A team of charity workers were “nail-bitingly close” to being stranded in a remote conservation area of Madagascar amid the coronavirus crisis.
Some 12 workers from British charity Seed Madagascar were conducting research to help protect endangered species and support communities in the Fort Dauphin area.
When a national travel ban was imposed by the Madagascan government in response to the global pandemic, the charity workers turned to the British Embassy for help in securing their journey back to the UK.
On the south-east coast of Madagascar, Fort Dauphin is a five-day drive from the capital Antananarivo – through rough forest terrain on unpaved roads – and has little access to basic healthcare.
Eve Englefield, senior project development officer for conservation, said: “When Madagascar closed the international borders, a few people left, but I felt committed to staying and supporting the communities as much as possible.
“Unfortunately, the situation changed faster than we could ever have imagined.”
The journey was orchestrated by Dr Phil Boyle, British Ambassador to Madagascar, who secured 12 seats for the team on a special Air France flight.
The Malagasy authorities then had to grant permission for the group to travel during the strict lockdown – firstly overland and then by special airlift from Fort Dauphin to the main international airport.
But the team faced another hurdle when they made it to Antananarivo, as four of them were without their passports.
Research coordinator Kat Strang, from the Waikato region of New Zealand, said: “Four of us didn’t have passports, which were in the capital so that our visas could be renewed.
“When Covid-19 was confirmed in Madagascar, the passports got locked down less than 24 hours before our flight.”
The British Embassy team printed emergency documents, including for New Zealand national Ms Strang, while an official from the French Embassy drove the passports in his diplomatic car for the Air France flight.
All of those evacuated are still working on the projects they were working on before, but now spread over seven different countries and time zones.
The charity conducts research to help protect endangered species in the Fort Dauphin area, including three species of lemur.
It also supports local communities through projects to improve education infrastructure, community health and sustainable livelihoods.
Lisa Bass, director of programmes and operations SEED Madagascar, said: “It was nail-bitingly close.
“With our team now spread over 7 different countries and time zones across the world, Seed is continuing to support people in Madagascar.
“We are already making plans for returning, as soon as it’s safe enough to do so.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “Helping stranded British travellers return home has been a priority for the FCO since this crisis began.
“We continue to help British travellers, whether it’s providing support on the ground, keeping commercial routes open, or coordinating charter flights.”