Despite efforts to crack down on trafficking, Madagascar’s precious natural resources are being looted at an alarming rate. And when rare tortoises, lemurs, and rosewood and ebony logs leave the island, most have the same destination: China.
In the ongoing effort to stanch the loss of the island’s natural resources, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided two $1 million grants to international organizations working with Malagasy officials to stop illegal trafficking and protect the resources for the future.
“Wildlife and timber trafficking are multibillion-dollar transnational criminal enterprises that rob Madagascar of its unique biodiversity and the Malagasy people of a sustainable future,”
USAID Mission Director John Dunlop said during a ceremony announcing the grants in Maroantsetra. Elutin Razafiarison, the director of the anti-corruption unit of Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, also attended the ceremony.
Illegally trafficked timber often ends up in high-end furniture popular in China. China depleted rosewood sources in Asia and began logging in Africa about 2010, according to the U.S.-based charity Forest Trends.
As recently as 2018, Africa accounted for more than 90% of the rosewood shipped to China, according to the World Trade Atlas. Ghana and The Gambia became major sources of rosewood, along with Madagascar, which is home to 48 varieties of rosewood trees.
Rosewood trees shelter Madagascar’s animals, such as crested lemurs. Logging destroys the lemurs’ habitat. In some cases, loggers kill and eat the animals. Others end up trafficked, along with radiated tortoises, ploughshare tortoises, and other animals that are prized as exotic pets or collectibles.
In June 2020, park rangers confiscated 144 radiated tortoises from poachers who were transporting them in a canoe. In 2018, more than 17,000 radiated tortoises, nearly all of them juveniles, were confiscated from two houses in the biggest such raids in Madagascar’s history.
Public health experts warn that the trade and handling of wildlife, particularly animals taken from places with minimal human contact, create new risks for pandemics to emerge. COVID-19, for example, is suspected to have originated from the trade in bats captured in the wild and sold in Wuhan, China.
One USAID grant goes to the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies to improve the capacity of law enforcement and the judiciary to protect northeastern Madagascar’s rare and endangered hardwoods and enhance their cooperation with transnational partners.
The other grant goes to TRAFFIC, which monitors the wildlife trade, and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to support their work to reduce trafficking in tortoises, lemurs and other endangered species in Madagascar.
Both grants will last for two years and are part of broader U.S. government efforts. Since 2013, the U.S. has invested $55 million in supporting the country’s work promoting sustainability, strengthening natural resource management, and protecting thousands of hectares from illegal and unsustainable exploitation.
Recent developments suggest that the support is having an impact, according to David Bird, founder of the Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute, which works with Malagasy people to preserve their natural heritage.
“Government officials are more aware of the trafficking problem, and the improvements in recent years to airport security systems has also helped a lot,” Bird told ADF. “Local media have reported extensively on arrests that have been made, and I believe this has also highlighted the illegality and punishment of traffickers and has acted as a deterrent.”
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic actually has helped protect Madagascar’s wildlife, Bird said. By closing borders and restricting travel to and from the island, the pandemic reduced the opportunities smugglers had to move their contraband.