Ecotourism Projects

an ecotourism success story

The Anja Community Reserve

During our post-lockdown stay at the Betsileo Country Lodge, I took the opportunity to revisit the nearby park Anja. I wanted to find out if this highly successful and world-renowned ecotourism project had suffered from the pandemic.

What about the largest colonies of ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar living in this nature reserve? How are the guides of the park that we have worked well with for so many years? What about the trails? Have these been maintained? I called Victor, born and bred in the Anja community and a guide to the area for many years.

The Anja Community Reserve is a private reserve on the edge of the Central Highlands of Madagascar. The park is located 12 kilometres southwest of Ambalavao, just off National Route 7.

The area where the reserve is located was previously used for the cultivation of corn, which meant that large parts of the forests were cut down every year. At the initiative of the local Betsileo people, together with the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), the Association Anja Miray was established in 2001.

The association’s main objectives are to protect the local flora and fauna and to improve the living standards of the local population. The latter is achieved through income from the entrance fees for the park as well as job creation as a nature guide.

Thanks to its location, the reserve has a great biodiversity. The subtropical forests reach to the foot of a mountain slope and the terrain is largely strewn with boulders. In the mountain slope there are several caves that are used by owls and bats as a place to roost.

The reserve is known for the hundreds of ring-tailed lemurs that live there and have become so accustomed to visitors that they can be observed up close. The lemurs live in the forests and on the rocks of the mountainside and have a thicker coat than their peers in the drier regions of the island.

Victor took me for an extensive exploration of the park. We checked the lake, which was completely dry due to the current season. We visited two large groups of ring-tailed lemurs, who showed us many newborns, including quite a few twins. We tested the hiking trails and tried the climbing routes over the rocks.

Everything I saw seemed good. Despite the absence of paying visitors, work was still going on here. Victor helped me out of my dreams: “It is true, work is still going on here, we maintain the place, the park itself is doing very well, there is nothing to complain about.”

“But there is also a lot of misery,” Victor continued, “Not only because of the pandemic, but also because of the great drought that accompanies it. The people here suffer.” When I heard that, I decided to let the guide community of this beautiful park also enjoy from the donations from the GoFundMe campaign which we raised a few months ago to support the families of our temporarily unemployed drivers / guides. Help and support is certainly in order here.

an association of 5 villages

Vohimana Reserve

In addition to national parks and nature reserves, which are managed by government agencies, there are other ecological areas in Madagascar that are protected. Some of these are private initiatives, such as the famous Berenty reserve near Tôlanaro, while others are run by NGOs or local rural communities.

Due to the presence of villages, agricultural areas and roads, but also natural boundaries such as cliffs and rivers, protected natural areas are often very fragmentary. In most cases the national government is concerned with the bulk of an ecosystem, and the smaller fragments are outsourced to NGOs or local rural communities.

In the case of an NGO, they usually purchase the area in order to then protect it and create a win-win situation for people and nature. If a local, rural community is interested in protecting an area and thus exploiting it as a tourist destination, they can submit an application to the national government.

After my visit to Mantadia National Park, I visited two of these smaller protected areas, which together with Mantadia and Analamazaotra form the Andasibe rainforest ecosystem. I explored a local community run project called V.O.I.M.M.A Community Reserve and one managed by an NGO called Vohimana Reserve.

Herman, one of our guides in the Andasibe area, and me set of to check out the Vohimana Reserve about 15km further east. After parking our car, a 45-minute walk, partly following a railroad track, brought us to Relais du Naturaliste, a tourist infrastructure that’s perfectly integrated with its surroundings. Here we registered and got us a local guide to lead us through the park.

The Vohimana Forest is a true paradise for visitors who can drink in both the natural riches and serenity of the surroundings. Our guide led us into an amazing virgin forest that’s home to native species and numerous lemurs, including some on the verge of extinction.

Some of the most threatened species are the indri, the biggest of all living lemurs, that you’re almost certain to see. With their loud and raucous, wailing cry and their extraordinary agility that enables them to swing from branch to branch, in spite of their weight, any encounter with these creatures is guaranteed to be unforgettable.

Collectively, Vohimana is an association of 5 villages with around 1,000 inhabitants organized into groups (porters, artisans, guides, and farmers) who arrange a variety of activities for visitors (fishing, farming, palm-weaving and nature observation among others). Here, one can also visit the essential oil distillery, the plant nursery, the organic vegetable garden and the medicinal garden.

The vast range of this project represents not only permanent economic activity for the local people, but above all an alternative to slash-and-burn cultivation.

Local People Love the Forest

V.O.I.M.M.A Community Reserve

In addition to national parks and nature reserves, which are managed by government agencies, there are other ecological areas in Madagascar that are protected. Some of these are private initiatives, such as the famous Berenty reserve near Tôlanaro, while others are run by NGOs or local rural communities.

Due to the presence of villages, agricultural areas and roads, but also natural boundaries such as cliffs and rivers, protected natural areas are often very fragmentary. In most cases the national government is concerned with the bulk of an ecosystem, and the smaller fragments are outsourced to NGOs or local rural communities.

In the case of an NGO, they usually purchase the area in order to then protect it and create a win-win situation for people and nature. If a local, rural community is interested in protecting an area and thus exploiting it as a tourist destination, they can submit an application to the national government.

After my visit to Mantadia National Park, I visited two of these smaller protected areas, which together with Mantadia and Analamazaotra form the Andasibe rainforest ecosystem. I explored a local community run project called V.O.I.M.M.A Community Reserve and one managed by an NGO called Vohimana Reserve.

V.O.I.M.M.A. stands for Vondron’olona miaro mitia ala which in English, translates to Local People Love the Forest. It was founded by the local villagers as an alternative to the government-run national park, serving not only a recreational purpose, but as a means of educating the local people about ecotourism and conservation.

Me and Herman, my guide, set off up a short flight of steps onto a well-designed path made from flat square stones. I asked Herman if we could also see the Indri here. He laughed mysteriously and set off at a brisk pace plunging us off piste through the wet foliage. We quickly spotted an Indri high in a tree.

We also spotted a magnificent green Parsons Chameleon, the biggest in the east of the island. I learned that, whilst the male lives up to 18 years, the female dies after only 5 to 6 years. After she lays one set of eggs in her life (up to 40) which are incubated over 2 years.

We headed towards the river and a bridge where Herman pointed out a sacred tree on the other side, decorated with Malagasy flags and lots of red ribbon wrapped round it. Herman explained that the tree hadn’t been identified yet. Sacrifices are made here of zebu and chicken and the blood is poured into the tree stump as an offering.

Besides the fact that these smaller versions of their well-known ‘mother’ parks are often less visited and you can therefore enjoy its unique flora and fauna without hordes of tourists, with a visit you directly support the local population and the money that you pay for the entrance and the guide doesn’t evaporate by a cumbersome government apparatus. It is therefore worthwhile to inquire whether there are such areas near the well-known parks when drawing up an itinerary.