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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

Published on October 02, 2011 with No Comments

Located 250 miles off Africa’s east coast, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world; however, it has an extraordinary biodiversity.

This island –the fourth largest in the world- separated from Africa about 135 million years ago, making plants and animals evolve in complete isolation.

The mere idea of visiting “a place like no other on earth” -as Madagascar is usually described- fascinated me. Seeing the famous lemurs face to face and in their natural habitat was –for a while- in my list of “must do.”

Ranomafana Park

As a nature lover and animal advocate, I also felt the need to see first hand what was going on in Madagascar… high rates of deforestation are putting many of the island’s endemic species in danger of extinction. According to WWF, Madagascar has lost more than 80 percent of its forest and continues to lose about 200,000 hectares every year.

I met Mami upon my arrival in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.

Mami on the left

This kind and big Malagasy of bubbly personality was a local guide and a driver. Although he lived with his wife in Tana –as Antananarivo is called- he was from Ranomafana, a well-known national park and one of the main attractions of route N7, which connects the Malagasy capital to Tulear, in the very south of the island.

The signs of deforestation were visible as we drove away from the city and entered the countryside. Some areas were completely “tree-less” and/or burned.

“Madagascar was the green island, now it is the red one,” Mami said.

Our surroundings were mostly naked red soil, which where decorated with brick houses of the same color.

We came across extended areas of lush rice-paddies and also very dried mountains.

Although it is forbidden by law, locals continue to do use the slash and burn, which is devastating for the environment.

“People don’t know much about deforestation. It is a problem,” explained Mami.

The image I had in my mind of Madagascar was very different from the one in front of my eyes. I imagined an island covered with green and vast forests. The deforestation problem seemed to be much worse than what I expected.

The “bald” landscape and the rice paddies

Most of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed by archaic agriculture, pasture, bush fire, the logging of high value hardwoods and the production of charcoal.

After a long drive along N7, Mami turned into another road that lead to Ranomafana. As we drove further, the naked and brownish landscape transformed into a dense forest. The air felt cooler, wetter, cleaner. This was the Madagascar I imagined.

“It used to be all like this you know. All green. Of course before humans came here,” said Mami.

Created in 1991 following the 1986 discovery of the golden bamboo lemur by well-respected Patricia Wright, Ranomafana has been a model for parks and reserves not only in Madagascar but also abroad.

A modern building was constructed just a few meters from its entrance. It was the renowned Centre VialBio, a research and scientific facility that also offers education programs about deforestation and preservation so locals can understand why conservation is important for them and for the biodiversity.

In there, I met a tall woman in her mid or late 30s with long blond her and blue eyes. Her name was Eileen Larney, an American Researcher who worked as the Chief Technical advisor for Vialbio. She was from New York, but had been living abroad for a long time, including several years in the forest of Thailand. Eileen moved to Madagascar two years ago and made this change because she felt her work and experience were more needed in a country like Madagascar where there is so much to be done and so much at stake.

“We will chat later,” Eileen encouraged me to first explore the park.

Mami was excited and eager to introduce me to the lemurs in a park he knew so well.

Although the lemurs look like a cat or a big furry rat, it is actually a primate, one of the first to evolve. These animals evolved in isolation in Madagascar, filling, according to Eillen, the niches left by other animals that don’t exist in this island, keeping a balance in the ecosystem.

While there are over 110 species of lemurs, some of these fascinating creatures are in danger of extinction, as there is not some much forest left in Madagascar.

“These forests are in small islands within the island, so there are isolated populations of lemurs that cannot reach other because there is nothing, no forest in between, to connect them,” Eillen explained.

It was time to explore one of those remaining pockets of rainforests.

In the park, Mami and I walked through a path paved with stones. The trail became indistinguishable as we moved further into the thick and green vegetation of Madagascar’s wilderness.

Mami said that about 12 -different species of lemurs lived in the park; two of them -the Greater Bamboo lemur and the Golden bambu lemur- are critically endangered. This park was actually founded in 1986 to protect these two species.

Suddenly Mami’s cell phone rang. One of his friends –also a guide- informed him that he had found some Golden bamboo lemurs.

“Let’s run. It is not far,” Mami struggled with his extra pounds to hike up the trail.

We fortunately made it. The beautiful furry creatures were up in the canopies. Ranomafana is one of the two habitats where the Golden lemur lives and visitors rarely see them.
With their long golden tail hanging from the tree, they looked down at us with curiosity. They jumped from tree to tree until they found a place to rest. When they sleep, they put their long tail around their body, looking like a big fury ball!

Mami also spotted some red-bellied lemurs, a medium sized lemur with chestnut brown coat and with white skin below the eyes. They played and jumped from tree to tree.

Not so far from there, we encountered the sifakas, a large lemur with long and luxuriant white and black coat.

It has been about an hour in the forest and we had seen three different species of lemurs. This was a lucky day!

These animals are so unique even among their own species. They look like a mix of a primate, a rat, a koala, or something in between.

Mami’s phone rang again. The rare Greater Bamboo lemur had also made a public appearance! This species of
lemur was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1972. Nowadays, there are about 400 remaining in the wild.

The Bamboo Lemur

“You are very very lucky. I haven’t seen it in a year and I come here a lot,” said Mami.

When we first saw them, they were in the canopies of the giant bamboo plants, but slowly they came down to the ground, eating eagerly the little pieces of bamboo they held in their tiny hands. Although they are rarely seen, they didn’t seem afraid of us. They were eating undisturbed their bamboos, and we stood only about a meter away from them.

During those seven hours exploring Ranomafana, we saw five different species of lemurs, but also reptiles, chameleons and mongooses. I still had other national parks to visit along route N7, but this first contact with Madagascar’s wilderness left no doubt in my mind that this island was indeed like no other place on Earth.

Back in the centre, Eileen talked the staff while I chatted with other researchers, including some who worked in the disease department. Some studies have found that the water that locals drink is highly contaminated with bacteria, which caused children to have diarrhea, one of the reasons of the high child mortality in Madagascar. Teaching the population something as simple as boiling water has been a challenge because many Malagasy people don’t yet understand the importance of it.

Educating the population about conservation has also been a challenge. But the VialBio team is optimistic and committed to make a change by making local care and get involved in the protection of the biodiversity.

As a scientist, conservationist and a person who cares about people, Eileen felt that it was critical to find a balance or a way to feed the growing population and preserve nature.

“The environment cannot longer sustain the local agricultural practices, but people need to eat. There are not enough food supplies. Food security and health are a big problem in Madagascar. To make it worse, there are a few roads as you have seen Daniela, so it is hard to get to those remote communities across the island to educate them why protection of the ecosystem is good for them as well as for the environment,” said Eillen. “It is not about the biodiversity. We are integrating the people in the landscape.”

The slash-and-burn agriculture is a mayor threat to the forest all across Madagascar, but there is another problem. In the northern part of island, large extractions of materials and resources have been occurring without the control of the government.

“And Malagasy people are not even benefiting from the commercial exploitation of their own resources,” said Eileen.

Not only is critical to protect the forest to save the habitat of animals, but it is important for humans’ health as well. As I talked to Eileen, I realized that there is a department dedicated to study diseases and potential cures.

“Large scale diseases, like malaria, can be treated with leaves found in this forest!” said Eileen.
Madagascar’s biodiversity is so vast and extraordinary that new findings happen everyday. A lot has been found and documented, but there is still a lot to be discovered.

“Pretty much we don’t know what is going on in Madagascar still. As we find out more, there are more questions to be asked,” Eileen explained. “We have found new frog species, we are still figuring out the lemur species. There are constant reviews. There are new birds and spiders that can only find in Ranomafana. Actually, we have found in this park the toughest and longest spider webs, which can reach even 30 meters. Not only that, it has been proved that it is the toughest silk in the world,” she said with fascination.

Exploring Madagascar

As Eileen and VialBio, there are many other people and organizations –locals and worldwide- devoted to save Madagascar’s remaining forests. This is a taxing but a critical mission. Some studies estimate that if the current rate of deforestation continues, all of Madagascar’s forests will be lost within 40 years.

I was lucky to have enjoyed of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity and have seen first hand those rarely seen and critically endangered species. My hope is that many generations to come can too.

To read more about it or contribute to preservation efforts in Madagascar, visit:

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