and we’ve been doing stuff on birds. We’ve been working on the blue-eyed ibis, another thing with blue eyes in that area. We’ve also worked on bats and some other things, like frogs that you can monitor more easily with bioacoustics

We are currently developing a couple of tools to improve our monitoring efforts. We’re also trying bioacoustics for lemur monitoring for instance. There are now some very sophisticated boxes that you can buy that you place in the field for a year, and they record all the different frequency bands. It might be possible to get better estimates of lemur abundance and lemur population sizes with those, but we don’t know for sure yet. That’s still being trialed.

But yeah, we are now on a quest to improve monitoring in all our field programs, not just in Madagascar. It’s something that many people ask, and we never really have a satisfying answer. It’s very important for fundraising these days: people want to know what you are actually going to do and how you know that you’re doing it.

What is a typical day like when you’re working in the field?

Well I must admit my typical day for many years is now sitting in an office. When I get to the field every now and again, a typical day would be getting up very early, eating rice and beans and running after some lemurs, coming back for lunch, eating beans and rice, run after some more lemurs, coming back for supper, eating again rice with beans, and then going to bed with the chickens at 6 o’clock in the evening because there’s no light to do anything else. That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? It’s a bit boring and monotonous, but it’s still very fulfilling as compared to office life.

What keeps you optimistic?

I always say we haven’t lost a single lemur yet in the last century or in this century. Of course, we already have lost about 17 species since human arrival in Madagascar, but those are historic times. In the last two centuries we’ve done better, and that keeps me optimistic. These things have the propensity to bounce back even from low numbers, so I wouldn’t give up on a species until there’s really only one individual left. There’s always hope.

I also I want my children to be able to go to Madagascar in 20 years’ time and see these lemurs. If they go there and say, ‘Daddy, why haven’t you done more? They’re all gone now,’ that would be very sad, so that’s a bit of my motivation.

How can people across the world help save lemurs and support your work?

That’s always a difficult one. The main people who can help with it are the people living in the intervention area in Madagascar, and that’s who we’re trying to engage. People internationally can support our work by funding the Lemur Action Plan. That’s what I’ve been working on quite ferociously the last couple of months. We’re getting there slowly but certainly. There’s hope at the end of the tunnel at least. The main thing is really raising funds and awareness.

One other big thing that people can do, if they have enough funds, is go to Madagascar and see lemurs for themselves. They become multipliers of the conservation messages, and they bring lots of foreign exchange into the country. The Lemur Action Plan revolves around ecotourism in part, and I still think this is a solution for Madagascar. There are only like 300,000 tourists coming to Madagascar annually. So I think the country can still double, triple, or quadruple that without any negative consequences for the ecosystems. The foreign exchange is vital to keep the government invested in the little conservation efforts that they can afford. I think visiting Madagascar is something that certainly those people who can afford it ought to do.

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