Will Madagascar's Magic Survive the 21st Century?
The world’s fourth-largest island is home to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity with most of it found nowhere else on the planet. But deforestation puts all that at risk.
You only have to walk through a national park on the world’s fourth-largest island to see the “mad” in its name. You can see it in the towering octopus tree, its spindly cactus-like branches eerie in the low evening light of the spiny forest. You hear it from that conspiracy—yes, that is the group name—of lemurs squeaking in the trees (the lemur evolved solely on this isle and doesn’t exist naturally anywhere else in the world). Then there is the painted Mantella frog, who appears to have paid the local tattoo artist a visit—“Hey mate, can you do my right leg in fluorescent green and my back in bright pink with yellow stripes?”
And it’s because of flora and fauna like this that Madagascar is known as the world’s eighth continent—it’s no tourist board strapline, that’s for sure. Around 80 percent of the island’s nature is classified as endemic: It simply does not exist anywhere else on the planet, and so much of it (around 200,000 species) is very different to anything else.
The lemurs are the island’s piece de resistance, certainly for first-timers. This monkey-like creature comes in a variety of sizes, from the largest species, the indri, whose wailing sound is one you’ll never forget, to the mischievous womble-like black-and-white ruffed lemur to the jumping sifaka and the tiny mouse lemur, which has an almost-magical quality to it. With few predators, lemurs are relatively fearless, and a close-up encounter in the wild is easy to come by.
Madagascar attracted naturalists long before Darwin formed his theories of evolution in the Galápagos in the mid-19th century. As early as 1771, French naturalist Joseph Philibert Commerson called Madagascar a “promised land” for naturalists, where “nature seems to have retreated into a private sanctuary to work on models other than those she has created elsewhere.”
When you tell anyone you’re off to Madagascar, it piques the interest of even the well-traveled—there’s something about “Madders” that fascinates. After all, this is the island that floated off the coast of Africa, didn't quite make it to India, and now sits in the middle of the Indian Ocean sheltering all manner of wild and wonderful things.
Lemurs aside—and there’s nothing “aside” about lemurs—this country has half the world's chameleon species and birds and bugs of such intense color that you think your camera has added a filter. And, as one friend said of driving in Madagascar, “The landscapes change all the time… [it’s like] driving through different continents in one day.” That’s no exaggeration. You can go from dry desert to spiny forest to a white-sand beach in an afternoon. It certainly feels like nature’s signature laboratory, where inventors designed all manner of life, from gigantic baobab trees to tiny giraffe-necked weevils. So how did this one island manage to produce so much diversity?
Unlike many other islands of similar appeal, wildlife-wise at least, Madagascar isn’t the result of a volcanic eruption. In fact, it was part of the supercontinent that formed most of the southern hemisphere, Gondwana. Then, some 200 million years ago, Gondwana started to break up, creating what we know today as Asia, India, Africa, Antarctica and South America. Madagascar was still attached to Africa when it broke off around 163 million years ago, with India still attached to it, and it’s estimated that the island broke off from what was to become India some 80 million years ago.
Thus the world’s fourth-largest island became one of nature’s most remarkable laboratories, a place where evolution took its own course, where most life forms didn’t survive the journey across the ocean, and where new lifeforms—such as the enormous elephant bird, lemurs the size of gorillas, and pygmy hippos, all now extinct—emerged, responding to a new environment away from the “distractions” of the mainland.
But this country isn’t just about magnificent wildlife and landscapes. To leave without a sense of its cultural make-up would be to miss out on what makes Madagascar tick. Mix together African and Asian bloodlines, throw in Arab influences and finish off with a dose of French colonization, and you get a sense of the variety in Malagasy culture. The island nation’s 26 million people are divided among some 18 ethnic groups, either Highlanders or coastal dwellers, with the Merina group (Highlanders) being the largest. The island’s original inhabitants are Austronesian and Southeast Africans, later joined by settlers from East Africa, Bantu Africans and others, who make up today’s modern Malagasy population.
Toky Andriamora, our guide and driver, who is effectively a human mobile library of facts, figures, and tales, tells us of different tribal, spiritual, and ancestral customs and fady, loosely translated as “taboos,” rules that govern when you may or may not do certain activities. “The Bara tribes are known as shepherds of zebu cattle,” Toky says, “and back in the day a groom would steal cattle before the wedding to prove his manhood!” En route to Isalo National Park, past the mountain chain of Andringitra, an imposing rock face has us snapping away; but it’s more than a roadside photo stop. “This is the Bishop’s Hat,” says Toky. “It’s a sacred place for the local Betsileo, where their ancestors chose a collective suicide instead of surrendering to the Merina tribes who were gaining power in the region.” As a Merino himself, Toky cannot climb this rock, nor can tourists unless guided by a member of the Betsileo.
Yet despite the richness of wildlife, culture, and history, Malagasy life is a tough slog for most citizens. Each day we travel along the RN7 from the capital towards the southwest coast, we ask ourselves the same question: How can a place so rich in resources, wildlife, and plant life be so poor? Around 75 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day. Many children never go to school—either because it’s too far or too expensive for anyone beyond the eldest child—although things are improving, with a current 65 percent literacy rate.
Deforestation is a huge issue in Madagascar, its palm and rosewood trees in high demand, leaving forests decimated across the country. Primary forest now covers only 12 percent of the country, and historically the government has shown little interest in conservation. It’s little wonder most of the country’s lemur species are at risk of extinction, with the rarely spotted aye-aye already on the brink.
Ironically, tourism may the salvation of conservation: people will travel thousands of miles for one-off wildlife encounters and pristine landscapes. But for that to work, the tourist industry needs to provide income for locals, support local cultures, and do so sustainably, beating the quick-fix appeal of money from logging and hunting.
It was the French, during the years of colonization, who created the first national parks, although under their rule and in the name of economic progress, almost three-quarters of the primary forest was cleared from 1895 to 1925, contributing hugely to deforestation. Subsequently, conservation didn’t get much attention from the government until after independence from France. But even today, guides such as ours at the popular Ranomafana National Park complain of the “higher-ups in Tana [Antananarivo, the capital] who pocket the funding and leave the locals with little.”
Ranomafana is also home to the ValBio primate research center, where Professor Jonah Ratsimbazafy works for the Lemur Conservation Network. He’s well aware of the problems facing conservation: “Madagascar is the fifth poorest country in the world,” he says, “and people depend largely on natural resources—slash-and burn agriculture, hunting, forest harvesting, etc. Bad governance and corruption make it more difficult, so it’s a challenge to fight poverty alleviation. But the development of eco-tourism managed by local communities could help to improve the livelihoods.”
For some Malagasy, the country’s thriving gemstone mining industry, centered around the boomtown of Ilakaka, has been a lifeline. Toky tells us of a time when you couldn’t drive through it without some security assistance. “It was a real Wild West-style frontier town,” he says. “It’s much calmer now, but still not a place to have the windows down and your camera out.”
There’s still a whiff of the Wild West here. Behind barred windows, gemstone dealers sit behind desks, while cash and stones pass through the gaps, each side looking for a good deal. In the river that runs alongside town, women wash clothes, men wash cars, children play together—while around them, others are sieving or panning the soil in trays to see if something sparkles.
This particular adventure ends in the spiny forest near Ifaty, on the island’s southwest coast. It’s this habitat that travel writer Dervla Murphy was referring to when she described Madagascar as "a botanical lunatic asylum." Here giant, centuries-old baobabs, their thick branches doing jazz hands in the sky, stand like immovable giants, while octopus trees swirl around them. In one, a snake is eating a mouse lemur, the dying animal’s cries squeaking in the oven-like heat of the afternoon. In this surreal setting, after two weeks of delving deeper and deeper into the Alice in Wonderland-esque rabbit hole that is Madagascar, things really do get curiouser and curiouser.
If you go:
Madagascar specialists Rainbow Tours’ “Classic Madagascar Overland: the RN7 Route and Andasibe” trip costs begin at £3,675 per person, including transfers, half-board accommodation, internal flight, driver, guides, and park fees. Phone: 020 3733 5050.
Ethiopian Airlines fly daily to Antananarivo via Addis Ababa from £512 per person. Phone: 800-016-3449