"Safari Birding": an ecotourism revolution in Madagascar
Until now, only a few intrepid ecotourists have ventured out to Mahavavy-Kinkony in Madagascar, a habitat packed with extraordinary and rare wildlife. But that looks set to change with a new initiative to expand birding tourism – for the benefit of both wildlife and local livelihoods.
Mahavavy-Kinkony is a place like no other: a vast complex of forests, lakes, marshes, mangroves and grasslands, packed with extraordinary and rare wildlife. And it’s not just wildlife – its towns, villages and landscapes also make it a vibrant cultural hub for the people of western Madagascar. So far, only a few intrepid ecotourists have visited the site, but this is set to change. Asity Madagascar (BirdLife Partner) has brought together local and national organisations to vastly expand birdwatching tourism at Mahavavy-Kinkony, an action that will benefit local communities and wildlife alike.
The site takes its name from a combination of Lake Kinkony, Madagascar’s second biggest lake, and the River Mahavavy, which flows through to reach the sea via a large delta. It covers such a range of habitats, from mudflats, mangroves and forests to freshwater lakes, marshes and grasslands, that it’s no wonder the site is classed as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, a Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar Site), and a vital Protected Area (created in 2015 thanks to the efforts of Asity Madagascar).
Birders venturing out to this area are in for a real treat. The wetlands of western Madagascar hold several bird species found nowhere else, including Madagascar Teal Anas bernieri (Endangered), Madagascar Fish-eagle Haliaeetus vociferoides (Critically Endangered), and Sakalava Rail Zapornia olivieri (Endangered), all of which can be spotted by eagle-eyed ecotourists. And it’s not just birds. Visitors are likely to encounter spectacular lemurs such as Crowned Sifaka Propithecus coronatus and Decken’s Sifaka P. deckeni.
As well as its value as a wildlife haven, Mahavavy-Kinkony is also of immense cultural importance as the heartland of the Sakalava ethnic group, who inhabit of much of Western Madagascar. In fact, Sakalava royalty are among the key supporters of the site’s conservation. All this makes it a very promising prospect for ecotourism.
It’s not just birds. Visitors are likely to encounter spectacular lemurs
To kick it all off, in 2016 an annual event called Safari Birding was set up in Mahavavy-Kinkony to promote ecotourism. Asity Madagascar joined forces with local tourism offices and the local community* to catalyse the transformation of the site into a birding hotspot. Its success sparked an even bigger event in November 2017, and it has since become a flagship project for Boeny Region.
The event consisted of an exhibition, followed by a public conference / debate on the ornithological importance of the Protected Area, not to mention birdwatching itself. Birdwatchers were fascinated to learn about the birds that made their home in in Mahavavy-Kinkony, especially since they included some of the world’s most sought-after species. Locals were surprised to hear that the Sakalava Rail of Lake Kinkony was of particular interest to birders due to its great rarity, and had the potential to attract birders from around the world.
Locals were surprised to hear that their Sakalava Rail had the potential to attract birders from around the world
National tour operators also took part, and were particularly interested in the potential of the Mahavavy Delta as an ecotourism destination. They responded positively, giving recommendations and agreeing to improve the organisation of birdwatching activities on this site – because although visitors report wonderful experiences, access remains a challenge for ecotourism operators to rise to.
Local communities who co-manage the Protected Area with Asity Madagascar will share the benefits, so we look forward to hearing more of the success, along with travellers’ tales from this amazing site.
*The Safari Birding event was made possible thanks to the support of the Malagasy Ministry of Tourism (Directorate in Boeny Region), the Regional Tourism Office, Local Community of Ampitsopitsoka, Alliance Française Mahajanga, Madagascar National Parks, UNDP-GEF MRPA Project, European Union/Indian Ocean Commission Biodiversity, PAGE/GIZ and BMZ.