90 kilometres down a rough, single-track, red-soiled road from Morondava, on the Western edge of Madagascar, you will find a unique environment. A wetland area that drastically ebbs and flows with the seasonal rains, so much so that one of the two lakes there – Sirave, 125 ha of lake and marsh – sometimes disappears completely during the dry season, which stretches from April to October.

In this difficult environment, these lakes and surrounding marshes, streams and mangroves are crucial to the sustainability, livelihoods and well-being of the plants, birds, animals and humans that call this region home.

This fascinating and vital landscape received a new level of protection and recognition when on February 2nd – the internationally celebrated World Wetlands Day – it was named Madagascar’s 10th Ramsar site.

A view over the Ambondro and Sirave Lakes Complex, Madagascar's newset Ramsar site © WWF adagascar/Roland Eve
A view over the Ambondro and Sirave Lakes Complex, Madagascar’s newset Ramsar site © WWF adagascar/Roland Eve

The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty established in 1971 for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Groups that sign on to the Convention commit themselves to ensuring the effective management of their wetlands.

Wetlands are critical, and highly sensitive, environmental areas that provide a freshwater habitat for many species and also offer important ecological services for humans, including cleaning groundwater and flood control.

The Ramsar designation for the wetlands area of Lakes Ambondro and Sirave was achieved through the cooperation of the Madagascar Ministry of Environment and Forests, Madagascar National Parks, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The wetland area lies inside the Tsiribihina-Manambolo landscape, one of WWFs four priority landscapes in Madagascar.

The Road to Designation
The process to secure the designation began in 2012.

“We visited the lakes in November,” says Roland Eve, WWF’s Senoir Landscape Advisor. “We could see from the unique nature of the site – its location just separated from the Mozambique Channel, divided only by a high, overhanging sand dune – and the abundant, endangered species in the area that it was a special place that deserved the Ramsar designation.”

Researchers from Durrell, who had monitored the area’s bird populations since the middle of the 2000s, had already had the same idea and had begun designation project. The two NGOs partnered with the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Madagascar National Parks to propose the addition of the area within Madagascar’s list of Ramsar sites.

An Important Environmental Location
The complex, which covers 14 481.5 total hectares, is an ecologically rich area that contains lakes, marshes, mudflats, rivers, ponds, sand dunes and mangroves. It provides shelter, breeding and nesting areas to thirty species of aquatic birds.

“As you would expect in such a diverse ecological environment, it contains a large number of species, many of them endangered,” says Eve. “There is the Humblot’s heron, the Madagascar plover or the Bernier’s teal, and also many other bird species whose survival depends heavily on the preservation of the wetlands.”
Other prominent plant and animal species that can be found there include the Nile crocodile, whose wild population is in steep decline in Madagascar, flying foxes, two species of flamingos and seven of Madagascar’s eight species of mangroves.

An Area of Social and Cultural Significance
Besides being a priority environmental area, the Ambondro and Sirave Lakes Complex is also the vibrant heart of lively social and cultural traditions. For local populations the lakes are places of worship, with the neighbouring mangroves containing tombs that are protected by strenuously observed principles of Fady, or local behavioural taboos.  Every year in late August or early September the lakes are also the site of Sorombe, an annual ceremony to request the blessings of God and ancestors before preparing the land for crops.

The tombs in the mangrove forest protected it from any disturbance because it’s sacred nature. This explains the presence of a fruit bat colony hunted extensively elsewhere. In this way, the Ramsar designation will help to preserve the wetland environment and also the local culture and identity, which are deeply intertwined.

Madagascar joined the Rasmar Convention in 1998. The island’s other Ramsar sites are Lake Tsimanampesotse, which was the first Malagasy Ramsar site, and Lake Bedo in the South; a complex of four lakes in Manambolomaty-Antsalova and the Mandrozo wetland in the West; Lake Alaotra Northwest of Tamatave; Lake Kinkony near Mahajanga, the Torotorofotsy marsh and Nosivolo river in the East, and the private park Tsarasaotra in Antananarivo.