Feature Story

Protecting sea turtles and seagrass in Madagascar

February 25, 2021

Hawksbill turtle swimming above seagrass
The GEF and UNEP are supporting efforts by Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development to protect the country’s sea turtles and seagrass meadows from a host of human-caused threats. Photo: Laura Dinraths/Shutterstock

The Global Environment Facility’s latest work program, approved by the GEF Council in December 2020, includes a series of projects designed to help countries protect and regenerate nature in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of these projects. For details on the Council proceedings, please click here.

Sea turtles play a special role in Madagascar, a global biodiversity hotspot. They naturally clean up and help maintain the health of marine habitats, especially seagrass meadows and coral reefs. The critically endangered hawksbill turtle, for instance, feeds on sponges that compete with coral reefs for space, thus allowing fish access to the reef to feed.

And yet turtle numbers are declining sharply, under pressure from global warming, fisheries, the harvesting of adults and eggs, coastal development, pollution, pathogens, and wildlife trafficking.

In a new initiative approved by the GEF Council in December 2020, the Global Environment Facility is supporting efforts by Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development to protect the country’s sea turtles and seagrass meadows from a host of human-caused threats, from wildlife trafficking to destructive fishing practices.

The project, to be implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), aims to foster more sustainable and inclusive management of turtle populations and seagrass habitats found along the island nation’s north and northwestern coasts. To support the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, it will support more sustainable marine natural resource practices alongside the tourism, fishing, and new “green” businesses vested in nature.

Dr. Hery A. Rakotondravony, Madagascar’s Operational Focal Point to the GEF, welcomed the initiative’s innovative approach to conserving key species and habitats in a way that engages and strengthens the accountability of stakeholders, including vulnerable people, to face the challenges of climate-induced and pandemic-induced migration, environmental degradation and poverty.

“The expected benefits will relate to various aspects of environmental preservation, including the conservation of genetic resources that may help to fight against emerging infectious diseases, climate change impacts, the strengthening of ecosystem services, sustainability of natural resources and intergenerational equity," he said.

Five of the turtle species in the initiative’s target zones are deemed either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Some 65 percent of Madagascar’s human population lives in and on the country’s coastal zones, among the richest and most diverse environments in the Western Indian Ocean region. Because of its isolation, the island boasts a wealth of biological diversity. Some 13,000 of its 250,000 plant species are found nowhere else on earth, and more than 3,500 of these are known to have medicinal properties.

Madagascar falls within the Tropical Indo-Pacific Seagrass Bioregion and boasts a huge diversity of seagrasses. These underwater meadows are essential habitats for marine invertebrates, an important source of protein for vulnerable populations in tropical coastal communities, and for the young of many fish species. Seagrass meadows also play a key role in carbon sequestration and storage.

Like the turtles, seagrass habitats face a host of threats. These include runoff, the development of coastal areas, boat damage, and destructive fishery practices such as trawling and beach seine fishing.

The GEF-supported project aims to encourage coastal inhabitants to manage turtle populations and seagrass meadows more sustainably, by establishing coherent policy, planning, and regulatory frameworks at the national and local level, and by creating and promoting training, incentives, and a sustainable finance mechanism for coastal communities.

The project team will also work to raise awareness of the benefits of managing turtle populations more sustainably and the dangers of species loss. Victoria Luque of UNEP’s Biodiversity and Land Degradation Unit said these community efforts were crucial to connect the dots between strains on biodiversity and other global environmental pressure points.

“The increasing impact of biodiversity loss and the rise of zoonotic diseases, exacerbated by climate change, is more apparent than ever,” she said. “We are harnessing this awareness to convene communities, policy-makers, scientists and businesses to innovate together and take decisive action on the conservation of this iconic species and its habitat that can deliver for people and planet.”