How illegal mining is threatening imperiled lemurs

A rush for Madagascar’s gemstones is exacerbating destruction of critical wildlife habitat.

Photograph by Adriane Ohanesian, National Geographic
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A sacred tree is the last one standing in an area of forest in Madagascar that's officially protected but has been cleared illegally for sapphire mining. The rainforest provides important habitat for lemurs and other species.
Photograph by Adriane Ohanesian, National Geographic

How illegal mining is threatening imperiled lemurs

A rush for Madagascar’s gemstones is exacerbating destruction of critical wildlife habitat.

Indris, at two feet tall the largest of Madagascar’s lemurs, are big sleepers. The primates awaken two or three hours after sunrise, forage for leaves high in the canopy during the day (amid frequent naps), and choose their spot for the night well before dark.

On our trek into the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor, a protected area known by its French acronym, CAZ, photographer Adriane Ohanesian, translator-guide Safidy Andrianantenaina, and I often heard their calls. The sound, a bit like someone blowing a trombone for the first time, can carry up to a mile through the dense forest.

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Laurence Asma, 41, stands with her pet common brown lemur outside a miner's home at the main gem site in the CAZ, known as Tananarive.

We were hiking deep into the CAZ, a 1,470-square-mile stretch of rainforest joining two national parks that enables lemurs and other animals to mingle their populations, maintaining the genetic diversity that’s essential to their survival. Our goal was to witness firsthand the effects of illegal gem mining on some of the last remaining habitat for wild lemurs.

Our immediate destination, though, was the makeshift village of Ambodipaiso, a staging place for illegal sapphire mines that have turned parts of the CAZ into scarred, treeless wastes. Sapphires were discovered here seven years ago, and by 2016, tens of thousands of Madagascans had flooded in, illegally uprooting trees and diverting streams in hopes of finding gemstones to help lift them out of poverty. (Madagascar ranks 161 in the world in human development, according to the United Nations Development Programme, and 70 percent of its people live in poverty.)

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Men carry a sieve, used to wash away dirt and reveal gold and gems, through the makeshift village of Ambodipaiso, a few miles from Tananarive.

A hundred million dollars’ worth of sapphires and other gems were smuggled out of Madagascar in 1999 alone, according to the World Bank. (This remains the most reliable study; recent estimates suggest the value today is about $150 million a year.) Most of the gem mining is done illegally in reserves, says Christoph Schwitzer, co-vice chair of the Madagascar primate specialist group with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the organization that sets the conservation status of animals and plants. The CAZ and other reserves, he says, “don’t receive anywhere near adequate protection on the ground.”

Madagascar has the third-highest rate of biodiversity on Earth, after Brazil and Indonesia. Eight of every 10 of its plants and animals are endemic. It has 300 species of reptiles and 300 of amphibians, 99 percent of them found nowhere else. Chameleons: 62 species. And along with the nearby Comoro Islands, Madagascar is the only place on the planet that’s home to wild lemurs—fully 113 species, the newest identified just last year.

The charismatic animals are a magnet for roughly 250,000 visitors a year who directly account for more than 6 percent of the country’s GDP and 5 percent of its jobs. Yet nearly all the lemur species are endangered—38, including indris, critically—and 17 have already gone extinct. Now conservationists and primatologists are gravely concerned about the effects of gem mining on remaining lemur habitat, as much as 90 percent of which has been lost to tree clearing and human incursion for logging, farming, and mining.

“Gems mining can be a significant driver of habitat loss,” Schwitzer says. “It can break a protected area relatively quickly.”

“People don’t care if it’s a strict protected area,” Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Schwitzer’s co-vice chair with the IUCN’s Madagascar primate specialist group, told me before I arrived in the country. “They just go—and massively—to extract stones, and nobody can stop them. It’s linked with corruption and poverty, and the laws are not really enforced. Without forest,” he added, “the lemurs cannot survive. There is no long term.”

Government protections for Madagascar’s forests date to the 1700s, when King Andrianampoinimerina outlawed cutting live trees for firewood. But beginning in the late 1800s, French colonists began intensive logging to make way for export crops. Within several decades, some 75 percent of the country’s old-growth forest had been razed. In 1927, the French banned lemur hunting and created the first nature reserve in the African region, but by 1990, 30 years after Madagascar’s independence, half the remaining forests had gone.

In 2003 then President Marc Ravolamanana began a dramatic expansion of protected areas, quadrupling their acreage by 2016. Nevertheless, the eastern rainforest that encompasses the CAZ, with its indris and many other lemur species, kept contracting. From its original prehuman 27 million acres, it had shrunk to less than 10 million acres by 1985. Since then, according to research by Lucienne Wilmé, national coordinator for Madagascar at the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, deforestation in some parts has been accelerating.

FOREST LOSS

Madagascar is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. But its more than 100 species of lemurs, along with countless other endemic animals and plants, are threatened by forest clearing for gem mining, logging, and farming. In some protected areas, illegal mines are squeezing lemurs into ever shrinking rainforest patches.

Indri

(Indri indri)

TROUBLE FOR LEMURS

Already some 90 percent of lemur habitat in Madagascar has been lost. Lemurs need contiguous forest for their populations to mingle, crucial for genetic robustness and long-term survival. Fragmentation of the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ), which connects surrounding parks and protected areas, by unlawful sapphire mining puts indris and other species at risk.

AFRICA

MADAGASCAR

Tree cover loss,

2000-17

Tree cover

100 mi

100 km

Area Enlarged Below

Ambatondrazaka

Andasibe

Antananarivo

Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ)

Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station

INDIAN

OCEAN

Ambatondrazaka

(trading hub for gems from the CAZ)

Ankeniheny- Zahamena Corridor

Tananarive mine

Ambodipaiso

Bemainty

CLARE TRAINOR, TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, NG STAFF

SOURCES: PROTECTED PLANET; GLOBAL FOREST WATCH;

HANSEN/UMD/GOOGLE/USGS/NASA

FOREST LOSS

Antsiranana

Madagascar is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. But its more than 100 species of lemurs, along with countless other endemic animals and plants, are threatened by forest clearing for gem mining, logging, and farming. In some protected areas, illegal mines are squeezing lemurs into ever shrinking rainforest patches.

AFRICA

Tree cover loss,

2000-17

Tree cover

MADAGASCAR

100 mi

100 km

Mahajanga

INDIAN

OCEAN

Area Enlarged

Ambatondrazaka

Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ)

Moramanga

Antananarivo

Andasibe

Lakato

Mozambique Channel

Indri

(Indri indri)

Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station

Ambatondrazaka

(trading hub for gems from the CAZ)

Ankeniheny- Zahamena Corridor

TROUBLE FOR LEMURS

Ambolotara

Already some 90 percent of lemur habitat in Madagascar has been lost. Lemurs need contiguous forest for their populations to mingle, crucial for genetic robustness and long-term survival. Fragmentation of the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ), which connects surrounding parks and protected areas, by unlawful sapphire mining puts indris and other species at risk.

Tananarive mine

Ambodipaiso

Ilakaka

Bemainty

Toliara

CLARE TRAINOR, TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, NG STAFF

SOURCES: PROTECTED PLANET; GLOBAL FOREST WATCH;

HANSEN/UMD/GOOGLE/USGS/NASA

In 2012, Madagascar’s government, acknowledging that it didn’t have either the money or the manpower for effective environmental protection, engaged Conservation International, a Virginia-based environmental nonprofit, to manage the CAZ. Although clearing of old-growth trees for agriculture, logging, and mining has been banned since 2015, half of one percent of Madagascar’s vestigial protected forests are disappearing every year, according to Eric Rabenasolo, director general of forests for Madagascar’s Ministry of the Environment, Ecology, and Forests.

Exactly how much clearing is for gemstone mining isn’t knowable because it occurs almost entirely under the blanket of the “informal economy”—jobs and activities not regulated by government. Gem deposits are shallow and easily uncovered, making identifiable industrial-scale operations unnecessary.

Local people switch opportunistically among mining, farming, and other kinds of work, so it’s impossible to ascertain how many people are involved in illegal mining. One estimate, published a decade ago in The Journal of Modern African Studies, by Rosaleen Duffy, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, put the figure at as many as half a million. That would make illicit gemstones Madagascar’s second largest employer after agriculture.

AMBODIPAISO

It was shortly before dusk when we arrived in Ambodipaiso. Although the village is far from any public water supply, power line, or cell phone tower, hundreds live here, providing goods and services for area miners, portering gear, and themselves digging for gemstones.

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A common brown lemur named Bridola (left) and a black-and-white ruffed lemur, Roki, are kept as pets and tied up in the back of a shop and restaurant near the village of Ambodipaiso.

That night Andrianantenaina and I bunked in a tiny shelter made of sticks, and Ohanesian slept in a tent. Before dawn I was roused by crowing roosters, banging pots, and a crying baby. I wondered if these sounds bothered the snoozing indris. When the darkness lifted, I emerged to see a woman feeding two lemurs a banana.

Méline said she bought them from a hunter who had killed their mother for meat. She’d named one, a common brown lemur, Bridola, and the other, a black-and-white-ruffed lemur, Roki. The IUCN lists brown lemurs as “near threatened.” Black-and-white ruffed lemurs are “critically endangered.”

Méline runs a shop with her husband, selling everything from rice and garlic to ramen and amoxicillin. “I have maybe four customers a day,” she said. “We don’t make any profit.”

In the forest, her lemurs would be eating young leaves, flowers, fruit, and insects, but Méline feeds them mostly bananas and rice. I noticed that the fur on their tails was sparse, indicating a dietary deficiency, according to Patricia Wright, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, in New York State, and executive director of the university’s Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments. That bad diet would cause their premature death, Wright said.

Pull Quote
Without forest, the lemurs cannot survive. There is no long term.  
Jonah Ratsimbazafy, IUCN

Deforestation from mining, said Wright, is “a cascading problem” for lemurs, because “if they’re in a small fragment of forest, they’re not going to have enough to eat.” A family group of two to five indris needs about 20 acres of forest, and groups of other lemur species need up to a hundred acres to survive. For lemur populations to remain stable, the forest must be contiguous—lemurs are largely arboreal and won’t cross broad stretches of open ground to connect with other groups to find mates. They rely on various trees for food, and removing just one tree species can cause other trees and vegetation in the area to die off.

As more trees are cleared, lemur groups come into contact with one another, sparking fights for resources—another ledge in Wright’s cascade. And, she said, mine clearings make lemurs even more vulnerable because people don’t have to go so far into the forest to hunt them.

One man I spoke to in Ambodipaiso, Banjindray Elys D’Antoine, said he used to eat lemur when he worked in mines south of the CAZ. The meat is tough, he said, and must be boiled for a long time, then fried. I asked him how it tastes. “Like a cat,” he replied.

From Ambodipaiso, Ohanesian, Andrianantenaina, and I—accompanied by two off-duty police officers hired for security—set off on the seven-mile trek to the largest gem mining area in the CAZ. Local people jokingly call the site Tananarive, the French name for Madagascar’s capital, Antanarivo.

Within half an hour we heard the now familiar whoop of indris. Orchids grew in profusion beneath the thick canopy of trees, some as tall as a hundred feet, and on the path, we saw giant millipedes and a worm as long as my arm.

Four miles on, we came to Bemainty, where some 80 people live with no running water, electricity, sanitation, health care, or communications. Village leader Randriamatody (who like many Madagascans uses one name) told us about the night in 2016 when criminals attacked the village, stealing money that had been collected as fees from passing miners and killing Bemainty’s previous headman.

“Nothing like this happened here before the mine,” said a woman named Farah, who told us she’d been injured in the attack. Mining in the area, she said, brought the village “no advantage. All I got was this scar on my forehead.”

TANANARIVE

After two more hours on the trail, we came down a hill, and Tananarive opened up before us—a wasteland of mud, small shacks, and holes in the ground. Evidently, most of the sapphires here had already been extracted. Many miners, we were told, had returned home or gone to Ilakaka, a mine site some 400 miles to the southwest near Isalo National Park; others had gone to a new mine in the CAZ about 80 miles away near the village of Lakato. But some artisanal mining was still under way at Tananarive.

Illegal gemstone mining threatens endangered lemurs in Madagascar

Men, some wearing rice bags to protect them from splashing mud, work in a chain to dig a mine where they hope to find sapphires.

After a patch of trees is cleared, a log is laid across a nearby stream to divert it toward the target area. Water washes away the top layer of dirt, and a team of four or five miners gets to work digging. It can take several weeks to excavate a pit perhaps 30 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. When the hole is about three feet deep, groundwater rushes in and is suctioned out with a mechanical pump. The excavated soil is washed through a sieve, which traps small stones that are examined for gems.

We met three young men, Mbola, 30, Soasite, 25, and Zanry, 20, who were noisily engaged in this final task. Soasite shoveled dirt from a pile onto a screen atop a wooden supporting structure. A hose attached to a pump in the diverted stream spewed water onto the dirt. The other two then shoveled the mud back up to the hose to be washed through the screen again. Mbola and Zanry wore empty rice bags with cut-out armholes to protect their clothes from the splashes. Mud covered their faces. The trio laughed constantly, and Andrianantenaina explained that they were having fun at the foreigners’ expense. During the half hour or so that we watched them work, they found no sapphires.

Pull Quote
Almost none of the thousands-of-dollars-a-carat value of sapphires goes to the miners.

On the slope above, a woman called out to us. It was Laurence Asma, wearing leggings under a denim skirt, flip-flops with a U.S. flag motif, and a long-sleeved t-shirt that read “precious lovey dovey” in sequins. Her pet common brown lemur, Ani, crouched on her shoulder.

Asma said she’d moved here two years ago from Toliara, a city in the southwest. She said she runs several small mines at Tananarive that employ 20 men, down from the hundred miners who worked for her in 2016, at the peak of the sapphire rush.

“Too much stones here before,” she said. “Now, little.” Nevertheless, she said she intended to stay in Tanarive a bit longer. “I wait. I wait for Allah. Sometimes he bring me big stone, and I take to my village.” Her biggest find so far had been a sapphire that earned $3,500, a fortune in a country where the per capita income in 2016 barely nudged above a dollar a day. She split the proceeds evenly among the team of four or five who found it.

Asma said she has a Sri Lankan backer in Antananarivo who sends money over the Orange mobile money network to buy rice for her employees and fuel for her three pumps. Every few weeks she travels to the capital to sell him the gemstones her team has found. The Sri Lankans, she said, “sell to Thai people, Dubai people.” Somebody, she added, gets a good price, but, no, she doesn’t, she said with a laugh.

Sri Lanka has been a source of sapphires for 1,500 years, and Sri Lankans, who have developed unrivaled expertise in grading, cutting, polishing, and trading the gems, dominate the trade in Madagascar. Murshid Mohammed, 29, is a dealer in Ambatondrazaka, the nearest substantial city to the CAZ and the main trading center for sapphires mined there. He says a high-quality blue sapphire of 25 carats from Tananarive costs him 300,000 Madagascar ariary—about $90.

A few months ago I saw a five-carat sapphire, cut and polished but not heat treated, listed online by a Florida jeweler for $19,600. Because of the way the international gem market works, almost none of the thousands-of-dollars-a-carat retail value of sapphires goes to the miners of Tananarive, and very little to local mine bosses like Asma.

Meager though her take is, Asma considers herself lucky to be running a relatively successful operation. “Too many people no eat three times” a day, she said. “You have no stone, no job.” She blames the government for failing to attend to the needs of Madagascans. “My president no good,” she said, referring to Madagascar’s leader at the time, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who was voted out of office last November.

“I WAS ANGRY”

Given both the seriousness of the threats to wildlife in Madagascar’s protected areas and the government’s lack of capacity for robust enforcement, grassroots groups have stepped into the breach. Elected members of volunteer community-based forestry organizations known as VOIs are now managing protected areas under the aegis of Conservation International and other environmental nonprofits.

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Police in the town of Andasibe plan a raid on a nearby village to arrest men suspected of lemur poaching. By the time they could borrow a motorcycle to reach the village—far up an unpaved track—the suspects had fled.

After saying goodbye to Asma, we hiked back to the village where we’d left our car and drove to Moramanga, 70 miles to the southwest. We wanted to talk to Jean Yves Ratovoson, a VOI vice president accused of killing 10 critically endangered lemurs—nine indris and one diademed sifaka—in the CAZ. Police arrested Ratovoson, 51, early last year at a hunting camp near Andasibe, and he was in prison in Moramanga awaiting trial. If convicted, he faces four years in prison.

Ratovoson and I talked in the prison warden’s office. This was his first arrest, he said. He was a farmer, and he and his wife, a schoolteacher, have nine children.

He said he went on the hunt because he was angry. He had stood for election to the post of vice president of the Firaisankina VOI “to improve my community,” he said. But during patrols of the portion of the CAZ under the VOI’s stewardship, Ratovoson discovered that large-scale illegal logging was occurring, and he couldn’t get anyone to do anything about it. “Five trucks a day were coming out loaded with wood,” he said. “Pretty much the whole [area] was cut.”

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Charged with lemur poaching, Jean Yves Ratosovon is held in the prison in Moramonga, awaiting trial.

He said he reported the logging to Conservation International’s director of the CAZ, Hantanirina Ravololonanahary. “They came to the forest to see but did nothing,” Ratovoson said. He paused, then said, “Why are people cutting trees not sent to jail like me? The law is the same.”

So when an acquaintance approached Ratovoson proposing that he join a lemur hunt in the CAZ, he said he figured, why not? “I thought, if they can [cut trees], then I will not have any problem. I knew hunting lemurs is bad, but I was angry about this situation.”

A letter Conservation InternationaI’s Ravololonanahary sent to Joanita Ndahimananjara, Madagascar’s environment minister at the time, describing action the organization took following the arrest makes no mention of the illegal logging report Ratovoson said he’d sent Ravololonanahary before the alleged lemur hunt.

Conservation International told me that Ravololonanahary wasn’t available for an interview and instead referred me to Tokihenintsoa Andrianjohaninarivo, the organization’s regional biodiversity scientist in Toamasina, a city on the east coast. I phoned and asked what happens when a report of tree cutting comes to Conservation International from VOI officials.

“We report to local authorities and organize a patrol to see the facts,” she replied. Then I asked about Ratovoson’s allegation that Conservation InternationaI’s director of the CAZ knew about his report of tree cutting and failed to act.

There was a long pause.

“Conservation International is the manager of the protected area but has not the ability to put people in jail,” Andrianjohaninarivo said. “All we have the right to do is talk to the forest service, and then they have to react. We have reported to authorities every infraction, but most of the time they’re not able to respond for lack of budget, or their people are somewhere else. If we don’t have the support of the authorities, we can’t do anything.”

When pressed, spokesperson Jenny Parker McCloskey later acknowledged that Conservation International had received a report of logging from members of the VOI with which Ratovoson was involved but that Ratovoson was not among those who made the report. She said Ravololonanahary referred the matter to officials in the forest service, who did not respond to repeated requests to verify that they had in fact received Conservation InternationaI’s report.

Andrianjohaninarivo’s explanation seems plausible. Police who arrested Ratovoson hoped to go after his accomplices, who’d fled during the raid, but the police chief, Yvan Randriamiarana, told me they lacked the necessary resources. The village where the suspects lived was some way up a dirt path, and they had no means of getting there, he said. “We don’t have a car or motorcycle. We have 10 gendarmes in Andasibe, and we should have at least 15 because the area is vast and the population is high.”

Given that the alleged lemur crime was by a VOI leader, says Steig Johnson, professor of anthropology at the University of Calgary and co-vice chair of the IUCN’s Madagascar primate specialist group, this incident “is particularly demoralizing. There’s a fundamental lack of adequate training and engagement with some of these communities. Nobody wins just if someone is prosecuted for the crime—we need to get at the root cause of this kind of wildlife crime in these communities.”

I asked a VOI volunteer, Abraham Rajotonirina, how the CAZ can be protected if its protectors themselves are hunting lemurs? It was Rajotonirina who, during one of the regular patrols he conducts looking for signs of illegal activity, had come across Ratovoson’s hunting camp. He reported it to a VOI vice president, Toto Jean Etienne, leading to Ratovoson’s arrest.

“Maybe someone needs to pay us to protect the forest,” he replied. “We’re working for free, but we do that because we love the forest. We need a better road so tourists can come and love the forest also.” With money, he said, the community would be able to pay “people to go out as scouts.” (A similar program in Tanzania, called TACARE, is showing results, bolstering local communities while conserving vital chimp habitat.)

“FAKE NEWS”

After returning to the United States, I spoke with Vincent Pardieu, a gemologist who in 2016 brought the Tananarive sapphire rush to the industry’s attention with a presentation at the Gemological Institute of America, in Carlsbad, California. The institute identifies and evaluates stones and trains gemologists. Since 2012, Pardieu has been following gem rushes in Madagascar.

Though he acknowledges that illegal mining poses some environmental threat, “fake news” was how he characterized reports emphasizing sapphire mining’s ill effects.

“I could hear lemurs every morning—that’s proof lemurs are still alive,” he said, referring to a trip he took to Tananarive in 2017. “If lemurs are being attacked by miners, I don’t think you’ll hear them.” He insisted that despite news reports of deforestation around the site, “miners are not destroying the forest. They’re too busy mining—why would they go chop the forest? Again, a very good example of fake news.”

Pull Quote
People in Madagascar are really suffering, and mining is a huge part of their livelihood.
Michelle Rahm, gem business owner

Clearing trees is an essential step in creating a gem mine. Every group of miners at Tananarive cooks over a wood fire at least once a day, and everything from the miners’ shacks to the devices they use to sift dirt is made of wood from the forest. Pardieu, however, asserted that the area around Tananarive had been cleared for farming before the miners arrived.

Analysis of data from Global Forest Watch for National Geographic by Richard Barad of World Resources Institute showed a dramatic increase in deforestation in the area beginning in 2016, the year sapphires were found at Tananarive. Annual tree loss in the decade before in 2016 averaged less than 58 acres a year for this area, which in addition to Tananarive includes the Ambodipaiso mining site and a handful of smaller mines carved out after the Tananarive discovery. In 2016, tree loss rose to 205 acres; it spiked at 462 acres in 2017 before falling back to 153 acres last year, according to Global Forest Watch data. This increase occurred after the time Pardieu says deforestation for farming occurred.

Two other areas in and bordering the CAZ, near the villages of Didy and Ambodivoangy, that experienced gem rushes in 2012 and 2015 also saw significant tree loss immediately following the discovery of gems, Global Forest Watch data and satellite imagery show.

Xiaojun Yang, professor of geography at Florida State University, whose research interests are remote sensing and land change science, and his graduate student Michael Keys, whose work focuses on African forest land, also examined satellite imagery of mines in the Tananarive-Ambodipaiso area from earth-imagery company Planet, Google Earth Pro, and the Global Land Cover dataset.

At the Ambodipaiso mining site, where sapphires were discovered in 2012, they concluded that from 2014 to mid-2017, the major cause of land clearing was for mining, though some clearing for farming preceded it in at least part of the area.

"There is human clearing of forest land along...site 4 [Ambodipaiso]. It likely preceded mining activities but picked up even more once mining started,” Keys said in an email. The images, Yang added, show “intensifying large-scale mining sites.”

For the Tananarive mining site, high-resolution images covering the period after sapphires were discovered were not available, but Yang noted that the pattern of deforestation “looks very similar to” the pattern of deforestation at Ambodipaiso, which he concluded did have tree-clearing mainly for the purpose of mining. Yang said that in instances where high-resolution imagery isn’t available, the best way to determine land use is by combining lower-resolution imagery with field work and other research and data. Global Forest Watch data shows a jump in tree loss around the time the mining rush at Tananraive began, and National Geographic spoke to people living at the mining site who said they cut trees to reroute streams and for mining activities.

Pardieu also emphasized that gemstone mining gives people in rural regions with high unemployment a way to survive.

“What’s best for local authorities: to have several thousand beggars, or all these people going to make money in the forest?” he asked. And, he added, with corruption such a problem and authorities so stretched, enforcement of protections in areas like the CAZ isn’t feasible. (Madagascar is in the bottom quintile of Transparency International’s worldwide corruption rankings.) More probable, he said, is that the police “will make money, and the local people will starve.”

The head of communications for Madagascar’s national police, Andrianarisoa Herilalatiana, said that the police established an anti-corruption department in late 2017 and since have caught two officers involved with kidnapping and falsification of documents.

In 2012 Pardieu co-authored a blog post on NationalGeographic.org proposing that a portion of the sales of gems at the retail level be dedicated to conservation. The Gemological Institute of America often can identify the origin of a gemstone by comparing it with an existing reference library—a service that can boost a gem’s value—and if a stone’s provenance is known, proceeds from its sale could go to remediating the mine site.

In 2017 a Swiss research lab, GRS GemResearch Swisslab AG, issued a report saying that pink sapphires from Tananarive can be identified through spectral analysis. Such technology could bring to life Pardieu’s idea of allocating some of the money wealthy people spend on jewels to help save lemur habitat.

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But Tom Moses, executive vice president for research at the Gemological Institute of America, said that whereas pink sapphires from Tananarive “are distinct enough to make identification” possible, tracing the provenance of blue sapphires is more difficult because they’re less distinctive chemically than pink ones. As he put it, determining a gem’s origin “is definitely not an exact science.”

Interest in sustainability slowly seems to be growing in the gem and jewelry industries. Tiffany & Co. Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the famous New York jewelry retailer, helps fund an organization based at the University of Delaware called the Gemstones and Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub. And the Swiss-based Responsible Mining Index has begun to include colored gemstones in its assessments of environmental responsibility.

Doug Hucker, president of the American Gem Trade Association, an industry organization, says its members are required to “do everything within their power to ensure that they are not creating harm, not contributing to the degradation of the environment, and making sure they abide by the laws and regulations of the countries they’re doing business in.”

As consumer awareness of the environmental impact of gem mining spreads, retailers may have difficulty selling Madagascan stones, which don’t have chain-of-custody certification. That’s because Madagascar doesn’t require documentation that a gem sold in the country or exported from it has come from a legal mine.

“People in Madagascar are really suffering, and mining is a huge part of their livelihood,” says Michelle Rahm, who deals exclusively in lab-grown gems and runs a small Colorado-based nonprofit for children in Madagascar. “If the public wants to boycott gems from Madagascar, that really hurts people.”

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Employees of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership carry baskets, each containing 25 tree seedlings that will be planted in a deforested area outside Ambolotara, about 40 miles east of Ranomafana National Park.

Lab sapphires, which are chemically and visually indistinguishable from natural stones, are far cheaper to bring to market and come with minimal cost to the environment. Rahm says that “those who buy lab-grown gems are not in the market” for natural stones for a variety of reasons and “will buy lab-grown or nothing”—so buying artificial sapphires doesn’t hurt Madagascar’s miners the way boycotting the gems would.

Rahm suggests that one helpful measure would be to train local people in cutting and polishing gems so that more of the wealth sapphires produce would stay in the country. And she, like Pardieu, would also like to see the industry support efforts to mitigate environmental damage.

RESTORING WHAT’S BEEN LOST

About 150 miles beyond the CAZ’s southern border and an hour’s drive east from Ranomafana National Park is Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station. It’s an outpost of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, a nonprofit started by Edward Louis in 2010. Louis, a conservation geneticist and veterinarian with Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, wanted to initiate science-driven, community-based projects in Madagascar to simultaneously nurture people and wildlife and help reforest the land.

As the country’s population keeps growing—from 15.3 million in 2000 to 25.6 million in 2017—and with more tree clearing, reforestation is crucial to prevent further losses of lemurs and the other animals and plants that make Madagascar an ark of biodiversity.

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A stream runs through hills outside the town of Antesevabe, the access point to the trail leading to sapphire mines in the CAZ.

The project’s 19 nurseries employ more than a hundred people and raise trees that are transplanted into deforested areas throughout the country. One goal is to help farmers acquire title to their land; in return, they agree to plant a portion of their fields with lemur-friendly trees. Since 2010, nearly two million trees have been planted, with survival rates approaching 80 percent.

Ohanesian, Safidy Andrianantenaina, and I visited the Kianjavato field station on one of the two weekly planting days. We watched women place seedlings in sacks containing soil and water. Based on the number of trees they plant, the women earn credits they use to buy items such as solar lamps, water filters, sewing machines, and environmentally friendly pellet stoves, which don’t use wood from the forest. The stoves also cut down on unhealthful smoke emissions.

“If you’re not sick, you can work,” Edward Louis says. “It’s all connected.”

Nearby, men were placing small sacks containing coffee, acacia, and cacao seedlings into woven baskets—50 sacklets in each—which they carried down the hill and loaded onto a truck. The men get paid in credits or cash: about $1.50 a day, almost 50 percent more than the average Madagascan makes.

After a short drive to the village of Ambolotara, the men hefted the baskets a mile and a half up a dirt path to the planting site on one side of a ravine—land that belongs to a farmer who’s under contract with the project. Partners agree to set aside half their land for permanent forest, with 35 percent of the remainder for usable timber and 15 percent for commercial and subsistence crops.

Across the ravine were trees up to 20 feet tall that had been planted in 2013 and 2014.

“You can see much new growth of voluntary trees,” said Fredo Tera, the project’s reforestation community liaison and the field station’s site manager. That indicates the plantings are developing into healthy forest, he said. “The lemurs help us plant trees because they do it by themselves in the forest”—in other words, by spreading seeds through their feces.

In one nearby planting area, just outside Kianjavato, more trees have already led to an increase in the local population of greater bamboo lemurs, from 30 to a hundred between 2009 and 2017, with 24 born during the past year.

“We’re like a baby that grows every year,” Tera said. When the project started, 30,000 seedlings were planted. This year it’s putting 600,000 into the ground.

As we walked back to the truck, Tera gazed out over the bare ravine between today’s plot and the area planted in 2013 and 2014. With a little more work, perhaps it could once again resemble the natural forest that had been depleted. “Our dream,” he said, “is that we fill all of this like the forest.”

Editor’s Note: On June 18, 2019, this story was corrected to include tree loss analysis for the Ambodipaiso-Tananarive region. The previous analysis included figures for an adjacent area. The story has also been updated to include new analysis of satellite imagery and other data, which points to most deforestation at the Ambodipaiso and Tananarive mines having occurred for mining, not farming. The headline has also been revised. On June 21, this story was corrected to note that Vincent Pardieu acknowledges that illegal mining poses some environmental threat.
Paul Tullis has reported on global environmental issues for, among others, the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and Bloomberg Businessweek. His work has won awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Food Journalists, and more. Follow him on Twitter. Since 2010, Adriane Ohanesian has worked as a photojournalist throughout Africa, documenting the conflict and humanitarian crises in Sudan and South Sudan, child brides in the Central African Republic, the ongoing war in Somalia, and poaching and conservation in Kenya and beyond. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Safidy Andrianantenaina and Ohanesian also contributed reporting.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.