Q&A: Dr.Sylviane Volampeno & Victoria Gehrke!
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
Welcome to the first ' Q&A with A Conservationist'!
For our first peek into the work of a conservationist, we are heading to the forests of North-western Madagascar and joining the journey of two collaborators whose life goals are to save one of the most unique (and endangered) primate of all, lemurs. We will be delving into their conservation journey's and discover what sparked their enthusiasm to conserve Malagasy wildlife and lemurs. Most importantly we explore why Dr. Sylviane and Victoria think lemur's play a vital role in Madagascar's ecosystem and how they hope to conserve them. Firstly, we spoke with Dr. Sylviane Volampeno, founder of Malagasy NGO Mikajy Natiora.
Dr. Sylviane founded the small Malagasy NGO, Mikajy Natiora which works towards sustainable community development, environmental education and conservation research within the often overlooked Sofia Region of North-western Madagascar, home to one the the IUCN's Top 25 Most Endangered Primates 2012-2014, the Blue-Eyed Black Lemur (Eurlemur flavifrons).
Dr. Sylviane Volampeno
Q: How did you get into studying primates?
A: When I finished my high school studies in Antsirabe, Madagascar, I went to the University Antananarivo and studied Natural Sciences at the Sciences Faculty. In the third year, students got to choose a department at the Sciences Faculty, and I chose the Department of Animal Biology. For my master’s field study, each student had to choose their own research topic and I decided to conduct my masters final project on the Blue-Eyed-Black Lemur (Eulemur flavifrons).
FUN FACT: Other than humans, the Blue-Eyed Black Lemur is the only other primate to have naturally blue eyes!
Photo Credit: Victoria Gehkre
Q: What made you want to study primates?
A: During a field trip in Andasibe National Park, we carried out nocturnal surveys on lemurs to observe their behaviour and followed lectures on the life history of lemurs. From that moment I fell in love with lemurs and decided to pursue my academic career on lemurs.
Q: Tell me a bit about your PhD.
A: My PhD focused on the blue-eyed-black lemurs, specifically looking into their ecology. This species of lemur is one of the least studied diurnal (day time) lemurs at the time, and sadly still is. Their habitat is restricted to the north western part of Madagascar and the Sahamalaza-lles Radama National Park, a peninsula in the Sofia Region, is its unique protected habitat and where I conducted my entire PhD. I enrolled as a PhD student at a South African University, KwaZulu-Natal University in Pietermaritzburg campus and conducted my study on Blue-eyed-black lemurs between 2007-2009.
FUN FACT: Blue-eyed Black Lemur (Eulemur flavifrons) are sexually dimorphic, meaning they differ in their appearances with males being jet black and females being a reddish-brown to blonde colour.
Photo Credit: Victoria Gehrke.
Q: Why did you study lemurs?
A: Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar, which means they cannot be found naturally anywhere else in the world. These animals make the country unique.
Q: Why do you think lemurs are so key to study and conserve?
A: Lemurs are key to study and conserve as they play a key role in our ecosystem. As forest dwellers, lemurs are well known to be important seed dispersers. As seed dispersers, lemurs contribute to the forest regeneration. Without lemur we would not have the Madagascan forests which serves shelter to animals, prevents soil erosion and mitigates climate change. Lemurs also provide benefits to local communities. The local communities surrounding the forests are depending on lemurs through eco-tourism.
Q: What have you achieved with your PhD and what do you hope to do in the future?
A: With my PhD I was able to establish a non-profit conservation association aiming to protect then endemic biodiversity of Madagascar including lemurs. I created the Mikajy Natiora Association in 2013. The study site of Mikajy Natiora is in the north-western part of Madagascar within the region of Sofia. The slogan of Mikajy Natiora is Za Tompon’ny Amaray, meaning the Future belongs to me. It means that we care about our future. Despite the high level of Madagascar biodiversity’s richness, the country is facing environmental problems such as deforestation for forest exploitation, illegal mining and biodiversity hunting. Therefore, we are implementing several projects in order to reduce the local dependence of the natural resources as well as to protect the threatened biodiversity. The projects included implementation of community alternative livelihoods, biodiversity survey, community outreach, environmental education, capacity building and reforestation.
Mikajy Natiora organised games at a local school for environmental education.
Photo Credit: Mikajy Natiora
Victoria joined Sylviane and Mikajy Natiora in 2019 and has since been assisting Sylviane with Mikajy Natiora's conservation goals since.
Q: What was your starting point in conservation?
A: I actually started in ecology and believing that the habitat is as important as the wildlife, I wanted to understand the whole- hence ecology. And conservation naturally goes hand in hand with ecology. I started my studies as a humble field biologist, and my first research trip abroad was to Madagascar. So, Madagascar has a special place in my heart, and it has only been the last few years of working on other countries and completing my master’s that I realised lemurs have really captures my heart and thus brings me back!
Q: What is your role within Mikajy Natiora?
A: Everyone who works within the NGO are all local (except for me now) and they all just get on with conserving the area! They rarely take pictures and only have a small online presence. Online presence for an NGO is so important, it gets people around the world involved in the projects and is essential for such things as funding and donations. So, I am currently working remotely on building their website, helping with social media content, aiding grant applications and building conservation collaborations.
Mikajy Natiora's key goals for the organisation.
Q: What drew you to Mikajy Natiora?
A: I first went to Madagascar for my masters and fell in love with lemurs. But MN is so unique to me because its run by local, passion conservationists, and although they are only small at the minute, they ooze passion and hard work. They also don’t just focus on one species. The lemur species in the area are the flagship species, but they are not the only species Mikajy Natiora is aiming to conserve. This organisation is more of a ecology and landscape conservation rather than just focusing on specific species. This is a brilliant way to ensure the whole system works for ecosystem services as there are people who live alongside the wildlife.
Mikajy Natiora is managed by the local community where they pour their passion and soul into the work they achieve.
Photo Credit: Mikajy Natiora
Q: What is your role in the research side of Mikajy Natiora?
A: At the minute I am currently analysing data I collected from the site. I am looking into biological corridors for lemurs and wildlife, like, for example what environmental triggers, or cues are in the study area for the animals to utilise certain areas as corridors in order to help reforestation. But most importantly I’m looking at forest connectivity as the national park is so fragmented and patchy due to small-scale farming deforestation.
The Beautiful landscapes Dr. Sylviane, Victoria and the team are lucky enough to preserve.
Photo Credit: Victoria Gehrke