The Conservation Trifecta: It’s All About Linkage (and Rubik’s Cubes)

I will never claim to be a conservation biologist, nor will you ever hear me say that I completely (or even just a tiny bit) understand the complex web of factors that lead to the rampant decline of some of our most loved species, shining in all of their fuzzy glory. But, being a lemur biologist in-training and possessing a mad passion for all things lemur (yes, I do have multiple lemur stuffed animals…don’t judge), issues surrounding lemur conservation inherently hit home. I love the fuzzies. But it seems as though the world does not love the fuzzies. In 2012, a shocking statement put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed lemurs as the most endangered mammal group on the planet. The. Most. Endangered. Take a moment to let that sink in. They are disappearing right before our very eyes. Now that I’ve completely depressed you to the point of wanting to down a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s Double Fudge Brownie, here is the good news. There are a lot of people who understand the complex web of socio-economic and environmental issues that play a crucial role in the breakdown of preserving a species. These people care. These people are brilliant. And these people are doing something about it.

Let me tell you a little story about two lemur researchers named Mitch and Karen. The year 2000 brought us the billionth person to be born in India, the marriage of Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, and, sadly, the last original Peanuts comic (R.I.P, Charles Schulz). But it also brought the protagonists in our story to Tsinjoarivo field site in Madagascar to study the local population of diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema).

Oh, heeeeey, sifaka!

Oh, heeeeey, sifaka!

To Mitch and Karen, the year 2000 also brought the crushing realization that intense human population growth in the surrounding region was severely impacting the environment. And with that environmental impact comes catastrophic consequences for the native flora and fauna that are found there. And I’m not just talking about lemurs—this area is a hotbed of diversity for all sorts of cool species! The local population survives on agriculture and natural resource extraction and, while this is not necessarily a bad thing when done sustainably and in moderation, decisions regarding the deforestation of the surrounding forest are grounded on a cut-when-you-need basis, with absolutely zero forethought to how this will impact the future landscape. Why does this matter? This forest that is being cut down by the local people is the same forest that provides the residents materials for building and cooking, regulates water flow, and harbors the innumerable species that live there—and might only be found there. So, needless to say, it’s kind of a big deal.

Mitch and Karen took action in the form of a non-governmental organization (NGO) called SADABE, taking the name from the local word for the lemur species they are passionate about.

Mitch and Karen, hard at work, finishing up a health assessment

Mitch and Karen, hard at work, finishing up a health assessment

My naïve understanding of conservation work ventures to guess that for species preservation to be truly effective, one must exploit synergistic activities that address all the elements that contribute to the aforementioned sticky, tangly web. Or, as I like to call these activities, The Conservation Trifecta: Research, Development, and Education.

Research: Of course, this seems obvious, but it bears mentioning for completeness’ sake. To fully understand how human activities can impact a species, we must gather all the information we can about its basic biology. This can be done by doing census surveys estimating species abundance in that area, investigating ecological parameters like what it feeds on or what feeds on it, and completing health assessments—the whole gamut. Currently, our research team studying hibernation, as well as researchers from other institutions are tackling the research side of things, yet so far we’ve only made a ity-bity dent in the vast amount of knowledge that needs to be gained. Onward!

Development: Get the locals involved! Teach them sustainable socio-economic activities, like development of fish ponds, bee keeping, or eco-tourism. This approach not only provides the local residents with jobs and reliable income, but it also educates them as to the importance of preserving their truly unique ecosystems. And…cue segue!

Education: To me, education is the crux of the matter. How can you change things you do not fully comprehend? Here’s a horrible analogy. The worst one I could come up with, in fact. Let’s discuss Rubik’s cubes for fun-sies.

Thanks for this great invention Mr. Rubik!

Thanks for this great invention Mr. Rubik!

What if you were given this odd cuboidal object and told to “figure it out” without any sort of direction? You would have no idea where to start. You might get frustrated, stop caring, and throw the damn thing out the car window, smirking in amusement as it gets pulverized into smithereens by oncoming traffic. Then say, for example, you were told how to solve the puzzle (given that you didn’t actually destroy this delightful little object in the first place). You might take the quick fix, remove all the stickers, replace them on the correct side, and call it a day (not that a certain blogger ever did that…). After a few rounds of these “quick fixes”, the stickers lose their stickiness and start to fall off, thus rendering the quick fix worthless (Sorry I ruined your Rubik’s cube, Grandma). The real solution takes instruction, careful planning, and most importantly, commitment. This is what conservation education is all about. There are no quick fixes. Dedication can only come from a full understanding of the problem at hand, otherwise motivation is lost, and things get chucked out of car windows. (Right now, I’m imagining poor little lemurs being hurled out of car windows. They are not enjoying this. Neither am I.) Let’s relate my awful analogy back to our lemur researchers. They realized that to fix the problem, the residents must actually care about the problem—maybe they thought about Rubik’s Cubes, too! At Tsinjoarivo, fostering compassion for conservation through education begins with the wee little ones. In 2005, Mitch and Karen collaborated with the Madagascar Ankizy Fund (www.ankizy.org) to build a school. Now, over 250 kids from the surrounding area attend this school which provides high-quality education for free, while teaching the importance of conservation in their region. In essence, they are building future ambassadors for the fuzzies! But this school cannot do it alone. Funds are desperately needed. Currently, SADABE is conducting a fundraiser to help offset the costs for teachers’ salaries and school repairs. Are you feeling generous? If you would like to donate, or even if you would just like more information (or to look at some great photos) click here!!

By helping the kids, we are helping the lemurs. How’s that for linkage!

It’s a jungle out there!

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