In 2003 a remarkable partnership was formed between Dr Alison Jolly, a Lewes based primatologist specialising in the social behaviour of lemurs in Madagascar, and Dr John Parry of the Railway Land Wildlife Trust, both of whom saw huge value in small nature reserves. Alison was among the first to argue that conservation must recognise the needs of local people. She nurtured students in Madagascar and brought a leading researcher, Dr Hanta Rasamimanana, to Lewes where they visited the Railway Land. This led to an extraordinary insight and a conservation project in Madagascar that the Trust is sponsoring.
Picture Dr John Parry
Dr Alison Jolly
When Hanta visited the Railway Land in 2011, she was uncharacteristically incensed: “How dare you say we must save pristine forests, and forbid hungry people to use their ancestral land because it is Madagascar’s original forest! The South Downs looks just like our rainforest hills after they have been cleared for grazing. Your scientists even admit that they have to keep vigilant that the South Downs don’t go back to growing brambles and then their original trees!”
But as she took part in educational activities on the Railway Land, she began to support the idea of a reserve that people can actually visit.
As it happens, one of the last bits of original forest on Madagascar’s plateau is only ten minutes’ drive from Hanta’s house, only 20 km from Antananarivo, and one of the few “tourist” sites that Malagasy willingly visit. This is Ambohimanga, the “Blue Hill”, not called blue because of its forest, but because blue is the colour of sacred and noble things. Ambohimanga is the seat of Kings and Queens.
Dr Hanta Rasamimanana, Picture Dr John Parry
So the Railway Land Project is supporting Hanta with a ten year grant, from 2012-2022, to see what she can do about teaching local Malagasy people about the importance of Ambohimanga’s forest.
Since 2012, the range of work carried out by Hanta and her students has been extraordinary. Initial fieldwork to deepen local understanding of the site – both ecologically and in terms of how it is used by local people and visitors from further afield - has led to projects in primary education, to the signposting of paths through the forest and tours being given in cooperation with the Ambohimanga Palace guides, and to the advancement of knowledge about grass species that might protect the forest from fire.
More recently, the project has employed a member of staff to progress future plans. These plans are exciting and combine scientific research with education, training and the development of sustainable incomes for local guides, based on a deeper understanding and appreciation of the forest.
Picture Dr John Parry
On March 24th 2019, the newly revamped ground floor of the Linklater Pavilion was relaunched as the Jolly Room, in memory of Alison Jolly and her generous legacy donation to the Trust. You can read Dr John Parry's speech, reminding people of some of the founding principles of the Trust, by clicking on the button below.