Subscribe for 99¢

The World Ecology Award will be presented in November to the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo for their conservation work in Madagascar.

The annual award, presented by the Whitney R. Harris Ecology Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to biological conservation and environmental protection. Previous awardees include explorer Jacques Cousteau, primatologist Jane Goodall and actor Harrison Ford.

The Missouri Botanical Garden began its work in Madagascar in the 1970s to document the diversity of plant species. In the 1980s, the St. Louis Zoo initiated a program to study and protect lemurs, reptiles, amphibians and other endangered wildlife.

In 1988, the zoo helped establish the Madagascar Fauna Group, an international consortium of zoos whose aim is to study and conserve animal biodiversity in Madagascar. About a decade ago, the garden joined the group, expanding its mission to include plant conservation.

Shortly after beginning their work in Madagascar, the garden and zoo realized they must partner with local communities.

“If conservation doesn’t improve people’s livelihoods, it’s not sustainable,” said James Miller, senior vice president of science and conservation at the garden.

Madagascar is home to more than 200,000 plant and animal species, about 90 percent of which occur nowhere else on Earth. These species provide food, timber, medicine and other vital resources for local communities.

At the same time, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the Malagasy — the people of Madagascar — rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. As a result, the vast majority of native forests have been cleared for subsistence agriculture or harvested for timber, which has led to rapid declines in plant and animal biodiversity.

One percent of the remaining forest in Madagascar is lost each year, said the garden’s president, Peter Wyse Jackson. Thousands of plants and animals are on the verge of extinction.

But instead of delivering pre-packaged solutions to the local communities, the zoo and garden worked with Malagasy to harvest plants and raise animals in ways that improve natural resources instead of degrading them.

The garden taught women how to harvest materials for baskets by cutting plants at the base instead of removing them from the ground, which ensured the plants would resprout for future use. They built fruit and vegetable gardens to improve diets.

The zoo funded the construction of the Ivoloina Conservation Training Center, a facility to train Malagasy in animal husbandry and zoo management practices. They developed a poultry vaccine so Malagasy could raise chickens for food.

“It’s really important to follow and respect the tradition in the local areas we work in,” said Sylvie Andriambololonera, who leads the garden’s Madagascar research unit.

The garden now has 12 protected sites across Madagascar. The zoo helped restore populations of the critically endangered black and white ruffed lemur. “It was the most ambitious attempt of lemur reintroduction to date,” said Lisa Kelley, executive director of the zoo’s WildCare Institute.

Nearly all of the staff currently employed by the zoo and garden for this work are Malagasy, many of whom are from villages that surround their conservation sites.

“There has been that unbroken commitment to Madagascar over decades,” Jackson said.

Get updates every weekday morning about the latest news in the St. Louis business community.