Madagascar broke away from Africa about 165 million years go and while it didn’t go far—about 280 miles (450 km) across the Mozambique Strait—it was far enough for plants and animals to evolve into living things unlike those anyplace else.
More than 80 percent of all animal species on this world’s fourth-largest island are unique to Madagascar—97 percent leaving out those that could fly here, such as birds and bats.
Here are dozens of different species of lemurs with large, round, unblinking eyes that give them one of the most intense, hypnotic gazes of any creature. Known as pro-simians or pre-monkeys because they share characteristics with ancestral primates, they range in size from diminutive pygmy mouse lemurs weighing under nine ounces (25 g) to handsome black-and-white, teddy-bear-like indris at more than 15 pounds (7 kg). Unfortunately, at least 15 other species have become extinct since humans came some 1,500 years ago.
How lemurs got here—evolved from early individuals already present or drifted here on rafts of vegetation—is uncertain. What is certain is that they are nowhere else (except nearby Comoros, probably brought from here) and with their soft, beautifully marked, varicolored fur and startling way of lounging in human-like positions and leaping about in upright posture, they are one of the most appealing creatures on earth.
Two-thirds of the world’s chameleon species are here, with conical, multidirectional eyes that swivel independently of each other, and skin color that changes according to circumstance— not so much to match surroundings, it’s thought, as to confuse predators and prey and as reflections of their emotional state. All are endemic to Madagascar and highly visible, as are many brilliant geckos. Some of the 87 gecko species here are, however, so inconspicuous they are all but invisible a few inches away, until they move, sometimes to clean their eyes with licks of their long tongues. (Geckos can re-grow lost scales, so that a predator reaching for one of these might find itself with a scaly mouthful while the gecko flees to grow a new set.)
Colorful amphibians of at least 189 species (some estimates run to 300) include aptly named tomato frogs, golden, green-backed, and painted mantella frogs, whose stunning colors warn predators their skins are toxic. Some young hatch from foam nests on the forest floor, either as minuscule frogs 1⁄10 inch (3 mm) long or as tiny tadpoles that somehow wriggle their way to water.
At least half of some 12,000 plant species are endemic, including ravinalas or “traveler’s tree”—the national plant—so-called because its leaf base contains a pure water supply and it’s reputed to align its fan-shape on an east-west axis (don’t rely on it). There are 1,200 kinds of orchids, many serviced by just one moth species.
Some of the world’s most unusual birds have found homes in a dozen or so microclimates among three main climatic zones—in eastern rain forests hung with moss so wet that tadpoles swim in it, in western tropical dry deciduous woods, and in the semi-arid south. Some 260 species include flamboyantly plumaged olive bee-eaters and Madagascar fodys or cardinals, males twittering constantly when on territory; giant and crested couas; Madagascar paradise flycatchers (stunning but sometimes hard to see in dim forest light); cuckoo rollers; and tiny, glistening kingfishers, especially the red-and-white and Madagascar malachites. Three of the world’s most endangered raptors are here—the Madagascar red owl, fish eagle, and chameleon-eating serpent eagle.
Mammals include large, handsome, fruit-eating flying fox bats roosting in great noisy throngs, among 28 species of bats; 27 species of small, hedgehog-like insectivorous tenrecs; 20 species ofrodents; and nine species of carnivores, including rare reddish fosa (pronounced “foosh”), seldom-seen pumas known as Madagascar’s pink panthers, whose chilling nocturnal cries can be heard in wild areas.
Coral reefs offshore are filled with multihued marine life. Huge humpback and right whales migrate to Madagascar waters for breeding. Beyond them swim coelacanths, ancient deep-sea fish long thought extinct, and “flashlight fish” with large light organs under their eyes to help find food and communicate in the murky depths.
Madagascar early became interested in conservation of its unique biodiversity and set aside some 47 protected areas. Some of these, to encourage development of ecotourism, have recently been designated as national parks. Most are small, however, covering altogether not much more than three percent of its 226,657 square miles (587,000 km2). Everywhere protection has been inadequate so that habitat loss threatens many species, including lemurs, with near-term extinction. Madagascar’s economy is one of the world’s poorest and runaway population growth, with land-clearing for cash crops and cattle ranching, has led to deforestation and disastrous erosion. Less than 20 percent of original forest cover remains, and well over half the land area may be burned every year.
To address this problem, government has developed a National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) aimed at environmental protection and sustainable development. International groups such as World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Bank, CARE International, Peregrine Fund, and others have offered support for these efforts in initiatives to conserve land in ways helpful both to natural systems and local economies. Rural communities are offered training, tools, seeds, schools, and improved water supplies. Efforts are being made to help local people understand how tourism can bring long-term income—but only if environmental degradation stops and visitor facilities, until recently far from adequate, can be set up around the island.
Best times are generally April–October/November, avoiding heaviest rainfall which can make roads impassable January–March. Birds are easiest to spot during breeding season August– December.
MASOALA NATIONAL PARK as well as…
Parc National d’Andasibe-Mantadia (aka Perinet)
Parc National Andohahela
Parc National Ankarafantsika
Reserve Forestière d’Ampijoroa
Parc National de l’Isalo
Parc National de Mananara-Nord
Parc National de Montagne d’Ambre
Parc National de Ranomafana
Réserve Privée de Berenty
More about the Reserves in Madagascar
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