The annual field course on tropical ecology by the University of Helsinki, named RESPECT, was again organized a few weeks ago in Centre ValBio research station (CVB) in Ranomafana, some ten hour drive South-East from the capital Antananarivo. A total of 12 Finnish and Malagasy biology students carried out three-week long studies on dung beetles, birds and rodents with a slightly hectic schedule; getting to know each other, planning their research, organizing field work and analyzing their results.
As every year since 2008 (when I participated in the first RESPECT and got permanently hooked on Madagascar), lacking sleep but enthusiastic as ever, the students headed out to Ranomafana National Park (RNP) to explore, learn and do biological research. For all of them this year – also for the Malagasy students from the University of Antananarivo – it was the first time working in a tropical rainforest.
This year the students were also doing some mapping work in cooperation with Project Manondroala. The coordinator of Ranomafana mapping team, Pascal Rabeson from CVB, presented the mapping method for the students and explained why the work is being done. He pointed out that it is essential to have a good map of the forest in order to study, monitor, and understand the forest better; and finally, to conserve it. The students will also get valuable data on forest structure and vegetation that they can use in their own research projects.
In our mapping method the team, each consisting of three members, checks a variety of parameters that will help determine the type and state of the specific patch of forest. These include for example the GPS (Global Positioning System) location and altitude, description of the plot (e.g. if there are exotic species), human induced impact (e.g. tree cutting, cattle grazing or fire), species names and circumference of bigger trees, and the amount of deadwood. The study plots are 10 times 10 meters and all the data can be collected with very basic equipment; only GPS and a small camera are needed in addition to ropes and measuring tape.
Soon after arriving to CVB the RESPECT team packed their tents, field equipment and a whole lot of rice, and started their three hour hike to Valohoaka site. ‘Valo’ is one of the beautiful, more natural parts of RNP, a pristine paradise about 10 km south from CVB. The students camped there for five nights while conducting their field studies. As part of the course work, they did forest mapping with two members of our team, both in Valohoaka and later in small forest fragments east from Ranomafana town. While being something new and interesting for the students, it is useful for the Project as well, especially since we didn’t have any field data from these areas yet.
The Ranomafana mapping team, consisting of local guides as well as ecologists and field guides from CVB and MNP (Madagascar National Parks; the organization managing most of the protected areas) has been working since August, and they have already made some 200 plots in and around RNP. The field data collected by them is used to verify satellite image data, because it is impossible to know exactly what’s there if you haven’t taken a MUCH closer look, climbing up slopes and pushing through bushes.
How do you then recognize a primary forest?, asked one of the students when we were making a plot close to Valohoaka camp. A member of CVB mapping team, Dina Andrianoely, told the students that the plot we were in was called ala velona, natural forest; you know it not only from the huge trees and absence of stumps, but from historical data that is actually really important to take into consideration when doing forest mapping. The locals know that this part of the forest was never exploited by people, unlike some areas close by that were still selectively logged some decades ago.
Although the limit of the park often also means that it’s the edge of the forest, there are many small fragments outside RNP still supporting lemur populations and other wildlife. Some of the fragments remain because they are sacred, but the ones that are not are greatly endangered. In addition, many of the fragments are not visible in any existing forest maps.
As long as the local people have no other choice but to get their firewood, bamboo and nearly all their income from the forest, it is hard to tackle deforestation. But in order to better understand the dynamics of forest degradation and identify the most threatened areas, we do need more good maps. And what would be better than to work together with students, who will be the ones working with these forests in the future.