Madagascar - an enchanting land with a bleak future
On 23 October 2012, eleven of us embarked on a two-week tour to an island we have heard so much about and craved to visit one day. Anticipation was great and trip did not disappoint. After all, Madagascar is one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots and nowhere else on Earth one finds so many unique animals and plants.
To cover the most precious habitats on the island we visited east, west, south and the middle of the island and five protected areas: Ankarafantsika National Park (Ampijoroa), the largest dry deciduous forest in Madagascar, the Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, a transition zone between the dry and humid forest, Ranomafana National Park, a tropical mountain rainforest and Mantadia National Park including Périnet Special Reserve, which represents the richest primary forest on the island. They all were fabulous ecosystems and home to amazing wildlife, but perhaps the most striking habitat (yet unprotected!) was the spiny dry-forest in the southwest of the country. The vegetation here included unique and weird looking species ranging between bottle-shaped baobabs (six out of world’s eight baobab species are found only on Madagascar), spiny Didiereaceae trees (e.g. Madagascar Ocotillo Alluaudia procera and Octopus Tree Didierea madagascariensis), Pachypodiums (e.g. Elephant Foot trees) and Euphorbias, creating a fascinating nature wonderland. Walking amongst this astonishing vegetation was truly an unforgettable experience.
Sadly, these are the last remnants of the forest that once covered most of the island. To date, 95% of the forest in Madagascar has been destroyed and reduced to a handful of isolated pockets, which still hold the last strongholds for several rare animals and plants. So, wildlife viewing on Madagascar involves visiting these isolated pockets in search for the rare creatures with the help of highly trained local guides. In between the protected areas, the rice paddies, cultivated fields and eroded wasteland fill in the horizon.
Our prime focus was the birds and within the 14-day tour we recorded 149 bird species. However, we learned very quickly that birding in Madagascar required a special skill – patience! Local knowledge was absolutely essential and we could not praise our guides enough for their skill to locate, lure and shepherd the birds for us. All we needed to do was to wait for the birds to appear! We saw representatives of all five endemic families: mesites, ground-rollers, cuckoo-rollers, asities and vangas. Of all the species seen, 45 were recorded only once and the most frequently seen birds were Common Mynah, Madagascar Bulbul and Feral Pigeon, recorded on all days except one. A gorgeous Pygmy Kingfisher was proclaimed the best bird of the trip, but only one vote ahead of the Madagascar Fish Eagle (one of the world’s rarest bird of prey) and the dazzling Schlegel’s Asity. The Madagascar Flufftail though, became the most wanted species on the list, because it eluded us for many days. Our guides were able to pinpoint their locations many times for us and although we could hear the birds, we could not see them. And, finally on the last day of our tour, we saw a M. Flufftail in its full glory on our hotel grounds!
Enigmatic lemurs undoubtedly are the most famous inhabitants on the inland and were the highlight of our tour, even for the birders. Of the 86 species of lemurs currently recognised in Madagascar, we were pleasantly surprised to see 24 of them. They ranged from as small as the Goodman’s Mouse Lemur, which weighed a mere 45 g (and looked almost like a hamster!), to the Indri, the largest of them all, attaining body weight of up to 9.5 kg.
Our fascination with Indri had no end. The Malagasy call Indri Babakoto, which literally means Ancestor of Man or Father of Man. This species once occupied almost every ridge in the mountainous forest of eastern Madagascar, but today, it is confined only to central-eastern and north-eastern part of the island. It can only be seen in its natural habitat as it does not survive in captivity due to a specialised diet from endemic forest trees. Perinet reserve is probably the best place to see them, where over 30 groups, totalling around 130 individuals, still inhabit the forest. It is the most strictly diurnal lemur and since it is active for up to 11 daylight hours, depending on season and weather conditions, one has to be really unlucky not to see them. Indris are known for their hallmark calls that they produce and which caries for up to two kilometres across the forest. The call’s primary function is assumed to be the proclamation of the territory.
We had the privilege to see Indri from close proximity. Witnessing them howling was by far the most memorable moment of the trip for the majority of us. Our guide found a group of foraging Indri high in a canopy, and while we struggled to get a clear view of them, suddenly their siren-like wailing cry echoed across the forest and all around us. The call was so loud and piercing with such intensity that it bordered on being almost unbearable. Some of us managed to get just a few metres from one calling individual and viewed the animal in action. Other Indri responded immediately and so the spectacle lasted several minutes. It was so exhilarating that the event has remained for the majority of us as one of the best wildlife experiences to date. And then, suddenly, it went all quiet again… Magic!
Almost as memorable was our encounter with a Lowland Streaked Tenrec. This tiny mammal, resembling a miniature hedgehog, has a pronounced snout and spiny quills which are barbed and prominent around the crown, giving it a truly bizarre look.
Reptiles also evolved in Madagascar in an astonishing profusion and altogether we saw 39 of them. Chameleons were perhaps most intriguing, displaying array of superb colours, sizes and shapes. Their descriptive names such as Nose-horned Chameleon Calumma nasutum, Oustalet's Chameleon Furcifer oustaleti, Rhinoceros Chameleon Furcifer rhinoceratus or Jeweled Chameleon Furcifer lateralis say it all. But, perhaps Parson’s Chameleon Fucifer parsonii, one of the biggest chameleons on the island, was most memorable with extended nostral protuberance and intricately blotched bright, green skin.
Equally astonishing and eye-catching were frogs, the only amphibians found in Madagascar. They were all very small, some smaller than a thumb nail, and it needed an eagle sharp eye to spot them. A Madagascar Mantella Mantella magascarienssi, with its contrasting colours of green, black and orange and Green Bright-eyed Frog Boophis viridis, with its protruding intense blue eyes, were amongst the most memorable encounters.
Other specialities included invertebrates, of which we indentified 31 species. An extraordinary Giraffe-necked Weevil Trachelophorus giraffa, with its bright red abdomen and elongated black neck, was the kind of creature you might expect to see in a fantasy movie, not in a real world. Giant millipedes, hissing cockroaches, oversized butterflies, mimicking moths or beautifully coloured spiders, they all exhibited some of the most extravagant and bizarre behaviour and designs. Another of those “out of this world” creatures we encountered was the Flatid Leaf Bug Phromnia rosea. The adults resembled brightly coloured flowers, but their nymphs, with the long wispy feathers-like structures, looked more like intricate lace than a creature. Interestingly, the feathery parts are made of a waxy substance produced by the nymph for defence. When a predator grasps the bug, it gets only the substance, while a nymph in a flea-like hop, escapes.
Within our two-week tour we got to know Malagasy people and we were astounded by their friendly and happy nature and readiness to assist and help, not for money but from the warmth of their hearts.
The Malagasy are descendents of settlers from East Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Africa and the Middle East. No wonder that they are more than 20 ethnic groups coexisting on the island with great diversity of faiths and customs. This diversity was particularly evident in the architecture as we passed through small settlements across the island. For instance, the poorly constructed wooden shacks in the southwest owned by the semi-nomadic coastal Vezo people, were replaced by square brick houses as we travelled into the interior of the country through the land of the Bara tribe, one of the youngest tribes in Madagascar. Houses, once again, changed their appearance and looked more elaborate, enriched with wooden balconies, carved railings and tiled/hatched roofs further north, as we passed through the highland settlements of Betsileo tribe. Here, we reached one of the most densely populated regions of Madagascar and it was clear that forest has given way to rice paddies and cultivated fields.
Today, Madagascar is home to more than 21 million people, with the island’s population almost doubling in the past 25 years. Eighty percent of people in Madagascar is estimated to live below the poverty line and depend on subsistence farming for survival. In the face of the extremely high population growth rate and poverty in rural areas, the demand for firewood, charcoal, land, farming and herding practices puts an extreme pressure on the country’s natural habitats. Destruction of habitat is the main threat to Madagascar’s wildlife, but now even hunting for bushmeat is becoming a serious issue, with wild animals such as rare lemurs, tencrecs and bats being targeted. In addition, global markets also put pressure on these resources, with a high demand for rosewood trees, for instance, for a lucrative furniture market in China. Even the protected areas are threatened from the disappearance of adjoining habitat outside their boundaries. This disappearance is caused primarily by logging and replacement of rainforest with commercial Australian eucalyptus and Chinese pine forests.
What is even more shocking is that potentially wealthy Madagascar, with wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, is currently one of the world’s poorest countries in the world. Unless the current and future generations strike a balance between Madagascar’s nature conservation and economic growth, the future of one of the most precious wildife on Earth, looks bleak.
In retrospect, our abiding memories that we have taken with us from this trip are the smiley faces and friendly nature of the Malagasy people, the abundance of lemurs, the quality of birds, the pristine forests, fabulous plant life, cold beer and the variety and quality of food. Unfortunately, the joy of visiting Madagascar and seeing such unique wildlife on an unprecedented scale, was overshadowed by our concern for the future of this amazing island, its wildlife and people.