One Family’s Gift to the Land of Lemurs: Guest Post by Mary Klett and Mark Southerland
Colonialism is often justifiably decried for its pillaging of natural and cultural resources; yet there are times when those who came to conquer, learn to appreciate and value these resources. Such was the case of Alain and Henry de Heaulme, who came to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, in the early 1920s to build a sisal plantation for fiber production. They settled in the arid region of the Tandroy (people of the thorns) obtaining a French government “Concession” to exploit almost 15,000 acres of land beside the Mandrare River. Recognizing the uniqueness of the land, the de Heaulmes set aside 2,500 acres of their land as a reserve, “just because the forest was too beautiful to cut down,” as they told scientist, Alison Jolly, when she came to study the lemurs in 1963. The largest reserve parcel, often just called Berenty Reserve, is 500 acres, which we were lucky enough to visit in August last year.
The replacement of forest with sisal and the preservation of the reserve were negotiated with local villagers and symbolized by the erection of the founding stone in 1936 (see Mary and our guide, Benoit Damys, next to the stone in the photo below. The salaries provided by the de Heaulmes helped buffer the local people against the region’s recurrent famines. Berenty is probably the most studied and televised spot in Madagascar. Nearly every foreign film features its parading ringtails and dancing Verreaux’s sifaka (if you’re old enough, you may remember the Zoboomafoo children’s show). If you’re interested in reading more about the fascinating history of Madagascar and the lemurs of Berenty Reserve, read Alison Jolly’s excellent book, Lords and Lemurs: Mad Scientists, Kings with Spears, and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar. Or better yet, see this incredible country for yourself. The success of Berenty has inspired other lemur-focused reserves around the country, each preserving its unique flora and fauna.
Take-a-way: Private and public efforts are need to preserve the unique habitats on earth.