Madagascar is home to more than 10 000 plant species, 80% of which occur nowhere else in the world. With natural vegetation ranging from rainforest to unique spiny forest, Madagascar’s range of plant diversity makes it one of the world's most important biodiversity hotspots. In common with many other tropical countries, the flora of Madagascar is extremely threatened not only by habitat destruction for agriculture, fuelwood, building materials and so on, but also, in the case of certain species, by over-collection for the horticultural trade.
The CEPF Madagascar Vegetation Mapping Project is a three-year project (2003–2006), funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and managed jointly by The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. The project is innovative in a number of ways. It employs state-of-the art remote sensing technology and methodologies to delimit Madagascar’s vegetation. It represents an all-inclusive collaboration between specialists from a wide range of botanical and conservation institutions, which has ensured the
most thoroughly ground-truthed vegetation map ever compiled for
Madagascar. Finally, through a series of workshops, it incorporates detailed consultations with the conservation community to ensure that the final products are of maximum relevance and utility to conservation planners and managers.
An accurate and updated vegetation map is imperative for conservation planning and natural resource management in Madagascar. It is also essential that the data on which such a map is based be made freely available, so that conservation organisations, government departments, academic institutions and other stakeholders can use them as an up-to-date standard dataset on which to base their activities. The electronic version of this atlas is available on Kew’s website (www.vegmad.org), and local experts were invited to continually improve and update the map. In order for a vegetation map to fulfil its intended role it must
accurately delimit areas with various vegetation types as they currently exist, and assign those areas to objective categories
that can be easily recognised in the field and that reliably reflect fundamental biological differences (primarily structural features, for example, physiognomy).
Madagascar is becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect its
biodiversity. The most immediate use of this vegetation map in conservation is likely to be by protected area managers who wish to understand the flora of their designated areas. It will also provide a valuable baseline for monitoring longer-term changes in vegetation inside and outside protected areas. However, Madagascar also provides an exceptionally high rate of species discovery and description, and this atlas will be used by field biologists attempting to identify potential sampling sites for biodiversity surveys, which will in turn yield data that is critical for biogeographic research and conservation planning.
At the 2003 World Parks Congress, Madagascar’s President Marc
Ravalomanana emphasised his country’s commitment to conservation by announcing its intent to triple the size of its existing protected area network. This admirable effort to prevent the extinction of many of Madagascar’s endemic species has become known as the ‘Durban Vision’. In order to ensure effective preservation of Madagascar’s biodiversity, the identification of sites for these new protected areas should follow a systematic process. A recent workshop on systematic conservation planning (November 2005, Antananarivo) highlighted the importance of using habitat types and indicators of habitat quality in addition to species distribution data when conducting conservation prioritisation analyses, concluding that this is the best way to produce robust conservation solutions. Because only a small proportion of Madagascar’s species have had their distributions documented, the vegetation types identified by this mapping project are good surrogates for habitat diversity and for the majority of the biota, which is so little known. In addition, conservation practitioners, including NGOs and donors, need information on trends in natural vegetation cover and quality in order to assess the outcomes of their conservation work. The Convention on Biological Diversity includes trends in the extent of habitats among its headline indicators for tracking progress towards the 2010 target (SBSTTA, 2004). The immediate focus of the Durban Vision group will be on establishing new protected areas (map 1) in remaining native vegetation, although subsequent attention could productively turn to managing that vegetation, and the habitat quality categories in the atlas provide valuable information. The atlas also provides important up-to-date information on native vegetation cover and quality, which maximises its potential to aid planning for future habitat restoration activities.