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Q & A with Charles Welch

Charles Welch, conservation coordinator for the Duke Lemur Center, was nominated for the Indianapolis Prize.
Charles Welch, conservation coordinator for the Duke Lemur Center, was nominated for the Indianapolis Prize.

Charles Welch works to save lemurs for a living. As conservation coordinator for the Duke Lemur Center, Welch oversees the Center’s conservation efforts on the ground in the lemurs’ only natural habitat, Madagascar. He and his wife, Lemur Center Colony Manager and fellow conservationist Andrea Katz, began work there in 1987, living year-round in the island nation for 15 years starting in 1989. As partners with the Madagascar Fauna Group, a coalition dedicated to wildlife conservation in Madagascar, they developed the Parc Ivoloina, a project of the MFG that began as a holding facility for lemurs but has since expanded its efforts to include environmental education, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and capacity building for Malagasy people in many sectors of society. Welch also oversaw the first reintegration of captive-born lemurs into their natural habitat. Welch and Katz both received the National Order of Merit of Madagascar for their efforts.

Now back in Durham, Welch recently garnered a nomination for the Indianapolis Prize, a prestigious $100,000 award for animal conservation, presented by the Indianapolis Zoo. Over the next several months, judges will determine six finalists out of the 29 nominees, one of whom will receive the prize at a gala next September.

The Chronicle’s Julian Spector recently spoke with Welch about the nomination, the challenges of conservation in developing countries and the centrality of humans in the protection of animals.

TC: How did it feel to hear about your nomination?

CW: [I was] kind of surprised actually. There are some very qualified people among the 29 nominees. I feel very honored to get this far in the process, and it has helped us as the Duke Lemur Center to draw attention to our work in conservation…. One way [the prize] generates so much interest in it is the very large carrot of the $100,000 prize. You can do a lot in a developing country with a $100,000 in terms of conservation so it’s a nice carrot.... It would be a great boost to our project over there. But I am also quite realistic of my chances of winning, which are not very good—there are some very reputable conservationists that are nominees and they stand a very good chance of winning the prize. But that’s what I could use the money for. It’s always fun to plan... Because my wife Andrea Katz and I work together, I really consider it a joint nomination.

TC:What particular challenges do you face in the lemur conservation effort?

CW: Huge challenges—Madagascar is an extremely poor country. I think maybe it’s down to one of the five poorest in the world, certainly the ten poorest. Therein lies the huge problem. Many Malagasy in poor areas are living off the land and practicing subsistence agriculture. Mostly in the east, where we were, it’s slash and burn, which means cutting the forest and burning it as it dries out. It’s just not sustainable. It’s a dire situation now. Lemurs are sometimes hunted and eaten, but the huge problem is loss of habitat. But you can’t just go in and say ‘quit growing food to feed your families.’ So that’s why we put a lot of emphasis on sustainable agricultural practices—growing rice in paddies that can be reused, growing vegetables, growing fruits sustainably and even commercial foods like cloves, vanilla and coffee. Diversification of crops, getting away from just slash and burn.

TC: How do you convince the subsistence farmers to adapt to more sustainable techniques?

CW: You have to convince them primarily that it’s in their interest, [but] they don’t have the luxury really to think about [what is] in their interest in the long term. So that’s why we’ve focused on teaching sustainable agriculture. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that culturally their traditions have been subsistence-type agriculture, and that’s very hard to change… A lot of it is just about teaching the new techniques. It’s not a situation where people need expensive new fertilizers. But you have to go after it from the educational aspect as well. People have to start thinking about the value of the forest and the value protected land can have to them. But the kids are open-minded, much more open-minded than the adults, and they pick up new ideas more quickly. When you are working with teachers the teachers are often the most respected people in rural communities because they are often the most educated. They talk to the adults and the community members, so if you can generate some enthusiasm with the teachers as well they spread the word to the adult community, not just the kids that they are teaching.

TC:Have you seen progress since you started working in Madagascar?

CW: It’s hard to measure, but yes, I think we are making progress. We’ve seen progress in that there are areas protected that if the Madagascar Fauna Group had not been working there would almost certainly be gone, because the Madagascar National Park Service has had some difficulty protecting some areas. In [19]89, people really didn’t have an idea about the importance of protecting their environment, wisely managing their environment and that mentality has very much changed there now since we’ve started. And there are a lot more Malagasy nationals working in conservation now. I’m not saying it’s just due to what we were doing—there are a lot of conservation organizations working in Madagascar, so it brings a higher profile to conservation.

TC: It sounds like your work to conserve lemurs really boils down to working with people.

CW: By the time we left [Ivoloina], our work was probably 95 percent people work. People have these visions that we worked out in the forest all the time with lemurs jumping through the trees, but we worked with students, teachers, farmers and government officials at all levels…. The major threat to lemurs is man, the destruction of habitat, so it brings you back to working with people and in the end it’s their country so you have to convince them of the importance of conservation, that it’s an important thing to do or in the long run things will revert. We’ve seen projects come in and try to do too much in too short a period of time with no follow-up, and when the international organization pulls out [the situation] just goes back to the way it was, it just collapses. It really needs a long-term investment.

TC: How do you stay motivated?

CW: You just have to keep telling yourself that you are making a difference and when you are working there you get these small “aha” moments that make it all worth it. But there’s nothing more depressing than when the slash and burn season rolls around and the air is full of smoke, and it moves across the country to areas where there is no burning. You have to be committed to taking it on long-term, to being patient and not expecting quick and immediate results.

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