If the monster movie hit Madagascar
is any indication, this enchanting and remote African nation, once the realm of pirates, smugglers, and ocean-going traders and now the nirvana of herpetologists and lemur experts will quickly become familiar to children and adults around the world. And we at CI couldn't be more delighted.
Those who see the movie or check out the CI Explore Madagascar site can learn about a host of strange creatures endemic to CI's highest-priority biodiversity hotspot. They include the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), a bizarre lemur with rodent-like incisors and a long skeletal middle finger for extracting grubs; the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), a perky, largely terrestrial primate with a long, banded, raccoon-like tail; and the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), Madagascar's largest predator that looks like a short-legged puma with a dog-like muzzle and is a member of the mongoose family. Once known only to specialists, these animals will hopefully spark widespread public interest in this wonderful, under-appreciated, and much overlooked corner of our planet.
SPECIES: Learn more about Madagascar's lemurs.
A New Vision
Madagascar began emerging from the shadows of obscurity when its new leader, President Marc Ravalomanana, took office in 2002 and initiated bold steps to move his nation into the modern world and safeguard its amazing but deeply threatened biodiversity. In September 2003 at the World Parks Congress in South Africa, he announced his intention to triple protected area coverage over the next five years.
At the same time, he asked for the assistance of the international community in the form of a $50 million trust fund to make this a reality. At CI, we took up the challenge and, working with a variety of partners
, are pleased to announce that in less than two years commitments of $30 million have already been secured. This new fund has been legally established under the chairmanship of CIs Vice President for Madagascar Leon Rajaobelina.
President Ravalomanana has instituted a broad raft of civil reforms: democratization, economic liberalization, plus improved health care, roads, and schools. "This is a country and a government running itself as efficiently as it can", says James Bond, the World Bank representative in Madagascar. "The president is key and has been very astute at surrounding himself with a very good team, doing a fine job."
We at CI, together with a wide range of partners from local communities
to other non-governmental organizations local, national, and international are gearing up to help the nation take advantage of this potential publicity windfall, a unique and richly deserved opportunity.
The Island and Its Biodiversity
Twice the size of Arizona and the fourth largest island on Earth, Madagascar has long been recognized as one of the world's highest-priority hotspots and one of the top megadiversity countries. Located only about 400 kilometers off the east coast of Africa
, this fragment of the supercontinent Gondwana has been isolated from other landmasses for more than 160 million years. Consequently, most of Madagascar's plant and animal species have evolved in long isolation and are found nowhere else.
In terms of biodiversity, Madagascar's most striking features are its high rates of endemism and very high species diversity
in certain groups of organisms. Both of these characteristics are best represented in Madagascar's flora and its primates. Current plant diversity is estimated to be at least 12,000 species and possibly as many as 14,000-15,000, of which some 90 percent are found only here. In addition, there are seven endemic plant families on Madagascar, a number unmatched by any other hotspot.
Among vertebrates, some 283 bird species have been recorded, of which 209 breed on the island and 109 of which are endemic. There are some extraordinary ancient remnant avian species such as colorful and elusive ground-rollers, cuckoo-rollers, and mesites.
Mammals are represented by at least 131 species, of which 30 are bats. All but 12 of the mammals are endemic. In terms of its primates – all of them lemurs – no other country comes close to Madagascar in primate endemism at the family and generic level, with five families and 15 genera found nowhere else, and a total of 69 taxa (with more still to be described). This incredible primate diversity is the country's best-known wildlife attraction and includes globally important flagship species like the aye-aye, the indri (Indri indri
), and Madame Berthes mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae
), at 30 grams the worlds smallest primate.
Although there is only one endemic amphibian family (Mantellidae) and one endemic reptile family (Opluridae), the reptiles and amphibians exhibit very high levels of endemism. Of the 340 reptile species, 314 are unique to Madagascar, as are an amazing 221 of the 223 described amphibian species. Apart from being extremely rich in these groups, Madagascar may even be the place of origin for some. It was proposed recently, for example, that all the world's chameleons originated there.
Among the flagship amphibians and reptiles are the beautiful frogs of the genera Mantella and Scaphiophyrne; the tomato frog (Dyscophus antongilii), a bright red bullfrog-sized animal found only in a tiny area in northeastern Madagascar; and, of course, the chameleons, with some 70 different species and new ones being identified every year.
VIDEO: Our amphibian experts talk frogs.
Many new species have been discovered on Madagascar only in the past decade or so, and, indeed, since the publication of CI's 1999 Hotspots book. No fewer than 22 new mammal species and subspecies have been described from the island in the past 15 years (including seven full lemur species between 1997 and 2003, and another five to come out this year). Many new species remain to be discovered and described; at least 100 reptile species and about 100 amphibian species await formal description. This once again attests to the great global importance of Madagascar and neighboring islands and highlights its role as one of the highest-priority hotspots on Earth.
Threats to Biodiversity
The threats to Madagascar and the neighboring Indian Ocean islands that are included in the hotspot are well documented. Forest destruction
through slash-and-burn agriculture, mining, and logging are major causes of habitat loss. Much of the forest that does remain is severely fragmented. I've recently spent a lot of time flying over many different parts of the country, and I doubt that more than 10 percent remains sufficiently intact to justify concerted conservation efforts. What does remain in reasonably good shape should be protected as swiftly as possible under the banner of the presidents commitment to triple protected area coverage.
The most heavily affected habitats are lowland rain forest, dry deciduous forest, and spiny forest. Flying over parts of the west, one is almost brought to tears by the fragmentation and continuous burning of small forest patches for at best a couple of years of low-level agricultural productivity. This fragmentation represents a tragic destruction of biodiversity and a loss of future potential for the human population as well. Wetlands, including lakes, rivers, and marshes, are under threat from transformation into rice fields, from siltation resulting from soil erosion, and from introduced species. Slash-and-burn farming also causes massive erosion.
Lemurs and a number of other mammals, along with some birds, and reptiles such as turtles and tortoises are very susceptible to hunting. The pet and plant trades
have also had a serious impact on endemic animals and vegetation, especially amphibians, reptiles, and succulent plants. The proliferation of exotic flora is also recognized as a major threat. Freshwater
ecosystems, in particular, have been seriously affected by alien plants such as the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes
), which is native to South America
In addition, Madagascar provides us with one of the best or worst examples of a major extinction spasm in modern times, caused at least in part by the impact of hunting after the first arrival of people some 2,000-2,500 years ago. Among the spectacular species that disappeared were the elephant birds, including one species that grew to be nine feet tall and weighed half a ton; at least two species each of hippo and giant tortoise; an aardvark; and eight genera and a minimum of 15 species of lemurs. The latter were giants compared with todays lemurs. One looked superficially like a huge koala, another acted like a large tree sloth, and yet another was bigger than an adult male gorilla.
Although some of these likely persisted until just a few hundred years ago, non-native people never saw them in the flesh. This trend of losing the largest species first means that todays larger living lemur species such as the Critically Endangered Perrier's sifaka (Propithecus perrieri
) and silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus
) are particularly at risk.
Conservation Moving Forward
Happily, this amazing biodiversity hotspot may be entering a new era in terms of conservation. The Ravalomanana government is about to embark on the third phase of the National Environmental Action Plan, with a five-year program of conservation. Many local and international conservation organizations including CI, the World Wildlife Fund, the World Conservation Society, the Durrell Trust, and Fanamby are involved in this effort, along with the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Program, and the US, French, German, and Swiss governments.
Although this extremely important hotspot still faces many threats and challenges, recent developments are cause for more optimism than ever before. Indeed, the major new commitments being made by and for Madagascar could mean that this wonderful island, once considered almost a lost cause for conservation, could quickly be transformed into a global model for biodiversity protection.