Madagascar is the hottest of biodiversity hot spots. The island is home to approximately five percent of all the species on earth. Four out of five of them are found nowhere else, including dozens of species of tenrecs and lemurs that have evolved over tens of millions of years.
"It's been isolated from the rest of the world for 88 million years, so most of the plants and animals that are there washed ashore accidentally over time," says Anne Yoder, professor of biology and evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and director of the Duke Lemur Center.
The waters around Madagascar haven’t been well studied, but there are tantalizing hints of impressive biodiversity there, as well.
"Every day you go out, you learn new things," said Salvatore Cerchio, a visiting scientist with the New England Aquarium and a guest investigator at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "It led to discovery of a species that had never been observed before."
But not just any species. A whale. Researchers named it Omura's whale after a Japanese scientist.
"It wasn't even supposed to be in this part of the world," Cerchio said.
Of course, Madagascar is also home to almost 23 million people. According to the World Bank, seventy percent of Madagascar’s population is poor or extremely poor. Most are subsistence farmers. Over half lack access to clean water.
The desperate needs of Madagascar’s people imperil the nation’s wealth of wildlife. Slash-and-burn agriculture, combined with development and logging for valuable Madagascar rosewood has decimated forests. As the economic situation has worsened, lemur hunting has increased, compounding the problem of habitat loss. Some groups also hunt coastal dolphins.
"Those people won't survive another year if they don't eat," said Jonahson. "So it's a big, big challenge and dilemma."
Jonahson and her family haven’t had to make those choices. She says her life in Madagascar was relatively comfortable. At the age of 23, Jonahson became the first in her family to go abroad for education, earning masters degrees in marine biology and environmental science from University of Plymouth (England) and SUNY Brockport.
When Jonahson returned to Madagascar, she took part in conservation research but found permanent jobs elusive. At one point, she was interviewing village residents about the effectiveness of a recently established park service while soldiers armed with guns and cash for locals cut down rosewood trees. It was at that point that she decided she couldn’t stay.
"I don't think my little pen and paper is going to work," she remembers thinking. "I didn't know where [this work] was going."
People often ask Anne Yoder how they can help wildlife. "To make life better for the lemurs, you have to make life better for the Malagasy people," she tells them.
Yoder and Cerchio both work extensively with Malagasy colleagues and help train Malagasy students, in hopes of fostering science, conservation, and an educated middle class in Madagascar.
Jonahson is taking another kind of action, from her adopted hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts. She recently co-founded Madagascar Botanicals, an impact investment business that sells hand-made Malagasy crafts – handbags, hats – and returns up to eight percent of proceeds to communities in Madagascar to allay the costs of basic necessities, including water, shoes, and schools.
She agrees with Yoder and Cerchio. To help Madagascar's animals, you have to help the people.
"This is as basic as, if they have food, they will not need to go into the forest for resources," she said. "It's as basic as that."