Cloud-draped Marojejy National Park rises like a deep green island on a pastel sea of human disturbance. In each muddy quadrangle of rice paddy around the island’s feet, a single cow is staked out to graze and defecate. This rainforest preserve is a dwindling refuge of Madagascar’s native biodiversity, 80 percent of which exists nowhere else on Earth. The park’s steep flanks have a moth-eaten look, dark above, light green below, as slash-and-burn agriculture—the cutting and burning of the trees to make fields—climbs to the park boundaries, and sometimes beyond. Just 10 percent of what Madagascar once had survives relatively unscathed. Today, it is an island of islands like this.

"This is the best road in all of Madagascar,” the Duke Lemur Center’s Erik Patel shouts from the cramped backseat of a pickup as it zips perilously past chickens and children at forty-five miles per hour on the road up to Marojejy. Highway 3B is a two-lane asphalt ribbon that conveys trucks heavy with rice down from the paddies of Andapa Basin to Sambava and other cities along the Indian Ocean on the east coast. But this also might be called “the vanilla highway.” In every hamlet along its sixty-five-mile journey, side yards are carpeted with woven palm mats on which chocolate brown vanilla beans are in neat rows, drying slowly in 90 percent humidity. The air is wood smoke and vanilla.

Patel knows this road well, spending about half of the week at a hotel in Andapa and the other half at a hotel on the beach in Sambava, where there is an airport, reasonably good Internet, and some office space rented by the Lemur Center. Patel has spent more than a decade in this northeastern region called SAVA—an acronym for its four principal cities. He first arrived as a field researcher, but grew into an environmental crusader and minor media celebrity, the subject of BBC documentaries and articles in Smithsonian and National Geographic. Today, he’s a Duke postdoctoral fellow, heading the Lemur Center’s two-year-old SAVA Conservation project centered on Marojejy. With an annual budget of just $50,000, the project encompasses a web of satellite operations, including three fish farms, three tree nurseries, some model agriculture, libraries and schools, and a cooperative that manufactures an alternative fuel called “green charcoal”—essentially flammable compost.

A new path: Staal takes in the Andapa Basin. As part of her DukeEngage project, she visited roadside fish stands in the area. Karl Leif Bates

SAVA Conservation is Duke’s new beachhead in Madagascar, where the Lemur Center has had a physical presence in conservation and research since the mid-1980s. The university’s new drive toward globalization has connected the SAVA region to Durham in ways never before imagined. Nicholas School of the Environment master’s students have been doing field research with Patel in Marojejy Park. Charlie Nunn Ph.D. ’99, a new joint-faculty hire in evolutionary anthropology and the Global Health Institute, will be working in the Andapa region as well, studying the evolution of infectious disease in primates and a host of other topics. Two DukeEngage students joined Patel for the summer, encouraging fish farming and working on a private nature reserve, and lending a hand to most of the other projects SAVA Conservation is launching. Duke’s connection is practical and solutions-oriented, says local partner Rabary Désirè. “What they do here, you can see it, you can measure it, you can weigh it.”

Saving lemurs with books

Folded up next to Patel in the back seat of the pickup is a tall, quiet man in quick-drying clothes. Lemur Center conservationist Charlie Welch is a zookeeper by training; he has devoted his largely unsung and sometimes unpaid career to the deep-green patches of Madagascar’s natural heritage. Yet it’s his ability with people, more than lemurs or trees, that has done the most good.

Behind them, in the bed of the truck, are three fifty-pound duffels stuffed with heavy-duty raincoats for the “village guards,” civilian volunteers who live around Marojejy’s borders and keep an eye out for those who would poach lemurs and trees. “You can’t find any raincoats here that last more than a week in the forest,” Patel says. These impressively heavy, black Carhartt coats, imprinted with SAVA Conservation’s Malagasy slogan and the logo of Madagascar’s National Parks, “may be one of the most valuable articles of clothing a village man may have—for a decade,” Patel says. Experience has taught Patel and Welch that it’s the little touches that make Malagasy diplomacy work. The coats will be a hit in their meeting with National Parks officials later in the week.

Welch first came to Madagascar in 1987 with his wife, Lemur Center curator of the animal collection Andrea Katz ’77. They had been dispatched by then-Lemur Center director Elwyn Simons at the invitation of the Malagasy government to try to help rescue Parc Ivoloina, a decaying former forestry research station built by the French at the turn of the twentieth century. Lying just a few miles north of the coastal city of Tamatave (now Toamasina), it had been smashed hard by an Indian Ocean cyclone the previous year. The park’s captive lemurs, which had been rescued or seized from human hands by Madagascar’s forestry department, were bedraggled and neglected, living in and around too-small cages torn open by the storm and breeding strange hybrid species.

"Breeding animals in captivity was only going to make a small dent. We quickly realized that if we wanted to do anything, we were going to have to go way beyond lemurs. About 95 percent of our conservation is working with people."

“Ivoloina was a disaster,” Welch recalls. “The government had no money. Not only did you not see cars, the people didn’t have enough to buy bicycles.” Remoteness, the collapse of French imperialism, and some poor choices in self-governance had left the island nation largely cut off from the rest of the world for decades.

By 1989, the Duke couple was living at Ivoloina full time in a small wooden home without electricity or plumbing. Laundry was done in a bucket on the veranda, and a trip to the grocery store required a dugout canoe ferry across the river and a two-mile hike. Katz was on a half-time salary from the Lemur Center, and Welch was just along for the ride. “But you know, it doesn’t cost much to live in Madagascar,” he says with an easy smile that creases his face and raises the ends of his bushy moustache. He’s a nerdier Sam Elliott, with a Mississippi drawl.

“We thought we were going to be living in a tent, so that little house was pretty good,” interjects Katz, who now shares an office with her husband at the Lemur Center, where they’re both on the payroll. “We were all about the lemurs,” she says. “But when you live there and see the amount of lemur habitat destruction going on, you realize that there is no way anyone can do anything to turn that around until local people have alternative agricultural technology and are educated about the environment.”

Their model took years to develop and included patching together a budget with foundation support and building effective partnerships with the Malagasy, who were initially “confused by this whole Western fixation on conservation,” Welch says. “Breeding animals in captivity was only going to make a small dent. We quickly realized that if we wanted to do anything, we were going to have to go way beyond lemurs. About 95 percent of our conservation is working with people.”

The program at Ivoloina branched out into environmental education, teacher training, model agriculture, and tree farming. Sometimes their partners got paid, sometimes they didn’t. The park was restored and reforested, and it thrives today, with 20,000 annual visitors who, just as people do in Durham, come for their first glimpse of lemurs living comfortably in cages. The partnership developed a Saturday-school program for kids living around Ivoloina to help them develop critical skills for their sixth-grade test, as well as expose them to environmental education. A typical pass rate for the sixth-grade national exam was about 5 percent in the rural areas; around Ivoloina, it rose to 80 percent and then past 90. Teacher training sessions and a sixty-eight-page curriculum that was government-approved and easy to photo-copy supported the effort. Patel is using it now in the SAVA project.

In 2004, shortly after helping secure a long-term lease from the government that allows an NGO (non-governmental organization) called the Madagascar Fauna Group to manage Parc Ivoloina, Welch and Katz somewhat reluctantly decided to return to the States for their daughter’s education and to be near their aging parents. “It was a very difficult decision for us to leave,” Welch says. “But it was good for the project to let it stand on its own.” The couple were knighted by the Malagasy government for their contributions, after fifteen years of service.

Reviving the old model

When lemur geneticist Anne Yoder Ph.D. ’92 took over as Lemur Center director in 2006, Katz was the half-time conservation coordinator in Durham, Welch was unemployed, and Duke had hardly any conservation presence on the ground in Madagascar. But Yoder remembered when conservation had been one of the Lemur Center’s core values and the name Duke was recognized throughout Madagascar. Yoder rehired them both and set Welch on a mission of finding a new conservation project the Lemur Center could lead with philanthropic support.

Welch, who also leads Duke Alumni Association tours of Madagascar, spent a couple of years searching the country for a spot with high conservation value and a relatively low level of do-gooder attention before settling on the SAVA region of northeastern Madagascar. “It was a matter of just giving Charlie the chance to get things going again,” Yoder says, as if the outcome had never been in doubt. After all, everywhere “Monsieur Shar-lee” goes in Madagascar, people greet him warmly. A full foot taller than most Malagasy, Welch is pretty easy to spot. His French is a slow drawl, accented with hard R’s that would set any high-school French teacher’s teeth on edge, but he’s never lacking for understanding, vocabulary, or charm.

Home sweet home: Two silky sifaka lemurs. Kevin Schafer

Welch says the appeal of the SAVA region was not only Marojejy’s relatively unspoiled nature and a good road up from Sambava, but Patel, who was already something of a conservation celebrity by the time Welch met him. A Chicago native with an Indian father and a German mother, Patel had formed his own charity, Simpona, to build libraries and support people living around the park, and he had been involved in documentaries exposing some of the illegal trade in prized Malagasy rosewood. “I didn’t want to get into a situation where we’d end up getting kicked out of the country,” Welch says. “But as I got to know him better, I understood he wasn’t an over-the-edge type.”

Welch and Yoder implored Patel to finish his Cornell dissertation—ten years in the making—on the vocalization and scent-marking of the critically endangered silky sifaka so that they could offer him the Lemur Center’s first-ever postdoctoral fellowship and leadership of the newly formed SAVA Conservation Project. Patel had come to Marojejy in 2001 to track and study the park’s signature lemur, the ethereal silky sifaka. An all-white version of Zoboomafoo, the Lemur Center’s celebrity Coquerel’s sifaka, silkies are shy and spectacularly athletic canopy-dwellers, making them hard to spot and earning them the moniker “ghost of the forest.” Working with a patient and encyclopedic local tracker, Désirè, Patel spent years acclimating several troops of animals to human presence, studying diet and ranges, in addition to communication. “The first year was hell,” says Patel. “It was raining the whole time. We walked around for eight weeks and didn’t see anything.” Climbing muddy slopes all day and squatting to eat, he endured his knees throbbing constantly. “It was really hard. We started arguing about everything. We ran out of food.”

Success did come slowly, and he still tries to do field work in Marojejy one week a month during the ten months a year he’s in Madagascar. But now he has his hands full supervising SAVA Conservation, typically trading six to ten e-mail messages a day with Welch when there’s an Internet connection.

Patel’s speech is a patois of French, Malagasy, and a curious Malagasy-accented English he uses only with his long-standing local partners, like Désirè. The well-read tracker, whose age can only be guessed as “sixty, maybe” by Patel and Welch, is a natural teacher who has guided generations of researchers and played major supporting roles in all the news stories about Patel’s research. With his guiding fees and a $10,000 conservation prize from the Seacology Foundation, which he travelled to San Francisco to collect three years ago, Désirè is buying up parcels of semi-forested local land on a little rise in the paddies that harbor a few remaining bamboo lemurs. This tiny but more accessible nature reserve, Antanetiambo, is his gift to the area’s children, few of whom have ever seen a live lemur.

Islands and bridges

As the truck hurtles up the vanilla highway, a man and two cattle in harness climb up to the shoulder. All three are coated in fresh mud from tilling the paddies. This crucial highway with sturdy bridges was modernized with World Bank funding by the same government that knighted Welch and Katz, not long before it was deposed in a coup. Everyone seems to agree that the new president—commonly referred to as “The DJ” for his career before becoming mayor of the capital, Antananarivo—has let things slide. And much of Madagascar’s international aid is being withheld because of how he came to power. Corruption is on the rise, people feel less safe, and infrastructure improvements have stopped. There has never been any real road from Antananarivo to the SAVA region, Welch adds, but that is probably a good thing for the remaining native forests.

A few minutes past the turnout, where one can pose in front of the 7,000-foot Marojejy Massif that gives the park its name, and just across a river where women wash clothes in rocky, knee-deep water, there’s Manantenina, a village that looks like any other cluster of small homes along the road except for a pair of hand-painted signs announcing the national park and listing partners, including the SAVA project.

Manantenina’s spindly two-track road fades after six kilometers, and from there it’s a four-hour hike uphill to the park’s first base camp, a semicircle of bungalows where porters will be waiting with hundreds of pounds of rice they’ve carried up. Most of them live near the entrance in the “village of the guides.” The unofficial patron of the village is Tonkasina Jacques Harson—Jackson—who has worked with Patel for almost a decade. This summer he was also the patron saint of SAVA Conservation’s first pair of DukeEngage students, acting as translator, guide, handyman, and parasite-removing field surgeon. One of several buildings Jackson owns in Manantenina stands facing the local library, a prim little wood building with a wide verandah. This and a second library on the other side of the park were built by Patel’s Simpona charity.

Renewed connections: Lemur geneticist Anne Yoder, left, with DukeEngage students Sophia Staal, Cameron Tripp, and Erik Patel. Karl Leif Bates

Each of the libraries, now operated by SAVA Conservation, holds more than a thousand books in French and English, but what really brings in the customers is news from the capital. “We try to attract them with newspapers,” says Lanto Harivelo Andrianandrasana, a compact and soft-spoken Malagasy who is SAVA Conservation’s project manager and has worked with Patel since 2006. Following the model pioneered by Welch and Katz at Ivoloina, SAVA Conservation is training teachers, deploying the sixty-eight-page environmental education curriculum, and providing English lessons for adults—a key skill for ecotourism. “If people are not aware of the importance of the forest and the lemurs, it’s hard to protect them,” Andrianandrasana says. He has a degree in paleontology and biological anthropology from the University of Antananarivo and grew up in the capital. He has moved his young family north to Sambava for the SAVA Conservation job, and in July 2013, he spent a month in Durham, with support from Duke’s Africa Initiative, to learn about the Lemur Center’s operations.

On a slight rise behind the Manantenina library, a dozen adults and adolescents are manufacturing charbon vert, another SAVA Conservation project designed to ease human pressure on the forest. “Green charcoal” can be made out of just about anything organic, but this batch started as discarded rice hulls and old cardboard. After a week fermenting in a plastic garbage bin filled with water, the brown slurry is formed into cylinders, compressed into puck-like rings and dried. Two of these briquettes provide the heat to cook one cup of rice, Jackson explains, showing off an inventory of clay “rocket stoves” designed specifically to burn the pucks efficiently. Garlands of pucks strung on twine dry on racks above them. The charbon vert consortium goes by an impossibly long Malagasy name that has been reduced to an acronym: MAFIA. Jackson laughs knowingly at the joke.

A few kilometers more toward the park, across a concrete bridge over a clear stream, another yellow sign bears the SAVA Conservation-Duke brand. Down the slope behind some homes, there’s a pépinière—a tree farm. A Belgian charity called Graine de Vie (Seed of Life) is operating ten nurseries like this around Marojejy, with Duke’s SAVA Conservation paying for tools, plastic pots, and labor at three sites. Graine de Vie provides SAVA with supervisor Gerard Poncet, a trim caramel-skinned man with military bearing and crisp French, who proudly shows off 25,000 seedling trees of eight species, including cacao, mandrarofo, a wood for charcoal and furniture, and hintsia, a fast-growing furniture wood. They’re raising proven native species as well as trees that have economic value without being cut, like coffee and cloves. “Giving people wood they can use takes the pressure off the natural forest,” Welch says. In just four years, Graine de Vie has planted 1.25 million trees in Madagascar.

A new source of protein

Wood isn’t the only thing running short after Madagascar’s population doubled in the last two decades. Protein deficiency is a prevalent health issue, and bush-meat hunting poses a significant threat for the few lemurs that remain. Near the southwest boundary of Marojejy Park on land provided by Désirè, SAVA Conservation is operating the first of three fish farms it will be supporting to provide a new source of protein. Using an elegant French verb, they’ve named the effort “repoissonment,” or re-fishifying.

Anytime locals see the fishpond, "they always ask us, 'Can we do that?'"

The first pond is a little less than an acre of water, ringed by a high fence, with a caretaker’s cabin and a palatial coop for domestic ducks that share the pond. The fish, a native species called fony or paratilapia, were selected by Andapa restaurateur and fish-lover Guy Tam Hyock, who has been the driving force behind the project, and is considered one of Madagascar’s leading fish-farming experts. The fish are fed a mix of 80 percent rice hulls, which are easy to come by in Andapa Basin, and 20 percent tiny dried shrimp, which can be pricey. The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has contributed to the project as well. Converting a rice paddy to fish farming would yield higher income, Désirè says, and cooking fish requires less charcoal than cooking beef or chicken. Anytime locals see the fishpond, “they always ask us, ‘Can we do that?’ ” Andrianandrasana says.

In July, the pond was drained to about two feet deep, and DukeEngage students Sophia Staal ’15 and Cameron Tripp ’15 jumped in with a local Peace Corps volunteer and about a dozen others to catch the fish by hand. By the end of a long day, they had counted more than 1,700 fish from the 400 immature fry planted just a few months before. Six hundred sub-adult fony were returned to the pond, and almost 600 adult fish were sold—forty-four kilograms at five dollars per kilogram. Then repoissonment: 500 immature fony were poured into the nearby Matsobe River. Hyock, who is developing the fishing regulations, saw to it that gendarmes in uniform were on hand for the event, an unmistakable signal that there will be some rules about harvesting.

Staal, a member of Duke’s rowing crew who grew up in Kenya, focused her DukeEngage project on the fish farm. That included market research on the roadside stands around Andapa to find out what fish were available—mostly dried specimens from the coast—and figuring out who might be willing to pay for a truly fresh filet. The dried fish smell horrid, she says, but not as bad as a cooler full of bloody lukewarm water and “fresh” fish from the coast.

Tripp, who is an Eagle Scout, spent his summer mapping Désirè’s “petit reserve” Antanetiambo with a GPS logger. “Fourteen-point-two-two hectares,” Désirè declaims, squaring his shoulders and puffing up slightly. A third-generation Duke student and member of the university’s marching band, Tripp also mapped the location and approximate size of stands for three different species of bamboo, which are important for sustaining the four northern bamboo lemurs that live in the tiny island reserve. It also harbors an unknown number of nocturnal mouse lemurs. Near the end of his project, he conducted a house-to-house census, counting people, cows, and chickens surrounding the oasis. In addition to serving as a teaching resource for local school kids, the reserve is a life raft for Madagascar’s native biodiversity, but nobody knows how much range the remaining lemurs need to survive. (Click here to read more about Staal and Tripp's experience.)

There are about a dozen of these little islands of recovery around the big island of Marojejy Park now. Désirè keeps adding parcels of land to Antanetiambo, and SAVA Conservation keeps building new partnerships with visiting scholars from Duke. To reverse Madagascar’s losses, “you start building islands, and then you start connecting islands,” Yoder says. But it will be the people, not the land, that turn the tide. “The outlook for 200 years from now is a lot better,” she says.

Click here to take an interactive trip to Madagascar, and learn more about the country and see more of its beauty.

Bates is director of research communications in Duke’s Office of News and Communications. In August, he accompanied Yoder, Welch, and Patel on a tour of SAVA Conservation activities. The only lemurs they saw were captives. For more on the tour and the SAVA Conservation project, visit and

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