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Working In Madagascar, St. Louis Scientists Hope To Help Both People And Planet

The fossa is one of the mammals that scientists are studying in Madagascar.
Fidisoa Rasambainarivo
The fossa is one of the mammals that scientists are studying in Madagascar.

For nearly three decades, the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis has bestowed its World Ecology Award on prominent biodiversity-minded individuals ranging from John Denver to E.O. Wilson. But this year the center is instead honoring a pair of world-class local institutions — the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo — for their critical research and conservation work in Madagascar.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with the center’s interim director, Patty Parker, and with a Malagasy scientist, Fidisoa Rasambainarivo, who is in St. Louis to speak at an upcoming gala where the zoo and garden are being honored.

Parker, the Des Lee professor of zoological studies at UMSL, said that when a member of the World Ecology Award committee suggested giving this year’s award to the garden and zoo, everyone agreed it was a great idea.

“There are these wonderful institutions that are doing fantastic work right here, and they’re doing it quietly — they’re not trumpeting this, they’re just doing it,” she explained. “They’re committed to it, and they have been for decades.”

From left, Fidisoa Rasambainarivo and Patty Parker joined Tuesday's program.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Fidisoa Rasambainarivo and Patty Parker joined Tuesday's program.

Rasambainarivo, who trained as a veterinarian in Madagascar before earning a doctorate at UMSL, now collaborates in Madagascar with St. Louis Zoo scientists as an affiliate scientist of the St. Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation.

He mostly researched lemurs early in his career but eventually became interested in studying other animals as well, particularly carnivores such as the fossa, a cat-like mammal.

“Those carnivores are the animals that interact most with domestic dogs and cats, because they come into the villages,” Rasambainarivo said. “Some of the dogs and cats come into the protected areas or the forested areas, and so there’s a lot of opportunities for disease transmission, which is what I’m interested in.”

The discussion touched on the ecological peril facing Madagascar and included comments from zoo and garden representatives about what’s driving their efforts across the globe.

Lisa Kelley, the executive director of the St. Louis Zoo WildCare Institute, described Madagascar as “a magical place.” She said that in an age where species are disappearing around the world at higher rates, she is seeing some positive conservation and sustainability signs as a result of the partnership in Madagascar.

“There’s a program the zoo has long supported called ‘zone of protection,’ in which the villagers that live on the periphery of [a protected area] are challenged to plant trees and keep them up, and every year there’s sort of a contest [of] who can do that the most effectively,” Kelley said. “And so, unlike other forest edges where [you] would think it would degrade over time, it’s been able to remain stable.

“And that’s despite the fact that Madagascar [is] extremely poor and ... very dependent on the forests. And so being able to have an area that remains protected yet enabling the villagers to continue to live their life is something I think is a major accomplishment that’s been developed through the partnerships and the long-term dedication.”

Rasambainarivo echoed Kelley’s impressions, indicating that overall, the Malagasy “see [this work] as positive for their lives.”

“They’re struggling,” he said, “but they also understand that they need the forest, they need the environment. And they are benefiting from the activities the St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden are doing.”

Jim Miller, the senior vice president for science and conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden, noted that the garden now employs about 150 people in Madagascar, where the garden has had a growing presence since the 1970s.

“We all went to Madagascar [decades ago] thinking, ‘This is great — we’re gonna do botany, we’re gonna discover new species, we’re gonna work on classifying the plants … [but] you can’t be there any extended period of time and not realize the place is a conservation catastrophe, that it needs conservation work in the worst imaginable ways possible. Less than 7% of the original forest cover’s left, and this is in a country where 90% of the species that occur there aren’t found anywhere else.”

Miller added that the exploration and discovery work continues alongside the conservation efforts.

Related Event
What: The 23rd World Ecology Award Gala
When: 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, 2019
Where: Touhill Performing Arts Center at UMSL (1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.