Wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt has visited Madagascar 25 times in the last 20 years. Over that period, Nick has been documenting the island’s weird and wonderful species, giving him a truly unique insight into one of the world’s most fascinating ecosystems.
Nick’s in depth knowledge of the country and its wild inhabitants led to him being a consultant on a new mini-series from the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Hitting UK screens tonight at 8pm on BBC 2, Madagascar will take viewers on an exploration of the island’s extraordinary wildlife and stunning landscapes.
Recently, I was lucky enough to catch up with Nick to dig out a few details on the series, and learn more about the conservation issues that Madagascar faces.
ARKive talks to Nick Garbutt:
What was your role as a consultant on the BBC’s Madagascar series?
My involvement was in the initial stages of the series, basically as the production team was going through ideas to build up storylines. I also happened to be at the same location in Madagascar as some of the film crew, so I hooked up with some of the people I knew – but this was pure coincidence, I wasn’t directly involved in any filming.
What can we expect from the series?
The first episode, Island of Marvels, will be an overview of Madagascar, wowing people by showing them what an amazing place it is, and how and why the animals which exist there are so weird and whacky compared to mainland Africa – or indeed anywhere else in the world.
The subsequent two programmes will take a closer look at the wet eastern rainforest side of the island and then the dry parts of the island in the west and south.
I’ve written a companion story for the February issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, tying in to the series and celebrating the wildlife of Madagascar.
When did you last visit the island? Did you photograph anything in particular?
I visited over November and December last year to guide a tour. I then stayed an extra two and a half weeks visiting two locations; one to specifically photograph fosa (or fossa), and the second in the North – a place called Ankarana – where there are spectacular limestone pinnacles (locally called ‘tsingy’) and forests.
Female fosa in leaf litter
How has Madagascar changed over the 20 years you’ve been visiting?
My first visit was in 1991, and I’ve been every year since – now approaching my 21st year. It’s changed hugely.
There has been a significant increase in the wildlife’s profile and its perceived importance on a world stage, simply because of the amount of scientific work that has been done. As an illustration of that, in 1991, there were three national parks on the island. One of them – Ranomafana – had just opened, which is partly why I visited in the first place. Now, there are over 20 national parks in Madagascar.
However, that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many of the reserves that now exist were still protected in 1991, but you weren’t able to visit them. A major shift in the importance of ecotourism has meant that these off-limits reserves have been opened up and their infrastructure developed to allow people in.
Despite the fact that these parks exist, there are still huge areas of forest which are unprotected and ravaged by deforestation. Comprehending the level of deforestation can be a mind numbing thought, considering the evidence that Madagascar was once 85% forest. Now, of the 7-8% forest cover that remains, only 2% falls within protected areas. Anything outside of this is still suffering major impact.
Its noticeable how much smaller and more isolated areas of forest have become. When I first visited, there were areas outside the national parks that you could walk into and see lemurs and wildlife. Now, they are just bare hillsides with rice paddies and cassava growing on them. That’s an inescapable aspect of visiting Madagascar, but as soon as you step into native forest, it’s dripping with wildlife again. The contrast is as stark as it could possibly be.
Male fosa prowling
Are there any developing conservation issues on Madagascar that particularly concern you?
The fosa is one that is particularly prevalent at the moment. It’s an intriguing iconic animal – the largest carnivore on Madagascar and pretty whacky in a global sense too. Very little work is being done with it, mainly because large carnivores are so difficult to find and follow. As such, a lot of the suggestions for conserving the species across the whole of Madagascar are based on guesstimates and extrapolation from the very limited areas where they have been studied in detail.
It’s thought that there are roughly only 2,500 fosas left, but this figure may be a gross over-estimate. Much of the detailed work has been done in Kirindy Forest on the west of the island, initially by Claire Hawkins – who effectively did the first long term study on Fosa – and later by Mia-Lana Lührs, whose ground-breaking studies are on-going.
Mia has found that fosas are now suffering direct persecution. They have huge ranges, but because the forests are constantly shrinking due to felling and deliberate burning, fosa are being squeezed out and are forced to enter villages on the periphery of forests to steal chickens. Kirindy may appear extensive, but it is relatively small in fosa terms. The fosa population is thought to be only 100 at best (and 30 at worst). Mia knows of 12 individuals that have been killed in the area in the last two years, because they’ve entered villages to prey on chickens. The local people are incredibly poor and chickens very valuable. They have to protect their livelihood.
You have been a long-running contributor to ARKive. What role do you think wildlife imagery plays in conservation?
Wildlife imagery can play an important role in conservation; it’s often a first introduction to a particular species or issue, even for people who work within conservation or biology. More broadly, it opens people’s minds to appreciate the environment, its beauty and its fragility. And these may be things of which they were previously unaware.
Good quality imagery can stir emotions, fostering connections with species or places that viewers might not otherwise be able to see first hand. Once those connections have been made, a person is far more likely to remember issues and problems, and thus far more likely to get involved.
Its one of the reasons I’ve always been happy to contribute to ARKive, because a wider net can be spread. The greater levels of access that people who work outside of the field have to these subjects, the more likely they are to change their attitudes towards them.
Is there a message of hope for the biodiversity of Madagascar? What actions can people take to help preserve it?
The cynic in me says no. Being blunt, it is difficult to be optimistic about a case like Madagascar. The problems that the island faces are so huge that they appear to be insurmountable.
It is one of the poorest countries on Earth and has a burgeoning population. Land is at a premium and, in the grand scheme of things, wildlife will always play second fiddle to people issues.
Let’s face it, conservation is a Western luxury. The preservation of biodiversity is a concept we’re really only able to appreciate from the comfort of our cosy western homes. The poor person scratching a living together on the edge of existence in Madagascar or wherever it may be, is often primarily concerned where their next meal is coming from and little else. And if an endangered species IS that next meal (people eat lemurs and fosas in Madagascar), the concept of conservation is irrelevant to them. We have to look at ways to work with local people and hold our hands up in confession and say, “we’ve decimated most of our own environment and don’t want to see you follow suit”. But the inevitable, albeit depressing conclusion is that whatever wild places survive in Madagascar (or elsewhere) will be managed, isolated islands of habitat.
Functioning ecosystems ultimately impact and influence our own survival, so it’s crucially important that we do our utmost to preserve them for as long as possible. But in the short term, it is difficult to see how this will pan out in a way that gives you a feel-good factor.
That said, I still am uplifted whenever I return to Madagascar’s national parks. I have seen the difference they can make to the local people in terms of their sense of pride and achievement in the parks. These people now have a much greater awareness of the wildlife on their doorstep and how important it is. Spreading that message among communities is certainly the way forward if we want to alleviate pressure on the natural environment – it gives me cause for hope.
Explore more of Nick’s award-wining photography and find out more about his work in Madagascar.
Watch the BBC’s Madagascar series
Learn more about the species Nick has photographed on ARKive.
Rob Morgan, ARKive Media Researcher