Educational Series: Madagascar’s Unique, Endangered Animals Need Help

By Nick Engelfried
Located off the east coast of Africa, the island of Madagascar has been separated from the mainland for approximately 160 million years–since well before the dinosaurs went extinct. During this vast span of time one of the world’s most diverse communities of plants and animals has evolved on the island in near-isolation from the rest of the world. Today 89 percent of Madagascar’s thousands of plant species, 92 percent of its mammals, and 95 percent of its reptiles are found nowhere else. This makes Madagascar one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet.

Conserving this island nation’s dwindling natural ecosystems must be a priority for any global effort to protect biodiversity. Environmental protection in Madagascar faces many challenges, from rampant poverty to the depredations of international corporations. However, the dedicated work of people in Madagascar and around the world means there is hope for its wildlife. Today, the international community has a pivotal opportunity to secure a better future for Madagascar’s wildlife and people.

Probably the best-known of Madagascar’s many unique species are the lemurs, a group of primates found nowhere else on the planet. The first lemurs crossed over to the island from the African mainland around 60 million years ago, when the two land masses were still considerably closer together than they are today. While lemurs in the rest of African were eventually displaced by more modern monkeys and apes, on Madagascar the family thrived and evolved into dozens of distinct species.

Today there are thirty-three known species of lemurs, with more likely still waiting to be described by scientists. They range from the iconic and easily recognizable ring-tailed lemur, to tiny mouse lemurs weighing no more than three ounces, to large tree-dwelling sifakas who travel in leaps and bounds through the forest canopy. Possibly the strangest of all lemurs is the aye-aye, a nocturnal primate with a bushy tail and large cat-like ears that feeds on wood-boring insects grubs. Many lemurs display complex social behaviors and specialized adaptations that help them survive in the lush tropical forests along Madagascar’s coast or the equally unique arid deciduous forests in the island’s southern region. We still have much to learn about this extraordinary group of primates.

While Madagascar’s other inhabitants may be less famous than lemurs, the island is home to a bewildering variety of other animals and plants. Around half of the world’s approximately 150 chameleon species live in Madagascar, making the island of critical importance to this fascinating group of reptiles. Madagascar is also home to around thirty species of tenrecs, a strange group of mainly insectivorous mammals that somewhat resemble mice or spineless hedgehogs. The largest land-dwelling predator in Madagascar is the fossa, a distant relative of mongooses that can weigh over twenty pounds and leaps through the forest canopy in pursuit of lemurs and other animals.

Madagascar’s animals are supported by an equally diverse and extraordinary community of plants. Among the most impressive are six species of baobabs, massive trees with thick, bulging trunks. Only eight species of baobab exist in the world, and all those found in Madagascar are unique to the island. Madagascar’s forests are also home to thousands of other amazing plants found nowhere else in the world, including over 900 beautiful species of orchid.

Tragically, most of Madagascar’s plant and animal species are now endangered because of human activity. A first wave of animal extinctions began about 2,000 years ago when some of the first humans to settle on the island arrived by way of Southeast Asia. At that time Madagascar was home to large animals like gorilla-sized lemurs, a pygmy hippopotamus, and massive predatory elephant birds bigger than any ostrich. These “megafauna” were driven to extinction, almost certainly by early human hunters. At least fifteen species of lemurs perished during this period.

Madagascar’s earliest people had the most negative impact on the largest species, who had no experience with human hunters and were therefore easy prey. However, after an initial wave of extinctions the island’s human population settled into a period of living in relative balance with the remaining wildlife. This changed when trade with European and Arab seafaring nations began to encourage the exploitation of Madagascar’s natural resources by international powers. Madagascar maintained its political independence until the late 1800s, when the nation’s capital was invaded and captured by France. French colonization put even more pressure on Madagascar’s ecosystems.

Madagascar regained independence from France in 1960, embarking on a long struggle to establish a stable democratic government. Widespread poverty–around seventy-five percent of the population lives under the poverty line today–has made conservation efforts difficult, with some impoverished communities having little choice but to clear forest for agriculture or harvest charcoal for cooking. Meanwhile, episodes of political instability have further complicated efforts to establish protected areas and ensure livelihoods for locals not dependant on environmentally harmful activities. Most recently, a coup in 2009 plunged the country into a new period of political turmoil during which Andry Rajoelina, the former mayor of one of the island’s major cities, seized power.

The last decade has been challenging for Madagascar’s people, wildlife, and democracy, but today a new era of stable government and conservation may be dawning. In 2018 Madagascar again held elections, returning Andry Rajoelina to power–but this time as the head of a democratic government. Despite initial concern from the conservation community about Rajoelina’s environmental record, the president has shown early signs of taking environmental protection seriously. His new environment minister, Alexandre Georget, was the founder of Madagascar’s first green party and is known as a conservation leader.

In March 2019, President Rajoelina unveiled plans to reforest forty to eighty thousand acres of land in Madagascar every year, a monumental conservation undertaking. Minister Georget has stated this program will focus on planting native trees in both protected and severely degraded areas, and has also announced his intent to crack down on the export and harvesting of rare tree species. Saving Madagascar’s diverse natural ecosystems while providing for the needs of a growing human population will not be easy–but with efforts like these underway there is hope.

Protecting biodiversity in Madagascar will require cooperation not only from the country’s own government, but also the international community. Eliminating the trade in wood from Madagascar’s native forests and illegally trafficked animal species is of vital importance and can only be done with help from governments in North America, Europe, and Asia. By bringing international attention to the plight of Madagascar’s wildlife and people, each of us can do our part to ensure a viable future for the many thousands of unique species that have evolved on Madagascar over the course of tens of millions of years.

Photo credit: GoodFreePhotos

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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