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Kitty Sherrill, wife of Royal Robbins’ Chairman of the Board, Stephen Sherrill, is a Trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). She just returned from reviewing WCS programs in Madagascar and has shared her report as part of Royal Robbins’ focus on global conservation.

WCS President & CEO Cristián Samper in Masoala National Park

Madagascar is the largest island in Africa and oldest geological island on Earth (it split from the African and Indian continents 60 million years ago). Because of its long geographic isolation and the complete lack of human presence until 2,000 years ago, the island nation features almost unparalleled biodiversity and endemism.

84% of terrestrial vertebrate species (including all 101 of the world’s lemur species and half of the chameleon species), 83% of plant species, and 93% of freshwater fish species are found only in Madagascar. That unique biodiversity combined with the coral reefs and rich waters of the Western Indian Ocean make Madagascar ground zero for conservation.

It is an island where the people will perish without its natural resources, but the natural resources could perish because of the people.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, founded in 1895 in New York City and active in 500 conservation projects in 65 countries, works to save wildlife and wild places worldwide and to create a world where societies embrace and benefit from thriving wildlife.

The coral reefs of the Western Indian Ocean support about 15 million people


This approach is especially important in Madagascar, where WCS has been involved in conservation projects for over 20 years. Today, the country has a population of 23.8 million people, 82% of whom live in poverty and 75% of whom are engaged in natural resource subsistence living.


WCS has over 100 staff active in Madagascar today


Half the world’s chameleon species are found in Madagascar’s rainforest

In fact, natural resources account for over half the country’s wealth. With local communities so dependent on the land and waters, there is serious risk of depletion through overfishing or unsustainable agricultural practices. Additionally, mass deforestation (to clear land for farming or extract timber for fuel) and poaching further threaten the native flora and fauna, especially lemurs and tortoises.

I recently returned from a trip to visit the WCS programs in Madagascar alongside WCS’ Executive Director Dr. Cristiàn Sampèr and several other WCS trustees.

Our journey started in the capital of Antananarivo (or Tana as it is affectionately known) a bustling city of around 2 million. The architectural remnants of French colonial outposts dot the streets, intertwined with groups of uniformed schoolchildren and open air markets selling everything from used couches to whole goats. From Tana we flew north to Maroantsetra for 2 days, then to the northwest of the country in the islands around Nosy Be, before ending our trip in the Salary Bay to the north of Tulear.


A lemur examines closely my husband Stephen and Cristián Samper


The country does not feature an interconnected highway system, so the only efficient way to travel long distances is by small aircraft, often landing on dirt and sand airstrips.

WCS has focused its activities in Madagascar on three regions: the Mamabay Landscape and Seascape, the Nosy Be Seascape, and the Southwest Landscape and Seascape.

In Mamabay, the Masoala National Park and the Makira Natural Park contain 20% of the country’s biodiversity and support approximately 230,000 people through fishing and subsistence farming. WCS directly manages the Makira Natural Park for the government and is forming a community-managed “green belt” around the protected areas to support sustainable subsistence farming and cash crops as well as tourism.


Fishing boats in northeastern Madagascar


Additionally, WCS has led the effort to create the Makira Carbon Project, which so far has made 8 sales saving nearly 15,000 acres of forest and supporting both the protected area and community development projects. In Antongil Bay, they have developed a sustainable fisheries management program and 25 locally-managed marine reserves.


WCS has participated in the creation of 28 marine protected areas


In Nosy Be and the Southwest, WCS has expanded the country’s network of marine protected areas by nearly 1,700 square miles and developed sustainable nearshore fisheries. These are locally-managed areas, for without sustainable local governance, it will be impossible to both protect the wildlife and support the local populations. For instance, in Salary Bay, WCS has created sea cucumber aquaculture farms to provide alternative means of support to local communities that were previously over-dependent on fishing and poaching.


A diver in Salary Bay working at a WCS sea cucumber aquaculture farm.


Here in the United States, we often forget how dependent we are on the world around us. In Madagascar, the natural world is explicitly tied to survival in a way that most Americans never need to address. By focusing on conservation efforts that directly benefit the local communities, WCS is creating best practices that can be applied around the world, both in developing and developed nations.

For more information on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s programs in Madagascar, visit or

To support WCS, visit