That Malagasy forest featured in Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’? It’s vanishing fast.

Viewers inspired by Netflix’s new series “Our Planet” to explore the stunning landscapes it captures may find one destination shockingly different from its lustrous on-screen depiction. Between the shooting for the series in 2016 and its launch this month, there has been such rapid deforestation in Madagascar’s Kirindy Forest that large patches of the forest showcased in the series have disappeared from our planet.

By  Malavika Vyawahare

In the eighth installment of the production, titled “Forests,” British naturalist and narrator David Attenborough guides viewers through various forest ecosystems, including the dry deciduous forests of the Menabe Antimena protected area in western Madagascar. “We had teams working all around the Kirindy region. Images were captured wherever we could get the pieces to our story, a mix of time lapses and behavior, and forest destruction,” Jeff Wilson, one of the producers of the show, told Mongabay.

Fires smouldering in the dry deciduous forests in western Madagascar. Photo by  Jeff Wilson / Silverback/Netflix for Mongabay
Fires smouldering in the dry deciduous forests in western Madagascar. Photo by Jeff Wilson / Silverback/Netflix for Mongabay

The series is a result of a four-year-long collaboration between the international conservation NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Netflix and U.K.-based Silverback Films, where Wilson works. “On return from Madagascar in 2016, the film crew drew on satellite maps provided by NASA from the areas in which they had visited and had been working, only to find that the 2018 images showed the forest to the south of the main filming location was no longer present,” a spokesperson for WWF Madagascar said in an emailed response.

Madagascar, the world’s oldest island, supports a breathtaking array of plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet. Viewers get a glimpse of this richness through the show: from the distinctive mating habits of the cat-like fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), including a male fossa humping a tree to leave its scent and send a message to the couple mating in its branches, to the feeding habits of Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), one of the smallest primates in the world. The forests of Menabe Antimena are also home to several threatened lemur species, a kind of primate endemic to Madagascar and the Comoros archipelago.

A fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay
A fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). Phot by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

These tropical dry forests are plant biodiversity hotspots as well. The soil in the region is sandy and very dry because rains are confined to a few months of the year, which has prompted species to adapt in particular ways. One example are the area’s striking baobab trees (genus Adansonia), which can store large reserves of water in their stout trunks.

The Alley of Baobabs in the Menabe Antimena protected area, a path flanked by majestic A. grandidieri trees, is one of Madagascar’s most famous tourist destinations. Because of their height, the baobabs poke above the forest canopy. However, as the forest around them disappears and degrades, they increasingly stand apart as lonely giants.

Some conservationists believe the threats facing these forests deserved more space in the Netflix series. “While the Our Planet team were in the field they put real effort not just into filming the wonderful species of Madagascar’s western dry forests, but also the existential threats these forests face,” Julia P.G. Jones, a conservation scientist at Bangor University, U.K., told Mongabay. “They spent time talking with local communities, really exploring the complex reasons behind the extraordinarily fast deforestation in the region … To me it feels like a missed opportunity that they didn’t use this footage.”

Forests in the Menabe Antimena protected area are being devoured for crop cultivation at an unprecedented rate. While some of it is for subsistence farming, a majority of these are plantations of cash crops like corn. Between 2001 and 2016, approximately 18,000 hectares (44,500 acres) or about a fifth of the tree cover disappeared, according to data from the University of Maryland, accessed through the monitoring platform Global Forest Watch. This loss has accelerated swiftly in recent years; in 2016, about 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of tree cover was lost, but in 2017, this jumped to 10,000 hectares, an area 30 times the size of New York’s Central Park.

Last year, Madagascar lost a bigger proportion of its primary rainforests than any other tropical country – 2%.

Aerial view of the deforestation in the Kirindy forest. Photo by WWF-Madagascar/WWF for Mongabay
Deforestation in Kirindy forest. Photo by WWF-Madagascar/WWF for Mongabay

Tree cover loss captures losses due to deforestation, forest fires and in some cases because of logging under sustainable forestry programs. A rising population and increasing migration to the Menabe Antimena region adds to the deforestation pressure. But extensive deforestation is not limited to this protected area. Madagascar has lost about half of its forests since the 1950s. Tree cover loss peaked in the country in 2017 when more than 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) was lost.

The country, one of the poorest in Africa, is struggling to save its natural heritage. “There are no simple answers to resolving the incredibly rapid deforestation. But if something doesn’t change very soon, these irreplaceable forests, and their fossa and lemurs, will not be left for filmmakers to film,” Jones said.

This article was originally published on | Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @MalavikaVy | Cover Image – Two kids playing football on the Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar. Photo by ANTONI SOCIAS on Unsplash.

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