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Exploration of the spiny forest

by Marlies Volckaert

Photo 1 - At six o'clock in the morning, the sun rises above the spiny forest of Beheloke, south of Tulear, along the southwest coast of Madagascar. This ecosystem is one of WWFs priority areas for conservation. Already the contours of Euphorbs, a flowering plant which dominates the spiny forest, are alerady distinguishable. Most of plants in the spiny forest develop spines, which is an adaptation to survive in the harsh condition of drought in this area. These spines are actually converted in leaves, designed to reduce loss of water due to transpiration and to avoid being eaten by herbivores.

Photo 2 - At first view everything is quiet and nothing moves but by simply listening to the forest one could already know there is a lot to discover.

Photo 3 - For example, there at the top of the tree, a Madagascar kestrel, Falco newtoni, or Hitsikitsika in Malagasy, overviews its territory with cautious detail to detect potential prey. It is an endemic species, which means it exists nowhere else in the world but in Madagascar. Here it is a common species, found all over the country.

Photo 4 - And off it goes!

Photo 5 - Didierea madagascariensis
, Sono in Malagasy, commonly known as the Octopus tree is a species of Didiereaceae endemic to the spiny thickets of Madagascar. It is a spiny, succulent thorn-bush tree adapted to desert conditions. In the dry season it loses its leaves to avoid water loss caused by transpiration. It is not clear in the picture, but the top of these plants is always located southwards, therefore it is used as an orientation reference by those who get lost in the forest, and therefore also called the compass tree.

Photo 6 - The same species, but from a bird's-eye view. This photo is taken at the same time as the preceding one, yet this plant still has its leaves. This is probably because it grows in a more hulid microclimate.

Photo 7 - Opuntia stricta, or Raketa Mena in Malagasy, has been introduced in this area long ago for ornamental purposes. People use this plant as living fences and eat the fruits. In this isolated region in the semi-desert, where food resources are very scarce, this supplemental source of energy and vitamins is very welcome. On the contrary this is an invasive species, which poses threat to other, native species.

Photo 8 - A species of Euphorbia stenoclada, locally known as Samata/Famanta is used during the dry season as fodder for cattle. Here for example we can see that the tree was cut to feed the zebu (local cattle similar to cows in Europe). Samata vegetation is mainly found in the littoral zone of south of Madagascar, where some people now begin to plant this Euphorb as a fence but also as a food reserve for their zebu. Of all Euphorbs, Euphorbia stenoclada is the spiniest of all.

Photos 9a & 9b - These Euphorbia trees give ideal vantage points to birds like the Olive bee-eater or Merops superciliosus. The Malagasy name for this bird is Komotsi, or comet, because of its form and speed. It is mostly found in open areas and occurs not only in Madagascar, but also in the Comoros Islands and East Africa. The bee-eaters nest in colonies in galleries dug one meter deep in a slope or cliff.

Photo 10 - Primarily insectivorous, hoopoes, Hupupa marginata, capture the vast majority of its prey on the ground. Various species of insects (beetles, crickets, ants, grashoppers, caterpillars, various larvae, etc.) and small invertebrates (centipedes, slugs and snails which it breaks the shell) are on its menu. It nests in a crest tree hole or rock.

Photo 11 - Maybe it is this 'Bibikely' or little animal - that is how the Malagasy call insects -, that is on the hoopoes menu today. Insects here always surprise me because of their size, which is general at least five times bigger than the insects I know in Belgium.

Photo 12 - Dangalia, Malagasy for ‘who walks with his head towards the sky’, or Chalarodon madagascariensis, is widespread in arid south west Madagascar. It is again an endemic species to Madagascar, like 80-95% of the fauna and flora. It is an iguanid, whose camouflage colors are well adapted to the sand, the main component of its environment. Iguanids don’t exist in the African continent and therefor their presence in Madagascar stays a mystery.

Photo 13 - A giant web indicates the presence of a spider that most people probably don’t want to encounter. Did you already find it? The tree you see is Salvadorea angistofolium.

Photo 14 - It is the spider that is capable of constructing such huge webs. It always returns the same place, in the middle of the web, where she waits for her victims. To the left you can see the rests of her previous meals. The Malagasy name for spider is ‘marotana’, which means ‘a lot of arms’.

Photos 15a & 15b - This smaller spider constructs its web in a funnel shape.

Photo 16 - This mysterious, wise and contorted tree listens to the name Salvadora anguistifoli, Sasavy in Malagasy. It is native to dry tropical scrub and woodland and coastal dunes in western Madagascar and grows on salted soil. If most of shrub and trees in the spiny forest lose their leaves during the dry season, the Sasavy is among the rare plants that keep their leaves green all year round and it is a good source of shade. Fruits are edible and therefore collected by locals.

Photo 17 - And finally one of the flagship species of Madagascar: the chameleon. This species is called Furcifer lateralis and is widespread throughout Madagascar, it is even found in cities such as the capital Antananarivo. This mysterious animal is sometimes feared, because it would bring misfortune. Otherwise it is sometimes even considered as a domestic animal. There exists a well-known proverb: ‘Manaova toy ny dian-tana jerena ny aloha, todihina ny afara’, which translates to ‘act like a chameleon, one eye on the future, one eye on the past’. Or another one: ‘the chameleon doesn’t make the earth change, but the earth changes the chameleon’. This is how the chameleon tries to escape from its predators and misleads its prey, as for the same reasons it moves very slow. In the background the typical spines of the spiny forest are well visible. As it is already 9 o’clock, the sun begins to shine very brightly which makes it impossible for a ‘vazaha’ (stranger) like me to stay outside the shade any longer.

Conclusion - Thank you very much for visiting this photo blog. I would like to draw the attention to the beauty and uniqueness of this ecosystem. These sources of biodiversity are important to the world as a source of resilience that help us adapt to change. The spiny forest is a source of medicine, food and shelter; it houses species that are maybe yet to discover; it houses secrets about how to deal with scarce resources such as water and nutrients; maybe it houses something we will need in the future but of which we are not aware of now. Let’s not spoil this but instead engage ourselves to return to the earth some of our energy by means of sustainable use of resources, environmental restoration, and reforestation and this with respect to all living species, men included. Because we all benefit from a clean and healthy environment.

I would firmly like to thank the Malagasy people for their hospitality; WWF for the chance to experience the spiny forest and to get to know their conservation work; my fellow youth volunteers of which I learned so much on all aspects: personality, practical stuff, inconveniences, cultures etc.; and my friends, family and professional acquaintances for supporting me.