Believing in the next generation
Rio Heriniaina sees education as the key to more sustainable conservation of his native Madagascar’s unique biodiversity.
Growing up in a rural area, his own interests were nurtured by his teacher parents and his grandfather. “My grandfather was a guide in the national park. When we walked in the forest, he talked to me about the names of plants, and how to use them; which ones were useful in medicine, for example. And he told me about the Indri indri, the largest of the Madagascan lemurs.
When I was 12 years old, I saw my first Indri lemur. I remember thinking ‘Wow! – it is like a human, the way it eats and grooms.’That is when I decided to study science; because of that experience.”
Much has changed since Rio was a boy. He has seen forests shrink and the numbers of lemur groups dwindle in the national park. However, he says there are good signs too: “There is an increase in the area of protected land, and in this park there are many new projects. So, I feel positive in terms of the research being done, and I see tourism increasing. But I also see the people who live near the protected areas suffering.”
“There is a gap between conservation and development. I want to help to close this gap.”
“In order to conserve the unique biodiversity in Madagascar, it is important to gain skills and knowledge that can be applied,” he says. “I am passionate about lemurs, but after travelling in different parts of Madagascar, I am convinced that to conserve them, different approaches have to be applied. This is the reason for my interest in education and social sciences especially community-based management.”
“I think we need a better understanding of how young Malagasy people feel about animals. What are their preferences, what are their perceptions and what is their knowledge?” he asks “This will help us to design new strategies for conservation.”
Building skills and experience
Rio had gained two Masters degrees – one in education, and one in forestry, environment and development – before he first encountered the TBA, yet he says it is the TBA which gave him the opportunity to establish a career in conservation. “I was fortunate to be selected to participate in the TBA course in Kibale, Uganda in 2014 and this was one of my very first opportunities to explore the world outside of Madagascar,” he says.
“The TBA course gave me the opportunity to broaden my field skills, running a project on birds, and learning new topics such as the study of pollination. Visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park and seeing the “Big 5” was an amazing experience. After four weeks in Kibale forest, I went back to my country with renewed hope and a vision to make a change, even the slightest, to conserve the biodiversity in Madagascar.
“Through the networking opportunities that I got from the TBA, I became an assistant researcher for PhD candidates from the U.S.A, Japan and the U.K. I have contributed to conservation projects such as Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), collecting data in Madagascar’s Corridor Ankeniheny Zahamena.”
Rio has learned additional skills in fundraising, scientific writing and designing projects by attending TBA specialist courses in Madagascar. “As a result of these training opportunities,” he says, “I have been able to present my research at different events not only nationally (International Prosimian Congress in Ranomafana) but also internationally (Student conference for Conservation Science in Cambridge).”
In 2015, Rio was appointed Coordinator of the Manombo Conservation Project – an area of lowland forest and marshland, much of which has been converted for rice cultivation. Although the focus was on the conservation of the critically endangered Grey-headed lemur (Eulemur cinereiceps), meeting with local communities was a key aspect of his work.
“We held a meeting with the chief of village, the mayor and the local community to discuss the project and to ask their agreement. They were happy that my team worked in the village and in forest.”
With community support, Rio’s team carried out a survey using focus groups to determine what kind of development the communities in Manombo needed. They also did a preliminary survey of lemurs, with support from local people who helped as guides.
“During our study, we found three nocturnal species Lepilemur jamesorum, Avahi ramanantsoavanai and Microcebus jollyae and two diurnal lemurs Varecia variegata editorum and Eulemur cinereiceps,” says Rio.
On a different tack, the project also organised training for 18 women who had previously been given sewing machines but no instruction in how to use them.
Rio went on to win the Alison Jolly Scholarship to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Endangered Species Recovery in Mauritius run by the Durrell Conservation Academy and the University of Kent. “Here, I learnt about conservation techniques being used successfully in Mauritius to conserve and recover threatened species. These included captive breeding, supplementary feeding, and translocations. I also had the opportunity to join field teams of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation to see how they work.” he says.
True to TBA values, Rio is now passing on his skills. He gives classes at university, and on the 2015 TBA field course in Kirindy, he gave a talk about his research in Madagascar, introducing participants to Malagasy culture and language.
Most recently, in 2016, Rio won a Chevening Scholarship – the UK government’s international award scheme aimed at developing global leaders – Master’s degree in Research in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation at the University of Roehampton. “Three years ago I would never have pictured myself living in London undertaking my Masters on primates,” he says.
“The skills that I will gain in the UK will strengthen me not only academically but also personally. I plan to share my skills with Malagasy students through conferences and workshops at the national universities and to create an association of young Malagasy conservationists to focus on conservation and increasing local livelihood activity.
“The TBA has opened my mind and given me the skills to launch my future career in conservation in my home country. It has introduced me to a network of national and international researchers and students. These people are always there to advise me, and exchange ideas. I am so grateful for all they have done to help me achieve what I have so far and I look forward to collaborating with them on more exciting projects in the future.”