Studying endemic Malagasy carnivores
The unique natural habitats of Madagascar are seriously under threat from damaging human activities which are resulting in huge loss of biodiversity. The Earthwatch project Carnivores of Madagascar is studying the effects of these threats on populations of endemic carnivores and their habitats. Earthwatch scientists are gathering information to help develop successful conservation plans, as well as working to improve the livelihoods of local communities. .
Endemic species are those that are exclusive to one region, and do not live natively anywhere else. They are generally very sensitive to changes in their environment, and the risk of extinction is higher than in species that have a wider range. Madagascar's carnivores, like most of the island's fauna and flora, show a particularly high degree of endemism. Eight of the ten species of carnivore found in Madagascar have no populations, or closely related species, anywhere else in the world. The species focused on by the Earthwatch project is the fosa (Cryptoprocta ferox), classified as Vulnerable (IUCN Red List).
Cats, hyaenas and dogs are not part of the native fauna of Madagascar, but are starting to appear in the wild. The Earthwatch scientists have encountered wildcats in recent years, which must either be African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) or long-feral populations of domestic cat. Non-endemic species such as these occupy the habitats that support Madagascar's top endemic predators, the fosa and falanouc (Eupleres goudotii major), classified as Near Threatened (IUCN Red List), which means they have to compete for resources like food and space. Investigating and identifying how both endemic and invasive predators share these resources, successfully or not, is necessary to be able to increase understanding of both ecological and conservation issues in Madagascar and elsewhere.
Despite the unique ecology and enigmatic evolutionary history of Malagasy carnivores, these species have not previously been the subject of any long-term field study. It is known, however, that many of these species are persecuted by indigenous human populations and continue to decline dramatically in numbers.
What is the Earthwatch project doing?
The two focal sites for this project are the Ampijoroa Research Station and its surrounding area in Ankarafantsika National Park (the 135,000 hectare Ankarafantsika National Park is one of the last large tracts of dry deciduous forest in Madagascar), and the Akotrofotsy Research Site in Kirindy Mite National Park. In these locations the fosa is known to exist in similar habitats to the endemic falanouc and Malagasy narrow-striped mongoose (Mungotictis decemlineat), classified as Vulnerable (IUCN Red List), as well as non-native feral dogs, wild cats, and the small Indian civet (Viverricula indica). These range overlaps cause concern as to whether the fosa can successfully compete and survive in ever-decreasing areas of suitable habitat.
The goal of this Earthwatch project is to examine in-depth the natural history and behavioral ecology of the fosa, and recently the falanouc, and how competing invasive species affect them. One of the goals of the research, conservation, and development programme, therefore, is to achieve sustainable populations of these species, their prey, and habitat and ensure the wellbeing and livelihoods of the human population surrounding the national parks.
Work in Ankarafantsika focuses on charting long-term population trends and conservation ecology for the fosa. Research tasks carried out there by volunteers include the capture and sedation of carnivores to obtain anatomical and physiological information, and when possible, radio-tracking carnivores' movements and activity patterns. The collection of data not only covers carnivore populations, but also their prey, including birds, primates, small mammals and amphibians. The research will allow the project to focus not only on the ecology of each site individually, but to compare observations as well.
The first field season at the Ampijoroa Research Station was in 1999 when Earthwatch scientists started to lay the groundwork. Earthwatch volunteers continue to contribute greatly to all research activities, actively checking traps for captured animals, surveying the forest for current prey populations, and collecting radio-telemetry data.
Since 2002, the project has noted a significant decrease in the number of fosa passing through study areas. This trend is largely attributed to the increasing numbers of feral dogs, and possibly wild cats, inhabiting Ampijoroa's forests, as well as habitat fragmentation within the parks. Furthermore, the numbers of ground birds and amphibians usually seen in this area are also decreasing. Significant habitat disturbance in Ampijoroa, combined with increasing numbers of invasive carnivores, identifies Ankarafantsika's carnivores in critical need of conservation measures based on reliable scientific data.
The way forward
Going forward, working alongside local communities, the scientists continue long-term monitoring of the endemic carnivore populations, increasing the focus of the field research onto the natural history, ecology, and protection of the practically unknown falanouc, within the forests of Ankarafantsika National Park. Despite the species' current classification as Near Threatened, the scientists believe it may in fact be Critically Endangered, partly because sightings are extremely rare.