Madagascar lies off the South East coast of Africa, an island that broke away from the mainland 160 million years ago. Its isolation created a unique biodiversity with thousands of plants and animals that are endemic.
The recently discovered Tahina Spectabilis palm, a previously unknown genus entirely new to science, flowers once in its life with an inflorescence so spectacular that it can be seen from space by Google Earth.
Seven of the world’s eight species of Baobabs are found in Madagascar; over one thousand species of orchids; some of the world’s rarest birds; eighty six species of lemurs including the Aye-Aye and the Indri with its haunting cry in the early morning and evening as its marks its territory in the forest canopy.
Madagascar is also home to rare Ploughshare tortoises, five species of sea turtles, giant jumping rats, the Madagascar flying fox, the long tailed shrew Tenrec which looks and behaves like a small arboreal mouse; the Fossa, which in appearance and behaviour resembles a cat, 138 species of frogs, with more being found every year; 300 specie of reptiles, including half the world’s chameleons; but no poisonous snakes. Madagascar is a naturalist’s paradise.
The beauty of the island and its environmental diversity rival that of an entire continent. Rainforests skirt pristine beaches in the north east Masaola Peninsula. Coral reefs are home to an abundance of marine life while Humpback whales come annually to the shallow coastal waters to calve.
The dense, xerophytic, spiny forests of the south west are dominated by Euphorbias, Didieraceas and Aloes. High mountain forests and grasslands cover the Central Highlands. The Tsingy limestone massif of Bemerana is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Madagascar thrills and surprises the traveller with the unexpected and the sheer beauty of its natural world.
However years of slash and burn agriculture, deforestation, mining and illegal logging have left just ten per cent of Madagascar’s vegetation intact. What remains is of urgent concern to international conservation groups. Programmes to expand protected areas and promote sustainable farming have been hampered by a recent coup as many donors have withdrawn or suspended aid until a constitutional government is in place.
The people of Madagascar are a racial mix of Asian and African ancestry. There are more than twenty ethnic groups united by a common Malagasy language. Madagascar was a French colony from the late nineteenth century but has been independent since 1960. It has a population of 18 million people and is ranked one of the poorest countries in the wold.