By Ben Block
A trip to the island nation of Madagascar is often likenedto a journey into another world. Many of its species are found nowhere else on Earth, isolated within the country's jagged cliffs and dense tropical forests. For conservationists who have long struggled to protect these disappearing wonders, just reaching the species' habitats has been a major limitation.
Although researching Madagascar's rare species is still no easy feat, new computer software is greatly simplifying conservation efforts and playing a key role in the country's efforts to triple its protected areas. After an international team of researchers identified the habitats of 2,315 species over a range of 587,040 square kilometers - nearly a decade's work - scientists used the software to generate a conservation map that would cover all species. The maps are so specific that they can tell within less than one square kilometer where a plant or animal lives.
Never before has a conservation study included so many species over such a large range and with such detail. The research, published in last week's issue of the journal , Science is now being combined with previous studies that focused exclusively on the island's vertebrates, plants, and migratory birds, in an effort to steer Madagascar's conservation plans.
"There are many products, maps, that outline conservation priorities. Our map confirms, to some extent, others' [studies].... It also points out areas that people might not have thought of," said Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist who co-led the study with University of California in Berkeley colleague Alison Cameron. "We're trying to figure out the pathway."
Madagascar's president, Marc Ravalomanana, announced in 2003 that he would protect 10 percent of the island, increasing the total protected area from 1.7 million hectares to 6 million hectares. The conservation areas must be identified by the end of this year, according to his plan.
Yet in a nation where half the population falls below the poverty line, expanding the economy often comes at the expense of natural resources . Forests are burned down to clear land for agriculture, and mining concessions threaten further deforestation. "It's one thing to protect 10 percent of Madagascar, it's another thing to say how each piece will be protected," said Kremen, who led efforts to create the 1,352 square kilometer Masoala National Park in the island's northeast corner. "There's still a long process ahead of us... Our results will be rather useful for that."
Meanwhile, the critical software used in the study is being applied in other conservation efforts. Atte Moilanen, a senior fellow at the University of Helsinki who was a co-author of the Madagascar study, developed the programming in 2006. He said the technology is also being used for conservation studies on New Zealand's aquatic life, the United Kingdom's butterflies, and the Republic of Seychelles' island biodiversity.
In reference to the Madagascar study, Moilanen said, "This analysis is actually going to be making an effect, which is unlike most scientific studies."
Ben Block is a staff writer at the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at email@example.com. This post is republished with Worldwatch's permission.