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Who am I?

Well, I’m Leon Brown, and a fortunate volunteer for the WWF Youth Volunteer Program in Madagascar. All my life I have been fascinated by, and loved all aspects of wildlife and my career was always going to revolve around these interests. At University I chose to study Applied Marine Biology at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, although at this point was never sure in which direction my studies would take me.
After graduating I worked in a range of areas mainly focusing on the preservation and protection of wildlife, both marine and terrestrial, within the consultancy industry. Where possible, and when time allowed, I attempted to further my knowledge in areas of conservation. I have been fortunate to find jobs that have enabled me to work not only in the UK (my home country) but all around the world.

When I was contacted towards the end of 2007, my initial reaction was of shock and surprise, that out of the numerous applicants I had been selected as one of the six members. To be given the opportunity to travel and live in the country that for pretty much my entire life I had read and studied about, dreaming of the time that I might be able to visit and hopefully leave my mark in an environmentally productive manner.

I viewed the opportunity with WWF as a unique experience that would add to my knowledge of rural communities, expanding my career experience and offering something to the wildlife I am involved with, and indirectly work for.
Almost native, after months of bush life Toni (our WWF village support) and I attempt a smile ... 
© WWF / Leon Brown
Almost native, after months of bush life Toni (our WWF village support) and I attempt a smile before returning to Antananarivo. How I would have loved to stay!!!
© WWF / Leon Brown
The Spiny Forest
It came as quite a surprise to me that a large majority of the people inhabiting the area had no idea that the diversity of wildlife surrounding them could be found nowhere else on Earth.
I arrived in Madagascar a week or so early to take the opportunity to ground myself and get to know how life existed in a country so far removed from where I had taken off from. With the arrival of the other volunteers we settled down to an intensive couple of weeks learning the basics of the language, the aims of the Population, Health and Environment (PHE) project and getting to know the WWF staff that would be our support over the coming weeks.

The diversity of the country swiftly became apparent once we left the bustle of the capital Antananarivo, briefly stopping in the coastal town of Fort Dauphin and finally arriving at our base town of Ankirikiky. Ankirikiky is located within the Spiny Forest in the south of Madagascar, a unique arid habitat that although very dry for much of the year supports an array of fauna and flora much of which is endemic to the region. For this reason the area requires special attention from wildlife conservation groups that aim to protect and support the wildlife in conjunction with the local communities.

I found one of the most crucial aspects of our project was to help spread this knowledge through the community. It came as quite a surprise to me that a large majority of the people inhabiting the area had no idea that the diversity of wildlife surrounding them could be found nowhere else on Earth, that lemurs were not native to England, that the surrounding forests of spines were unfamiliar to Europeans, and that crossing paths with these amazing species was an experience unique to them.

The landscape we soon regarded as home was in general made up of dry cactus looking trees and plants that often impede exploration and in many instances were difficult to tell apart from one species to the next. The locals had clearly become very adept at this identification as many species were used for various medical and practical uses. Unfortunately the massive population increase in Madagascar is wiping out large areas of the Spiny forest and the habitats of the indigenous species that are so useful to the locals and that I found myself gawping at.

Since the arrival of humans, just 2,000 years ago, more than 90% of original forest has disappeared, and unfortunately this continues at an alarming rate. The result of this is that pretty much all the unique habitats and endemic animals are experiencing significant levels of threat. Madagascar supports approximately 5% of the worlds diversity and 30% of the worlds primate species. Very little of the area we were based in is protected. Although, the rate of habitat loss is slower than other areas of Madagascar due to lower population density, recent irrigation developments have increased the movement of people to the region. In the past species such as lemurs were protected by local taboos, but with the influx of people these taboos are being lost.

Other increasing threats include the increased need for firewood and charcoal and selective logging as the Spiny forest has an intrinsically low rate of regeneration. The increased population has also increased the cultivation of corn, rice and other vegetables, increased the levels of grazing by cattle and goat, which has all aided the spread of non-native species such as the prickly pear.

An emotional and fulfilling experience

My experience in Madagascar was emotional and fulfilling and I implore anyone that has an interest in working with, for, or even simply an interest in wildlife to take the opportunity that is offered here by WWF. I take away an experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life and has added new vigour and respect for my industry of work.

And now?

Having enjoyed every moment of the wilderness of Madagascar, returning to the UK was sad and it took some adjusting to fall back into the lifestyle. I’m now working for myself as an independent ecologist, studying protected species in the UK, that include bats, great crested newts, reptiles, badger, otters etc. Basing myself in the UK during the summer when these animals are active and travelling abroad over the winter period working on conservation projects. Madagascar and WWF got me hooked!!! Thank you

My photos of Madagascar...