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Keeping the Red Island Green: Conserving the Biodiversity of Madagascar Through Tourism

  • Laura Fornadel
  • 29 June 2010

It broke away from the Gondwana supercontinent more than 160 million years ago and never looked back. Then, over the course of time, the isolation of Madagascar allowed for the evolution of unique plants and animals. The country’s geographic seclusion has resulted in one of the most biodiverse nations on the planet, but it is also currently one of the most endangered.

Conspicuous furry ears and a golden-orange crown distinguish the golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersallli) from other members of the sifaka family of lemurs. It is critically endangered and can only be found in northeast Madagascar.

Conspicuous furry ears and a golden-orange crown distinguish the golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersallli) from other members of the sifaka family of lemurs. It is critically endangered and can only be found in northeast Madagascar.

Today, 85 percent of the species in Madagascar are indigenous, but less than 20 percent of Madagascar’s original vegetation remains. This has made it one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – areas with extremely high endemism under severe threat. Slash-and-burn farming, logging for timber and charcoal production have all resulted in severe deforestation, detrimental soil erosion and loss of habitat. Poaching has also resurfaced as a problem. Meanwhile, the erosion has exposed a red, lateritic soil, which has given rise to the country’s notorious nickname: the Red Island.

With Madagascar’s distinctive flora and fauna vulnerable, hundreds of known endemic amphibians, birds, mammals and plants are in need of protection. The radiated tortoise and the carnivorous fossa, along with several kinds of baobab trees and the aye-aye, perhaps the globe’s most unusual primate, are only a few of the species at risk. Given these and other endangered species that exist only on Madagascar – and as scientists continue to discover new species – it’s increasingly clear how biologically important the island is and how little we know about wildlife in Madagascar.

Fortunately, to help a growing conservation effort, the iconic lemur has emerged as the country’s de facto mascot. The lemur’s high international profile, made poignant by their plight, is helping to raise awareness about other endangered species as well. But much more can and should be done to preserve this remarkable island ecosystem.

Camping for Conservation

Evasion Sans Frontière (ESF), the whl.travel local connection on Madagascar, strives to conserve and protect the country’s prodigious biodiversity. Specialising in the north of Madagascar, ESF offers a variety of personalised tours that benefit local communities and respect the Malagasy culture and environment. It is the only Malagasy agency with headquarters in Antananarivo and branches in Diego Suarez and Nosy Be, the largest of Madagascar’s outlying islands.

Children playing in the streets of Antsahabe village in the Sokafana district. Fanamby, along with the neighbouring Saha Forest Camp, assist in the development of local communities like Antsahabe and provide conservation education for village children in Madagascar.

Children playing in the streets of Antsahabe village in the Sokafana district. Fanamby, along with the neighbouring Saha Forest Camp, assist in the development of local communities like Antsahabe and provide conservation education for village children in Madagascar.

In operation since 1995, ESF is a member of a local group called Océane Aventures, which promotes sustainable tourism and environmental initiatives and works with local nongovernmental organisations in Madagascar. In 2009, Océane Aventures and ESF joined forces with a conservation organisation called Fanamby to manage a programme that helps safeguard Madagascar’s extraordinary biodiversity. Recognizing that the majority of Malagasy people have had few economic opportunities through tourism, the partners specifically sought new ways to protect their delicate environment by engaging in conservation that supports local villagers and provides them with lasting employment.

Fanamby developed tented tourist camps in four private protected regions that cover an area of approximately 125,000 hectares. The partners manage these areas while the Malagasy communities own and maintain the tourist camps. Community members are trained for employment within the camps and are able to earn a steady income as chefs, wait staff and tour guides. Additionally, the partners promote agricultural subsistence and villagers are trained in organic farming methods.

For their part, ESF promotes Fanamby’s positive relationships with Malagasy communities by organising and marketing camping tours to the protected areas and spreading word about the project. Through these actions, ESF supports sustainable tourism and fulfils tourists’ desires to see Madagascar’s incomparable species firsthand.

“We find tourists are happy to contribute to local development through our programmes that offer guests the opportunity to discover endemic Malagasy regions and species,” said Rojo Johnarson of Evasion Sans Frontière. “We have concern for saving the environment and helping people at the same time and we’re able to achieve both with the tour we’ve created.”

Exotic Island Escape

Evasion Sans Frontière’s 12-day Lemur & Baobab Tour offers travellers a chance to discover the endemic flora and fauna of Madagascar like no other tour can. Along the way, there are visits to protected regions like the Marofandilia Forest, composed of spiny dry forest and inland dunes. Located in the Menabe region of Western Madagascar, along the Mozambique Channel, the area is home to endemic critters like the Verreaux’s sifaka, the red-tailed sportive lemur and smaller pale fork-marked lemur, as well as nearly 200 plant species. A stroll down Avenue of the Baobabs is in the shade of trees nearly 30 metres tall!

The Avenue of the Baobabs, or Alley of Baobabs, stretches between Morondava and Marofandilia Forest where Fanamby's Baobab in Love Camp is located. Baobabs can reach the ripe old age of 800 and grow to heights of 30 metres (98 feet).

The Avenue of the Baobabs, or Alley of Baobabs, stretches between Morondava and Marofandilia Forest where Fanamby's Baobab in Love Camp is located. Baobabs can reach the ripe old age of 800 and grow to heights of 30 metres (98 feet).

Another port of call is the Ankarana Special Reserve, an area with dramatic scenery that includes dry deciduous forests and eroded limestone karsts known as tsingy. Local lemur species include the crowned lemur, Sanford’s brown lemur, northern sportive lemur and grey mouse lemur. Other resident animals are the fossa, mongoose and Malagasy giant chameleon, believed to be the world’s largest (up to 68 centimetres in length). The reserve is also home to bats, boas and numerous birds, including ibis, vangas, couas and hawks.

Other trip highlights are visits to sacred sites in the Anjozorobe-Angavo Protected Area in the Malagasy central highlands, panoramic views, visits to Antakarana Kingdom villages and local lodges at one with their wild surroundings. Of course, overnights at camps run by local Malagasy communities are perfect opportunities to contribute to local community development efforts and witness Fanamby’s methods in action.

Madagascar is a poor country and providing locals with employment and usable skills helps combat the lure of damaging activities such as logging and poaching. The Lemur and Baobab Tour and Fanamby programs provide effective means to protect wildlife, create jobs and promote community welfare, supplying locals with a much-deserved piece of the economic pie.

If a 12-day is too ambitious, even for a one-of-a-kind tour, support can still be shown through a one-day tour or custom-tailored trip. Contact Evasion Sans Frontière for more information.

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Africa, animal conservation, Eastern Africa, ecotours, Madagascar, national parks, outdoors, responsible travel,

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