What's the best way to protect threatened animals?

It's not an easy question to answer for conservationists, and the answer can vary depending on the country that you're talking about. Typically it involves setting aside reserves for animals and keeping people away. Madagascar, home to a number of threatened species, a burgeoning human population and limited space, is a microcosm of issues felt planet-wide, so it serves as a laboratory of sorts for figuring out what works and what doesn't.

Madagascar is separate from the African continent it's adjacent to, and many of the 270,000 species there are unique to the large island. Human beings have lived on the island only for about the last 2,000 years, meaning that animals and plants had the chance to evolve there without human influence. (Scientists estimate that the landmass was isolated for 88 million years before people showed up.)

Well-known animals still populate Madagascar, including many species of lemur (all now threatened or endangered), the cat-like fossa, the nocturnal primate aye-aye, and aquatic fenrecs. There's also a large variety of chameleons, snakes, frogs and geckos (plus insects and plants), all of which are threatened by human destruction of their habitats. In the relatively short time that humans have lived on the island, they have had a dramatic impact, with plenty of animals wiped out due to habitat loss. (The slash-and-burn method of clearing the land for agriculture has led to permanent loss of forest.)

How can we save what's left?

One answer is reserves and parks, of which there are currently 22 in Madagascar, many of which are concentrated in the east side of the country, encompassing rain forests. In these untouched parts of the island, hundreds of threatened species of animals live, but even with official areas set aside for their protection, human encroachment (much of it illegal) puts continued pressure on them. Desperate people want to feed themselves or make enough money to lift themselves from poverty, pitting human needs against animals, and so the protected areas must be defended by guards, leading to conflict and feelings of frustration by the local people towards the reserves.

Endemic Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) in a dry tropical forest. MadagascarThe fossa, a relative of the mongoose, is a cat-like carnivore unique to Madagascar. (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock)

Ideally, the local people would want to protect the animals, but the current conservation reserves don't encourage that. A solution may be working with the local belief systems: Researchers on the island nation have found that supporting traditional taboos, called fady in the Malagasy language, are a very effective way to protect animals. Fady taboos govern all parts of life, from rules about ancestors' graves, to certain actions that pregnant women shouldn't take, to specific practices unique to a village or even a family.

There are quite a few fady that also have to do with the endangered animals that you see on this page.

In a 2008 study, a team from Bangor University in the United Kingdom found local prohibitions about entering certain areas, or hunting of certain wild species, or specific behavior that was allowed when doing so. "Strict taboos offered real protection to threatened species, such as the lemur Propithecus edwardsi and the carnivore Cryptoprocta ferox [Fossa], " wrote Julia Jones, lead author of the study. "Taboos also reduced pressure on some economically important endemic species by preventing their sale or limiting the harvest season," wrote Jones.

A striped Malagasy tenrec.The unusually adorable tenrec is one of Madagascar's more famous endemic species. (Photo: reptiles4all/Shutterstock)

In fact, the study's authors think that ignoring local fady and instead relying on outside rules about the parks could be doing more harm than good: "Unfortunately, the social norms concerning methods of harvesting pandans appeared to be breaking down in villages surrounding Ranomafana National Park, and we suggest that the imposition of external conservation rules is weakening traditional management," writes Jones.

Proving this point, in other parts of Madagascar, there aren't formal reserves and areas are still being preserved by the local people. In the dry forests in the southern part of the country (also considered important for conservation), fady are the only thing keeping those areas undeveloped. As a team from McGill University in Canada writes of their research in that area: "...in southern Androy >90% of the total remaining forest cover is protected through taboos, these informal institutions represent an important, and presently the only, mechanism for conservation of the highly endemic forest species."

Local ways of doing conservation, which rely on social pressures from within the community (rather than punishment from outside) may not be the only solution to protecting animals — the national parks have higher species diversity than the less protected areas, so they are effective on that level. But utilizing existing local mores like fady is, at least, part of the conservation puzzle, and one that's being ignored or underutilized at present. "Informal institutions should receive greater attention from conservation biologists so that local people's conservation roles can be acknowledged fairly and so that potential synergies with conservation objectives can be realized," writes Jones in the conclusion of the Bangor study. Maybe it's not either/or, but both/and in cases where people and endangered species are close neighbors in Madagascar — and elsewhere too.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.