Africa journey 3: Madagascar—an island under threat

It’s easy to feel that a journey on the island of Madagascar is a kind of time travel, in which you can see what life was like in the Jurassic era, the age of dinosaurs.

This mad place is famed for its four species of baobab trees (sometimes called the upside-down tree because its roots seem to be waving in the air atop its large trunk) and scores of species of lemurs (which in the rest of the world were displaced by smarter and more agile monkeys).

“Literally every time a survey is undertaken we find a new species,” a biologist remarked. The eggs of extinct 800-pound elephant birds are still scattered along the southern beaches—a Malagasy friend in Albuquerque smuggled one out of the country.

Lemurs are the icons of Madagascar—ridiculously cute, totally nonthreatening and ubiquitous. They have a thoroughly winning but awkward and inefficient way of running by hopping simultaneously on all four feet. It often seems that ones having the most fun on the island are the lemurs.

A pair of lemurs doing what they do best: being indescribably cute.

Tragedy, however, does strike even these charming creatures. A guide in Ranomafama National Park told us of seeing a baby lemur fall off his mother’s back while she was jumping between high tree branches. The baby fell to the ground and died. “She cried like a human mother,” he said, “and her family gathered around her to console her.”

There are larger-scale tragedies too in lemur land. Half of the more than 100 species of lemur have disappeared entirely and others are endangered due to destruction of their habitat. Everywhere on the island, the air reeks of the stench of burning forests and fields, the consequence of the widespread slash-and-burn agriculture. I came to hate that smell—the smell of a ravished, ravaged land.

Madagascar matters to the world in a way no other country does, for it is an invaluable relic of the distant past, a kind of living museum, a look back on what this world once was. If Madagascar is lost, all this could be lost with it—and that’s exactly the tragedy that is in the process of unfolding.

While we still have Madagascar and its 160-million-year-old life forms, my wife and I needed to see it. We happened to be there during a presidential election campaign, but it was not a time of hope and promise. Despite a proud history and some early success as an independent country, the Malagasy people are in a way as endangered as the natural world around them.

A cab driver complained, “We are the wealthiest country in the world but one of the poorest.” Few Malagasy have emigrated, perhaps because of enduring affection for their unique culture. It is a blend of Africa, Asia and Europe, with migrants from all three continents lending their DNA to create an exceptionally handsome and amiable people.

Madagascar is unique in Africa in other ways. The staple food is rice. Terraced hillsides and flooded valley paddies shine brilliantly lime green everywhere. The countryside looks less like Africa than Southeast Asia. The original inhabitants sailed here from Borneo across the Indian Ocean some 2,000 years ago and settled on the 7,000-foot-high central plateau. Then Africans journeyed from the mainland to the west coast. Finally in the late 19th century Europeans came, conquered and colonized the island nation.

The color of Madagascar is red, the red of the earth, and most of its buildings are two-story homes and businesses in villages of red bricks and pointed roofs. Nowhere else in Africa are you likely to see such villages, or such paddies and terraces.

Most Malagasy live in villages and small cities. There is only one large city, Antananarivo, universally shortened to Tana. It is a place nobody much likes, a city of more than a million people, rife with poverty and traffic jams and smog. A Peace Corps volunteer who loved Madagascar so much he signed up for a second term as a volunteer told me, “I always hated going to Tana.”

Zebus pulling a cart in a Madagascar town.

It is the only place anywhere in the world that I have seen heavily laden ox carts pulled by a young man in front and pushed by another young man from the rear. The oxen—humpbacked African zebus—are seldom seen in the city, although they are everywhere on country roads.

When astronauts looked down at Madagascar from space they saw an island surrounded by a sea of red, as if, they said, the island were bleeding to death. In a real sense, it is. Deforestation, over-planting, slash-and-burn agriculture and general environmental abuse and neglect have allowed much of Madagascar’s irreplaceable soil to wash away. Today, much of the now worthless land has been abandoned.

Despite government bans, Madagascar’s precious hardwood trees continue to be harvested for export. A store of the most precious of all, the rosewood tree, was found in the government palace after President Rajoelina left in 2014. That is the same president who was just re-elected.

I fell in love with Madagascar as I have with few countries, but I fear for the future of what has been called the Eighth Continent.