Reniala Nature Reserve, also called the baobab forest, was set up by a couple who wanted to preserve the flora and fauna that is so particular to the southwestern region of Madagascar.

It is located at the exit of the village of Mangily, a magnificent beach near Toliara.

The southwest of Madagascar has a hot dry climate, and is practically a desert all year round, except during the hurricane season, from January to March.

Despite the intense heat, it is really interesting to see how the local flora and fauna adapt to this climate. Reniala allows these fragile ecosystems to continue to thrive in a harmonious way.

Toliara, located in southwestern Madagascar.

Reniala Nature Reserve and ecotourism in Madagascar

Madagascar is known to have many endemic species (i.e. that only exist on the big island), which is why protecting the region’s biodiversity is vital for the country.

Being a very poor people, the Malagasy are not necessarily aware of this wealth or how to preserve it. My mother was born in Madagascar and I had the opportunity to visit my grandparents a couple of times when I was a child. I remember back then, there was a lemur on a leash in the yard. I don’t know who it belonged to, but back then (the 90s) we didn’t see the harm in owning a lemur as a pet.

Thanks to reserves like Reniala and their Lemur Rescue Center, mentalities have started to change. One of the Lemur Rescue Center’s goals is to help lemurs readjust to their natural habitat and release them from captivity.

Reniala Nature Reserve, also called ‘Reniala Ecotourisme’ on their website, has many goals: preserving, helping local communities and attracting a more sustainable type of tourism to visit their area. This is why ecotourism is so important, and even more so in developing countries like Madagascar.

I went to Toliara just before the COVID-19 pandemic, to visit my grandparents who are from the region. I was able to visit several places, like the sacred tree of Miary, the arboretum and Reniala Reserve.

The reserve organized for us to get picked up from the restaurant where we had lunch in Mangily, and brought us to the park on a zebu-drawn cart.

Reniala is a must-see for me, passionate as I am about ecotourism and Madagascar’s baobab trees!

But the reserve is not only about baobabs.

This spiny forest constitutes a far wider-reaching project and includes:

  • A botanical path
  • A baobab forest
  • An ornithological park
  • A lemur rescue center

I interviewed Maurice Adiba, the founder of the site, to find out more about how the project originated and evolved, and how the Malagasy people have played a role in its success.

Can you tell us about the history of the reserve, how it came about?

The reserve opened in 1997. I had worked as a life science teacher at the French College of Toliara from 1990 to 1993. I got married in 1992, and in 1997 returned to Toliara for a holiday with my wife’s family. During a stay in Mangily, we discovered this region and the richness of its biodiversity, with the adaptations so particular to an arid and restrictive nature. 

Aware of the need to conserve this unique ecosystem, we decided to purchase 45 hectares of forest. At the time, people thought it was crazy. What an idea to buy sand and animals and plants to live on it! Mrs. Gertrude Dame, state midwife, worked there until her death in 2019, managing the various projects and sometimes fighting very hard to protect this unique place.

What are the characteristics of the reserve?

Reniala is an endemic forest growing on red sand that is specific to the southwest of Madagascar. It now has a surface area of 60 hectares. Of the 57 plant species (Angiosperms) it contains, 44 are endemic. This rate of endemism is also very high among the animal species, which include:

  • Pyxis (a genus, or category, of tortoise)
  • Mimophis mahafaliensis (a species of snake)
  • Calumma (a Madagascan chameleon)
  • Mesitornis and Uratelornis (two genera, or categories, of bird)…

Out of 74 animal species listed at Reniala, 21 are endemic to Madagascar and 16 are endemic to the region.

This area is very representative of the endemism in Madagascar, which is why it has been identified as one of the world’s biodiversity conservation priorities.

Can you tell us more about the fauna and flora of the reserve?

There are rare and endemic birds, such as Uratolernis and Monias, as well as reptiles, small mammals (‘tenrec’), bats, and even lemurs (‘microcèbes’).

We can observe the following plants, specific to the region:

  • Baobabs with particular shapes,
  • Givotia madagascariensis (‘Farafatsy’; a softwood tree) with which we make the canoes,
  • Didiera madagascariensis with which we make the seats of the canoes…

All the species necessary for the construction of canoes, carts or houses are present in the area.

We have designed informative botanical trails that explain to visitors how plants are used in the following disciplines:

  • Medicine
  • Construction
  • Domestic use (making instruments like mandolins with a trunk or maracasses with the fruits of the Fengoky Delonix adansonioides tree.)

What challenges have you encountered in terms of conservation?

Everything had to be built from scratch. My wife and I managed to come to Madagascar every year to oversee progress, but the rest of the time, it was Madam DAME, a professional midwife at the hospital of Toliara, who was responsible for all the achievements.

She died recently, and has left a great void, as she always brought such tremendous energy and strength to the projects, which were getting crazier and crazier, like building structures, setting up tourist services, managing conservation projects, or creating the Lemur Rescue Center.

This center is the only one in Madagascar to welcome lemurs with the ultimate goal of releasing groups of them within a controlled framework.

What actions do you take to preserve the flora and fauna in the reserve?

Preserving is above all knowing.

With that in mind, we regularly invite students to carry out inventories.

Our environmental manager then writes up annual population monitoring reports for the National Office of the Environment.

We follow binding specifications backed by the environmental permit obtained in 2005 and we have an approval for the Lemur Rescue Center.

Who works there, and how were they trained?

Our staff consists of managers, Mrs. Tatiana (the manager), guides, gardeners, guards, housekeepers, cook.

We pride ourselves on welcoming unqualified people as part of our aim to support social integration within the framework of the reserve’s activities. We have even hired unqualified people to act as guides and have trained them internally. 

We believe everyone can develop skills as long as they are willing, supervised and trained. We have seen guides learning foreign languages only through the contact they have with the tourists on their tours, such is their will to succeed.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Why are baobabs magic? Are they infused by spirituality? 

Each one is unique: baobab ‘bodice’, ‘carrot’, ‘teapot’, ‘rhinoceros’ [as they might be nicknamed].

In Europe, an oak looks like an oak.

In Madagascar, a baobab – and especially in this region and this reserve – is unique, so we are free to let our imaginations roam and speculate how a certain tree acquired its shape.

Baobab ‘rhinoceros’, what life have you lived? What encounters have you had and what obstacles have you overcome to look like the only rhino in Madagascar?

Learn more or visit Reniala

Given the current situation with COVID-19, the reserve is open but with an extremely reduced staff. Reservations are therefore compulsory.

Find out more on the Reniala ecotourism website (in French).

About the Author

Edith Vandenberghe is a French travel counsellor and content writer, living in Spain and with roots in Madagascar. Her bilingual blog focuses on an eco-friendly lifestyle, including travel, wellness and inclusion.

You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook and read her blog: www.worldtravelable.com