The Phoenix Conservancy has developed a unique approach to restoration, employing thousands of people while creating thousands of forest islands that rapidly kickstart natural forest regeneration in Ivohiboro. Dubbed "Foxhole Forests," we designed this novel technique to restore rainforest as fast and economically as possible without putting Ivohiboro's main forest at risk for destruction by wildfires (in fact, this site and our work are so unique that they were featured in The Smithsonian Magazine!)
Fires burn along the eastern edge of Ivohiboro and beyond in 2011.
"Wait, are there foxes in Madagascar?"
Aside from Flying Foxes (the bat), no. Instead, "Foxhole Forest" describes the overall technique's central restoration tactic: nucleation. Forest nucleation is the process of creating small cells of native plants rather than evenly distributing plants across a landscape. Nucleation, especially with native "pioneer" species that grow and spread rapidly, allows each Foxhole Forest to essentially act as a nursery for other species that otherwise would not survive in the harsh, dry conditions of open grassland.
"So what exactly is a Foxhole Forest?"
Each Foxhole Forest is a 10-meter diameter plot surrounded by a small mound of dirt called a "cup firebreak." To help trap rainwater, that mound is taller on the downslope side, which is called a "bund." The combination cup firebreak-bund prevents fires from burning the pioneer plants growing from seeds inside each Foxhole. The arrangement of Foxholes also acts as fire protection. All Foxholes are planted behind two rows of 10-meter wide firebreaks, which resemble the kinds used by wildland firefighters in the western United States. Fires have to cross these two firebreaks and navigate a matrix of Foxhole Forests to reach the main body of Ivohiboro. Plus, Foxholes are not planted at the Forest's edge to prevent the growing plants from acting as "fire ladders" into the Forest canopy.
Community members clear a circle of vegetation to make room for a Foxhole Forest.
"Foxhole Forests are planted with seeds? Why not tree seedlings?"
Many projects rear plants in nurseries and transplant those seedlings to their restoration sites, but that process is expensive and risky for plants used to being well cared for. Planting seeds costs far less, allowing us to cover larger areas and hire more community members for assistance. We also initially use the seeds of "pioneer" species, ensuring the plants will be better adapted to the harsh conditions of the wild.
"What is a 'pioneer' species then?"
Our project seeks to transition open grassland to mature forest, a process that will take decades, if not centuries, to complete. It is tempting to start restoration by planting tree species found in mature forest, but those species grow best in places that are already mature forest, not grassland. To get restoration going, we need species that can "pioneer" the ecological transition. These species, such as Sakoa (Sclerocarya birrea) and Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan), grow quickly in dry, exposed environments. As they develop, the pioneer species create the cool, moist microenvironments mature forest tree species need to survive.
Forest rangers prepare Sakoa (Sclerocarya birrea) seeds for planting in Foxhole Forests.
"What happens to the pioneer species in the long run?"
As Foxhole Forests grow, they will attract seed dispersers like lemurs and birds that will bring in new plant species from the main body of Ivohiboro. The pioneer species we chose will be out-competed by these new arrivals. However, the economic benefits of the pioneer species will incentivize and fund continuous expansion of Foxhole Forests as Ivohiboro's boundary grows.
"What economic benefits?"
The pioneer species we chose also have substantial economic value. Communities can sustainably harvest and sell commodities derived from these species to earn income, which incentivizes and funds planting of more Foxhole Forests. For example, native Sakoa trees produce abundant fruits, the seeds of which contain a valuable oil used in the skincare and cosmetics industries. Native Voatsiperifery (Piper borbonense) vines can be planted to grow on those Sakoa trees to produce delicious peppercorns.
A voatsiperifery vine (Piper borbonense) grows on a tree (background). A producer holds fresh (left) and dried peppercorns (right).
"Are the Foxhole Forests working?"
So far, yes! The oldest Foxholes were planted in March 2021 and are just about ready to be planted with the next suite of forest species. So far, we have planted 385 Foxholes, but our goal is to surround Ivohiboro with more than 5,000 of them.
"How can I help?"
Each Foxhole Forest costs about $120 USD to plant, with that money paying community partners to collect seeds and construct the Foxholes themselves. If you would like to "Adopt a Foxhole," you can donate $120 and leave a comment in the donation form to let us know that is what your donation is for. We'll send you coordinates and a picture once your Foxhole is planted (planting usually occurs in November and March as conditions allow). However, any donation, no matter how small, supports these efforts. Community members who have worked with us to plant Foxhole Forests have told us the income they earned helped them send their children to school and survive famine.
Forest rangers collect data on a 1.5-year-old Foxhole Forest filled with Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan).
We could not have accomplished the success we have had so far with Foxhole Forests without the generous financial support of the IUCN Save Our Species program, the Stockel Family Foundation, the Butler Family Foundation, the Rufford Foundation, the DierenPark Amersfoort Wildlife Fund, and numerous individual donors. To everyone who has contributed to our restoration efforts in Madagascar, thank you.
Dozens of Foxhole Forests (circles) and Firebreak (line following the ridge to the left) as seen from Google Earth satellite imagery.