Protected areas are usually conceived and managed as static entities, although this approach is increasingly viewed as unrealistic given climate change and ecosystem dynamics. The ways in which people use land and/or natural resources within and around protected areas can also shift and evolve temporally but this remains an under-acknowledged challenge for protected area managers. Here we investigate the factors driving a rapid rise in charcoal production within a new, multiple-use protected area in Madagascar, to inform appropriate management responses. We conducted a questionnaire survey of 208 charcoal producers to ascertain the mix of livelihood activities they practised in 2010/2011 and 5 years previously. Respondents had diversified their livelihood activities over time, and cultivation and pastoralism had decreased as primary sources of revenue. Reasons for the growing reliance on charcoal production include the reduced viability of alternative livelihoods (primarily farming), as a result of changing rainfall patterns and the loss of irrigation infrastructure, as well as a growing need for cash to support themselves and their families. Our results suggest that charcoal production is not a desirable activity but a safety net when times are difficult. Conservation efforts to ameliorate underlying factors driving livelihood change, such as dam restoration, could reduce the prevalence of charcoal production, but simultaneous action to cut demand is also required. We recommend that mechanisms to detect, understand and respond to social change are integrated systematically into protected area management planning, alongside traditional biodiversity monitoring.