Environmental & Conservation issues of the "Eighth Continent"
08.04.2017 - 28.04.2017
Blogs are a great means of describing in detail what the writer wants to convey in an environment where word count is not a factor. This write-up elaborates on my recently published article in Forbes Woman Africa (FWA), Jun-Jul 2017. There is little doubt that Madagascar is one of the final frontiers for the discovery of new fauna and flora. But the amazing cultural traditions of this country is something the reader also needs to be made aware; a small portion of this article covers this area of interest.
The prehistoric breakup of the super continent Gondwana separated the Madagascar–Antarctica–India landmass from the Africa–South America landmass around 135 million years ago. Madagascar later split from India about 88 million years ago, allowing plants and animals on the island to evolve in relative isolation.Plant and reptilian fossils confirm this breakup as illustrated in the Gondwana break up figure below.
This break up also created the Mozambique channel that separates Africa with the fourth largest island on earth, Madagascar. Flying over the 400 mile wide Mozambique Channel my heart raced at the prospect of visiting a remote island where nearly all the species evolved in isolation since it broke off. What I found there was a lost world of unique animals and plants unseen by humans until their first arrival.
Imagine an island more than 1,000 miles long in a blue tropical ocean uninhabited for most of its history. Forests cover vast areas, interspersed with swamps where crocodiles 8 meters long lie in wait to prey on pygmy hippopotamuses. In the rain forests and in dryer parts of the island live some of the strangest primates to have ever existed on Earth. Some 110 species of these lemurs live throughout the island and range in size from the world's smallest primate, weighing about 1 ounce, to a lemur the size of a Gorilla ( now extinct).
Peering out of my aircraft window, I watched the strato cumulus clouds tower over the many swollen rivers draining the rain waters as we descended towards Antananarivo (Tana), its capital located in the cool central highlands. With golden paddy fields blanketed by green clusters of trees, I was descending into what appeared to be a paradise of forests, paddy fields and rolling hills.
At the arrivals area I was surprised by the faces that displayed a unique mix of African and Indonesian bloodlines. Despite the island's location just off the coast of Africa, the Malagasy are of Polynesian descent, with the same linguistic and cultural characteristics also found in a small region of southern Borneo, over 3500 miles away. The exact circumstances of how those settlers arrived on the other side of the Indian Ocean has until now been unclear, but analysis of settlement patterns seems to suggest that Malagasy with Polynesian heritage can trace their lineage back to one of only 30 women, who landed on the island roughly 1,200 years ago. According to molecular bio scientist Murray Cox of Massey of the University in New Zealand, this settlement of Madagascar might have been the result of a one-off event like a shipwreck rather than any deliberate migration. ( This is not an accepted theory but one of many that has confounded anthropologists). Discover Magazine reports that the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, used previous research which had found that 30 percent of Malagasy people shared the same maternal mitochondria. In a typical population study, a diverse population of humans would normally share only two percent, by comparison.
A unique blend of African and Asian landscapes and cultures is usually one of the first things recognized by first-time travelers to Madagascar. In the zebu cattle-raising regions of the south and west, for example, the savannas resemble those of East Africa. In the central highlands, however, irrigated and terraced rice fields evoke images of Southeast Asia. Indonesians brought rice to Madagascar some 1,500 years ago, and they came more than 3,500 miles across the Indian Ocean in outrigger canoes to get here, arriving well before the first Africans. The author Jared Diamond has called this migration, 'The single most astonishing fact of human geography in the world.'
My planned take-away from this adventure included photographing colorful chameleons, trek lush rain forests, navigate spiny thorn forests and climb the spectacular rock formations. At the end of it all what left me with a deeper sense of this country was its unique people who follow ancient customs despite their wanton destruction of a paradise.
My guide in Antasibe, Maurice Ratsesakanana was instrumental in my tracking down the apex lemur, Indri. Its haunting calls are reminiscent of the songs of the humpback whales. Each morning in my bungalow at the Hotel Fenny Ala at the edge of the rain forest, I woke up to its call. The Indri is the largest lemur in existence today and tracking and photographing them in rain was a trophy to be had. Indri's have never been successfully bred in captivity and this is the only place on earth that one can see these unusual primates. A spectacular jumper the indri can leap up to 30 feet between branches.
Maurice also exposed me to some of the 600 amphibians and reptiles that inhabit the forest, most of them endemic to Madagascar, meaning found nowhere else on earth. Frogs of every imaginable color and pattern leapt in this wet jungle. Chameleons, some brilliantly colored, and others shades of mottled brown, crept invisibly about. The largest, can capture mice and birds, while the smallest, measuring only 1 inchs feeds on insects.
More than 80 percent of Madagascar's 14,883 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. The rain forests had many orchids growing on tree barks and stems. Maurice indicated that three-fourths of Madagascar's 860 orchid species are endemic, as are six of the world's eight baobab species. I found orchid nursery's lining all along the Antasibe road, simply harvested from the rain forest each day.
At the World heritage rain forest of Ranomafana, Theo Farafidison, my guide educated me on so many aspects of the fauna there. Theo had worked with David Attenborough during the shooting of the BBC series there .Almost all the amphibians and reptiles in Madagascar, half the 300 bird life and all its 110 species of lemurs are endemic. Theo and I spotted a Parson's chameleon that was almost two feet long capable of grabbing birds with its sticky tongue. I could not help but coax it to walk on my arms, a small violation of the park's rules. The Bamboo lemurs are a specialty here along with 7 other species.
My personal highlight was that of grabbing a 6 ft tree Boa at night while we were looking for nocturnal lemurs and chameleons. He was quite docile and surprisingly comfortable in my hold. He could have decided to sink his long fang giving me a severe puncture wound. After studying him in my confines, I gently eased him on to a tree not realizing until later that they hunt on the ground. After photographing many species of frogs, tens of geckos including those that mimic leaves, several chameleon species, five snake species including a very Madagascar large tree Boa, I moved on to the drier side of the highlands. In order to photograph the rare gekkos like the uroplatus guentheri ( 10 inch long leaf gekko) that completely mimics leafs and barks and the uroplatus phantasyicus also known as the Satanic leaf gekko, I had to dispatch a pair of forest workers to hunt them down. Such unique animals of this country are a target for pet suppliers from all over the world especially the tree Boa constrictor.
Some of the amazing landscapes I found in its national parks included spectacular rock massifs, canyons, aquatic environments, savannahs and dry lands. Isalo, Zombitse , Kirindy, Bemaraha and Andatringa, comes to mind as places that cannot be missed. Waterfalls abound, cascading down tall cliffs into rivers and lakes, the central highlands are a mosaic of woodland and savannah, while the eastern regions are covered in dense, humid rainforest. In my quest for soaking up this paradise I swam in cool pools inside canyons, trekked the Tsaranaro massif, a sheer rock 800 meters tall known for world class rock climbing, went sapphire prospecting on river banks, walked in wet, dry, semi-humid and spiny forests enjoying everything from insects like the endemic kung fu cricket, which takes a martial posture when approached to the diverse ethnic groups that populate this island .
One great adventure that will last in my memory was my attempt to to reach the spectacular limestone karst formations of Tsingy de Bemahara in the rainy season. "Tsingy" means 'one cannot walk barefoot'. It is an impenetrable wilderness of limestone spikes and sharp rocks that dominates the North West. The Tsingy is an ancient 200 mile long coral reef lifted from the ocean and carved over the millennia by wind and water into dagger edged pinnacles. Crossing rivers on barges and driving through the dirt roads that had become 3ft deep streams during the rainy season, I reached this remote area to be hailed as the first tourist to arrive there that season. A nine mile trek and climb ensued my visit this world heritage site from the top looking down since all road access was inundated.
Deforestation has been present on the island since its colonization by humans, approximately 2000 years ago, with 90% of the original forests lost .With an unprecedented population growth, an extreme poverty (one of the highest in the world ) and a brewing political crisis, the nature of the island is helpless and besieged by multiple fronts including corruption at the highest levels. There is a police stop almost every few miles who find something wrong with every vehicle in order to squeeze a few arriaris out of innocents and crooks alike. Thankfully they do not bother tourists. One interesting behavior that I wish to write about is that of the gendarmerie ( National police) offered a full ceremonial salute when all our papers were in order
In addition to the traditional system of slash and burn deforestation, which allows local people to open forests to cultivate, international players in cahoots with local officials selectively log rosewood tree species and has become the main threat for the biodiversity of the island. Lorries of hardwood leaving forested areas forced me to inquire about its legitimacy to everyone I met. They all shrugged almost helplessly even though their future was being stripped one day at a time.
Other threats include killing lemurs for meat, poaching reptiles and amphibians for the pet trade (the Ploughshare tortoise fetches US $ 200000), habitat alteration and the clearance of forests, primarily for firewood and charcoal production. En route to the rainforests of Antasibe I could see virgin rain forests burning outside the limits of the park for agriculture and cattle grazing, that brought tears to my eyes. At every turn during my trip, my driver Tony Rebetsitonta, reflected on the different forested areas that had disappeared in his 25 years of driving around the country. It is anticipated that all the island's rain forests, excluding those in protected areas and the steepest eastern mountain slopes, will have been deforested by 2025. As a result several charismatic species such as chameleons and lemurs that evolved for millions of years here may become extinct by the end of the century
The urgency to conserve habitat has long been noticed by western scientists and conservation funding for Madagascar is at its peak. From protecting flora, fauna, habitats and large swathes of remaining forest, organizations are finding new ways to compensate the locals, educate them in sustainable land use and above all deal with a complex system of taboos that hold back progress. While at Ranofamana National Park I came to realize that this large virgin rain forest was protected and later converted into a park by none other than Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University in 1980, while studying Bamboo lemurs as a post doctoral research worker there. I was so impressed by her work that I contacted her at the University and will soon be meeting her, first to thank her and also to interview her for an article to appear in FWA soon. This is another example of a driven woman scientist challenging government officials, locals and vested interests to create a legacy for mankind.
By the 16th century, the central highlands where the bulk of Madagascar’s population resides had been largely cleared of their original forests. It was small wonder that I saw red top soil getting washed off into the rivers from the air with no roots to hold them down. More recent contributors to the loss of forest cover include the growth in cattle herd size since their introduction around 1000 years ago. I met a professor from the University of Pretoria who is studying land grabs and cattle rustling in Madagascar and did not want his name publicized. This is a country where people still keep their wealth in cattle and not cash. He told me that rustling cattle is big business and as a result big groups of heavily armed men attack villages and run away with the several hundred heads of cattle. I am told that the Malagasy people register their Zebu cattle at birth with the authorities, and not their own children.
Today, there are around 18 different ethnic groups living on the island. These include the Asiatic Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and the Bantu Sakalava. Indians, Arabs, French also make up a small immigrant population who have formed small communities during the past 300 years. The Malagasy language is very similar to the Indonesian language called Minaan, spoken only in Borneo it has accepted some Bantu/Swahili words over time. Their customs especially of burials, land ownerships, taboos and professions are very unique for the traveler to see and experience.
The Malagasy burial customs matches closely with cultures from Indonesia where I have traveled extensively to study them This includes periodic exhumation of the bones and have huge celebrations, keeping the corpse at home until it dries before burial or placing them inside rock cairns in hard to reach places, all of which bankrupt families in pursuit of satisfying their forefathers. Their philosophy much like the ethnic Indonesians of Sulawesi and Borneo believe that life on earth is very ephemeral when compared to the soul’s journey through the universe.
This beautiful land and its people are in a ticking time bomb of land loss, top soil erosion and desertification in a few centuries. While western agencies are doing their best to stem the degradation, it is inevitable that it cannot be reversed. Added to this, poor education, absent health care and a corrupt government has kept the people very poor, just living under an annual US $500 per capita. A deeper problem is that the island's population has doubled since 1990 and is increasing faster than ever.
Richard Grant in his article in The Telegraph writes" Nowhere in the world have I met nicer people, but their need for firewood, charcoal and land, their farming and herding practices, and their increasingly successful attempts to have seven daughters and seven sons per marriage, have
created a catastrophe with no solutions in sight. Already Madagascar is one of the most eroded countries on earth. The topsoil is washing away in red rivers to the sea, and astronauts have reported that Madagascar appears to be bleeding to death.
As a newcomer to the island, I find my emotions swinging erratically between delight and despair, exhilaration and sorrow. The food, the music, the people I'm meeting and what's left of the forests and the wildlife are all so wonderful, but as the Duke of Edinburgh put it with characteristic brusqueness when he was here, 'This island is committing suicide.'"
It is a paradise in retreat and all our efforts to decelerate this decline is all I can hope for these wonderful people and its other living denizen. It is a travesty created by man in his effort to conquer nature.
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