The incidence of fires on Madagascar’s island increased considerably after COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in a five-month suspension of all on-site supervision in 2020.

Findings of researchers suggest that governments should consider keeping certain workers in restricted zones at all times as an “important service,” even during times of health crisis and travel restrictions.

They advocate that this year’s long-delayed gathering to determine international biodiversity targets prioritize conservation over the expansion of protected areas.

Madagascar is a well-known biodiversity “hotspot,” containing species that can only be found there, such as its famous lemur populations. The island is also a hub for wildlife protection and environmental degradation.

The study, published recently in Nature Sustainability, is the first to look at the pandemic’s impact on protected conservation areas.

A multinational team of scientists led by the universities of Helsinki and Cambridge predicted burning rates in Madagascar’s protected areas for each month from 2012 through 2020 using historical and current fire and meteorological data.

They compared this data modeling to satellite-collected counts of actual fires to identify situations where fires went considerably beyond what would be expected based on climate and prior fire trends.

When the initial lockdowns of 2020 hampered on-site administration of protected areas, the number of fires surged by 209% in March, 223 % in April, 78 % in May, 248 % in June, and 76% in July.

Despite the pandemic’s substantial border restrictions and economic worries, when management measures resumed, burning quickly returned to normal levels, as predicted by the models.

Academics say the amount of fires inside protected areas is “unprecedented” in Malagasy history. Just the months leading up to elections in 2013 and 2018 were comparable, and even then, the harshest month saw only a 134% spike in burning.

“The disturbance generated by COVID-19 indicates the disastrous impact that pauses in protected area administration may have on ecosystems,” said University of Cambridge senior author Prof Andrew Balmford.

“Excess fires in Malagasy protected areas have been limited to sporadic blocks of one or two months over the previous twenty years.”

“When all people were removed from safe zones in March 2020,” he added, “the fires erupted swiftly and lasted for an unprecedented five months, going away just as staff began to return.”

While the study cannot tell for certain what caused all of the fires in the early months of COVID-19, lead author Dr. Johanna Eklund of the University of Helsinki believes that lockdowns would have put additional strain on already-stressed local people.

“Madagascar has very high poverty rates and a history of conflict between protecting unique species and preserving vulnerable people’s livelihoods,” said Eklund, who is presently a visiting researcher at Cambridge.

“Because the pandemic caused economic insecurity for many people, it’s not surprising that when on-site management services were suspended, some encroached on protected areas.”

As Eklund points out, a lack of on-site patrols to prevent flames from spreading, as well as the practice of “swidden” agriculture, may be responsible for a large portion of the increase in lockdown fires. Several methods of removing vegetation from protected areas are restricted for crops and for livestock grazing.

“Most crucially, the study did not follow fires that happened outside of conservation zones, so we can’t know how much legitimately suppressed burning occurred in protected vs unprotected areas,” Eklund added.

NASA satellite imagery data was used by the researchers to detect “thermal abnormalities” and alert firemen in real-time.

Eklund, who has been conducting research in Madagascar for over a decade, realized she could still help forest conservationists remotely. “Satellites detect flames quite well and notify us when protected zones are targeted.”

“The high levels of burning during the lockdowns highlight the importance of on-the-ground management, with protected area teams working with communities to support local livelihoods and protect natural resources,” said co-author Domoina Rakotobe, a former coordinator for the Malagasy organization Forum Lafa, the network of terrestrial protected area managers.

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