During the global COVID-19 pandemic, the world has had to adapt to a new version of ‘normal’. With international borders closed, air travel halted, and occupations moved online, many lines of work have been significantly impacted. Conservation is one of many sectors that has been negatively affected, and many organisations have had to rapidly evolve and adapt to overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic.

SEED Madagascar (Sustainable Environment, Education & Development in Madagascar) is no exception. Madagascar, like many countries, introduced measures in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19 from affected countries. These measures, while necessary, disrupted trade and tourism across the country, increasing levels of poverty and food insecurity. Furthermore, recent research published by the IUCN concluded that the fallout from COVID-19 is undermining global conservation efforts.

SEED’s Conservation Research Program (SCRP) has not been spared the negative consequences of COVID-19 – the permanent research camp in Sainte Luce’s littoral forest in southeast Madagascar closed to protect rural communities, and the loss of staff and volunteers reduced capacity and funding across the organisation. However, thanks to the inspiring resilience shown by national and international staff, SCRP has found ways of overcoming these pressures and delivering important environmental conservation work.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, SCRP has continually adapted its approach to support the needs of the community, meet conservation goals, and overcome pandemic consequences. With international staff needing to fly home at the start of the pandemic in 2020, SCRP’s national staff have enthusiastically taken on the responsibility of continuing the research elements of SCRP’s conservation projects alone. This required expanding training and capacity building, knowledge sharing, flexibility, and a lot of hard work!

With camp closed, the team travelled from the local town, Fort Dauphin, to ‘the bush’ for intensive multi-week research trips every month or two. The data collected during these trips is vital for helping to conserve biodiversity and support livelihoods by informing and evaluating project progress.

For SCRP’s International Team, being parted from conservation research on the ground has been a challenge. Over the past year, the team has reflected on previous research and identified where updates are needed. As COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges faced by vulnerable communities in Madagascar, there will likely be a cascade of biodiversity consequences as people rely more heavily on natural resources to survive.

Two people take notes during a nighttime field survey, surrounded by leafy trees.

SCRP researchers surveying biodiversity within Project Ala’s forest corridors.

SEED runs a variety of conservation-oriented projects which, like SCRP, have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and produced challenges that have required creativity and persistence to overcome.

Project Ala, a corridor reforestation project aiming to increase and improve viable habitat for Endangered lemurs in Sainte Luce, has seen aspects of the project postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19. However, many project activities have been sustained, with all forest corridors now established with Acacia and native seedlings, firebreaks around forest fragments and corridors constructed and maintained, and fire mitigation signs installed.

In addition, key stakeholder capacity building workshops and meetings have continued. More recently, school nursery workshops and community education sessions have resumed. All the while, collection of scientific data has continued due to the hard work and dedication of SEED’s national team.

A tiny frog sites on a much larger leaf in a darkened forest.

Boettger’s Reed Frog (Heterixalus boettgeri) observed on an Acacia sapling within one of Project Ala’s ever-growing forest corridors.

For several years, SEED has conducted research and raised local awareness on Sainte Luce’s Vulnerable Madagascan Flying Fox (Pteropus rufus) colony, which has experienced population decline due to a loss of suitable roosting sites through deforestation and increased hunting pressures. To protect this species, Project Rufus established an exclusion zone around the colony’s primary roost site, within which bat hunting and natural resource extraction are not allowed.

In October 2020, the team carried out a population assessment of the colony, where they found only a handful of bats instead of the usual hundreds. The cause of this decline became apparent: a large tree cut was down no more than 10m from the roost site. This felling could have disturbed the colony and caused them to leave. Following this discovery, and with the support of the local mayor, an Enforcement Committee was established to protect the exclusion zone and prevent further disturbance. SEED organised research trips to locate the colony, soon relocating them.

In June 2021, SEED carried out a population assessment of the colony, counting approximately 700 individuals and reduced evidence of human disturbance. With local and international support, SEED has been able to protect this particularly vulnerable population.

Large bats flying between trees overhead, silhouetted against a daytime sky.

Madagascan Flying Fox colony at primary roost site in June 2021.

As the SEED team looks forward to the return to Fort Dauphin and Sainte Luce, it is with a sense of hopeful anticipation. SEED Conservationists are dedicated to responding to the dynamic challenges that face the natural world. They will continue to endeavour to understand biodiversity and to inform solutions that better protect nature, now and into the future.

Lewis is a Senior Research Assistant for SEED Madagascar and SEED's Conservation Research Programme (SCRP), helping on environmental projects working to protect threatened species and habitats in the Anosy region of southeast Madagascar. Lewis is involved with research on SCRP's projects, including a long-term lemur, reptile, and amphibian biodiversity monitoring. SEED's multi-faceted and bottom-up approach to sustainable conservation and development is an element that inspires and interests Lewis greatly. He enjoys contributing towards SEED's vision, learning from all the incredible Malagasy staff and local communities, and is looking forward to eventually living in this beautiful part of the world.