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ecoDestinations - Madagascar
Tonga soa e!
Located off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is the world’s fifth largest island. Once known as the Kingdom of Madagascar that was ruled by Merina nobles, the monarchy collapsed under French colonialism. In 1960, Madagascar regained independence and has since undergone four major constitutional periods. The population of Madagascar is estimated to number at 22 million, 90% of whom lives off of subsistence farming. Ecotourism is one of the key elements of Madagascar’s development.
About 100 and 200 million years ago, Madagascar separated from Gondwanaland, creating a unique ecosystem of plants and animals that have long since disappeared from other parts of the world. Four out of the five species of plants and animals are endemic, making Madagascar one of the seventeen megadiverse countries in the world. The island is home to lush rain forests, tropical dry forests, plateaus, and deserts. With 5,600 km (1,830 mi) of coastline, its coastal areas are among the richest and most diversified including coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries, and marshes.
Madagascar’s most famous animal is the lemur, a relation of the monkey, with fox-like faces and opposable thumbs. Ninety-three different species of lemur have currently been identified in Madagascar including the red-ruffed lemur, the indri (the largest), the mouse lemur (the smallest), and the silky sifaka (the rarest and known for its rattling call).
While more than 80% of the country’s original forest cover has been lost, studies indicate that the rate of deforestation has declined from 0.82% during the 1990s to 0.55% between 2000 and 2005 and 0.4% between 2005 and 2010 (Convention on Biological Diversity). However, even the loss of one hectare of forest in Madgascar has a larger effect on biodiversity than forest loss anywhere else in the world due to its high rate of endemism. Today many animals and plants are threatened, such as rosewood trees, tortoises, chameleons, geckos and snakes, which are targeted by traffickers. The Ploughshare tortoise, for example, is found only in a small area of Madagascar where as few as a thousand of these animals survive. On the black market they can be sold for up to $200,000 as exotic pets. In addition, 2,300 plants are used for medicinal purposes in Madagscar, 90% of which have not been commercialized. These medicinal plants are a potential source of great income and scientific advancement, yet deforestation threatens their existence.
The people of Madagascar are known as the Malagasy. They number at 21 million people and come from 20 different ethnic groups. They draw their heritage from Borneo, East Africa, India and the Middle East. In fact, their language, also called Malagasy, is most closely related to a language spoken in Borneo. Despite all sharing a common language, there can be tension between the different ethnic groups, as well as between regions such as rural vs. urban. The largest ethnic group is the Merina, which means “those from the country where one can see far” and refers to their traditional homeland in the highlands. Representing more than a quarter of the total population, they are also the most organized in terms of social, economic, and political structures. The second largest group of peoples are the Betsimisaraka, which means “numerous and inseparable”. Their traditional homeland is along the coast. Other ethnic groups include also the Antambahoaka, the Zafi-Raminia, the Antalaotra, and the Sakalava.
In Madagascar, there are also several immigrant groups. The largest minority is the Indo-Pakistanis, who follow the Muslim faith, and tend to work in small businesses. They are denied citizenship and have often been the target of boycotts. The Comorans were once the second largest minority, but after the racial riots in the 1970s that resulted in over a thousand deaths, many of them were repatriated to the Comoros. As a former French colony, there are a small number of French citizens living in Madagascar. There is also a small Chinese community along the coast.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
Ambohimanga: Consisting of a royal city and burial site, Ambohimanga is associated with strong feelings of national identity and remains a place of worship for pilgrims from Madagascar and beyond. The site contains holy places such as fountains, sacred basins, and sacrificial stones, as well as majestic royal trees. Irrigated rice paddies nearby give a remarkable testimony to the austro-indonesian heritage of the locals. The Royal Hill is the burial ground for the sovereigns of a kingdom that existed between the 15th and 19th centuries. Ambohimanga is also the site of important historic events, such as the Malagasy place of unification.
Atsinanana: Comprising of 6 different national parks along the eastern side of the island, the rainforests of Atsinanana are critically important for maintaining Madagascar’s unique biodiversity. The level of endemism is between 80% to 90% for all groups. These forests have also offered important refuge for species during past periods of climate change and will be essential for the survival of species in the future climage change. Iconic species in the site include the Madagascar Climbing Frog, Madagascar Pond-heron, Radiated Tortoise, fossa, aye-aye, Malagasy Mongoose, Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur, and Meller’s Duck.
Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve: The undisturbed forests, lakes and mangrove swamps are a refuge for the rare and endangered lemurs of Tsingy de Bemaraha. A “tsingy” is karst limestone formation that appears like peaks or forests of needles and rise some 300-400 m (980-1300 ft) above the rivers and savannahs of the reserve. Iconic species that inhabit this site include Henst’s Gowshawk, the Madagascar teal, the antsingy leaf chameleon, the western wooly lemur and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur.
Amber Mountain: Known for its many waterfalls and volcanic lakes, Amber Mountain gives ecotravelers good opportunities to spot stum-tailed chameleons, crowned lemurs, and butterflies. Popular hikes include Cascade Sacree and Cascade Antankarana.
Andasibe: Many ecotravelers come to Andasibe to hear the call of the Indri, the largest living lemur that reaches up to 1 m (3 ft) in height. They live amongst dense humid forests covered with lianas, moss, ferns, trees, and hundreds of different orchid species. Other extraordinary wildlife that inhabit the Park include the Madagascar baza, the boa manditra, and the many leaf-tailed geckos.
Ankarafantsika: One of the largest and last remaining sections of dry decidious forest in Madagascar, Ankarafantsika is filled with critically endangered and endemic species. The National Park is also one of Madagascar’s finest birdwatching areas with krestels, Rufous vanga, and Madagascar fish eagles. The flora is rich as well with more than 800 different species of plants including baobabs, wild vanilla, and crocodile tree.
Ankarana: Underground canyons, deep caves, tropical jungles, and deciduous forests make up Ankarana National Park. The forests are home to some of the largest densities of primates in the world, including Perrier’s black lemur and Sanford’s brown lemur. Inside the labyrinth of caves are swarms of bats, flying foxes, and the world’s only known cave-dwelling crocodiles.
Isalo: Sandstone massifs wildly eroded by wind and rain into bizarre ridges characterize Isalo, one of Madagascar’s most popular National Parks. It is the habitat of ring-tailed lemurs, brown lemuts, and sifakas that hide in the dense vegetation of the Jurassic forests. Popular hikes in the Park include Canyones des Singes, the Namaza circuit and Isalo Massif.
Ranomafana: One of the most spectacular national parks in Madagascar, Ranomafana is home to 8 different species of bats, 90 different kinds of butterflies, and 12 species of lemurs. Ecotravelers are advised to take night hikes, when flashlights reflect the iridescence of chameleons. The plants here are quite extraordinary as well, containing plethora of medicinal plants, orchids, and carnivorous plants.
Alley of the Baobabs: Baobabs are usually solitary trees, yet in the Alley of the Baobabs they cluster together forming an avenue along a red dirt road. Their massive trunks have evolved to a large water storage capacity, holding up to 300 litres of water, and enabling it to live through long periods without rain. Most live up to over 500 years.
Nosy Be: A sleepy beach resort, Nosy Be is a beautiful island surrounded by gorgeous bays and deserted beaches. Its name means “Big Island” in Malagasy but is often called “Nosy Manitra”, which means “Perfumed Island”, after the scents wafting from the nearby ylang ylang, coffee, cacao, vanilla, and sugar cane plantations. The island also offers spectacular snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities.
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