Although Madagascar separated from the African continent millions of years ago and was only recently populated (2000 years ago), it has given life to an amazing flora and fauna. In this “laboratory”, isolated from (yet so close to) the African continent and the Indo-Malaysian world, nature has produced and continues to produce unique species. Madagascar is one of the six countries in the world which retain the greatest part of the world’s genetic reserves in their rainforests.
The great island is a true Garden of Eden for naturalists and nature enthusiasts: there are 12,000 to 14,000 species of vascular plants, 85% of which are endemic. There are 175 species of palm trees, 170 of which, are endemic. All of the 97 species of lemurs are unique to the island.
Out of the 208 species of tiger beetles (a small carnivorous coleopteran), only two are not endemic. But the biodiversity Madagascar is not just about impressive figures: the specific characteristics of this biodiversity distinguish it from the fauna and flora in other regions of the globe. In other countries, endemism is found only in the lowest level: the species. In Madagascar, endemism is found in higher groups like genus, family and sub-family. From this perspective, very few countries can compete with the Great Island…
6 WORLD HERITAGE PARKS
6 rainforests of the East of Madagascar, namely, the Marojejy, Masoala, Zahamena, Ranomafana, Andringitra and Andohahela National Parks have unanimously earned their nomination during the 31st session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. These very old forests contribute to the ecological process, which is vital for the survival of the unique Malagasy biodiversity. This biodiversity reflects the geological history of an island that drifted away from other land blocks over 60 million years ago, and where fauna and flora have developed in a favorable isolation.
These forests were integrated with a prestigious list, which already includes the Tsingy de Bemaraha (registered in 1990), the royal hill of Ambohimanga near Antananarivo, and the Zafimaniry woodcraft, registered as intangible heritage.
The most representative mammals of the Island are undoubtedly the lemurs. These prosimians have literally “exploded” into nearly fifty species and sub-species, which sizes range from that of the thumb (The Microcebus), to that of a toddler (the Indri). And no one would dare close the inventory, since new species are regularly discovered: The Golden-crowned Sifaka or Propithecus tattersally (1975), the Golden bamboo lemur (1987), the 80gr Allocebus trichotis which was believed to be instinct (1997), the Lepilemur seali and Lepilemur mitsinjonensis (2005)…
The most mysterious Malagasy lemur, the Aye Aye, was saved from extinction in 1966: it is said to feature rabbit’s teeth, bat ears, bore bristles, monkey hands and a fox tail.
For the record, lemurs have formed a little diaspora through the cooperation between different conservation organizations. Little Bilbo, for example, has become a celebrity in Sweden. This lesser bamboo lemur from the Stockholm zoo was abandoned by its mother at birth; it weighed 30gr and was 10cm in length and its rescue has almost become a matter of state!
In 2008, Masoala, a female ring-tailed lemur from the Besançon Museum and her daughters Zety and Manja were sent back to Madagascar to stay at the Tsimbazaza Zoo and at Lemurs Park near the capital. Exchanges are frequent in order to reduce the risks of inbreeding. Bekily, a female Greater bamboo lemur also from Besançon, was transferred to the Parc of Ivoloina near Tamatave. Lucky lemurs!
In Madagascar, birds can score endemism rates that are rarely achieved elsewhere. While 285 recorded species can seem low, more than half of them are endemic. Among them are the ground dwelling Giant Coua, the Crested Coua, commonly considered as the most beautiful bird on the Island, or the Vangas recognizable from their hooked beak. There are also 20 species of raptors, including the Red Owl and the Madagascar Fish Eagle which is similar to the American Bald Eagle. The Vangidae are also part of this list of endemic birds; they diversify into 14 species which can be differentiated by size, color and beak shape. The best season for bird watching is from October through December, when birds, through their songs, can be more easily spotted in the forests. Several National Parks like Andasibe, Ankarafantsika, Ranomafana, Montagne d’Ambre are very popular bird watching sites. Those who prefer large bird crowds can chose between several coastal sites (Ramena near Diégo Suarez, the Baie de Baly in the Majunga region, Nosy Ve and Tsimanampesotse in Tuléar…)
The West is the motherland of Baobabs, which are falsely considered African trees (only one species the Adansonia digitata occurs on the continent). Two species are found in Australia, and seven in Madagascar! Among them are the Adansonia grandidieri or the Adansonia rubrostipa. In the North of Morondava, some of these giants seem to be playing pranks, posing as male and female, or intertwine like lovers. The Allée des Baobabs, about twenty kilometers from Morondava was elected first Natural Monument of Madagascar. The baobab has an exceptional lifespan, but one of its most astonishing features is its shape: this is the famous African “updside-down” tree; some also call it the roots of the sky. It is said that the Gods were offended by the pride of this great vegetal column and decided to turn it upside down, so that it would show more humility. In a country like Madagascar, the baobab could not be anything else but worshiped. The Giant sacred baobab of Morondava is the perfect example. The baobab is also used in daily life. Nothing is wasted in the baobab: its bark is used to make roofs and ropes, its leaves are used for their medicinal virtues, the flesh of the fruits is used to make juice, and the seeds are pressed to extract cooking oil.
THE MEDICINAL PLANTS OF MADAGASCAR
Madagascar is endowed with an extraordinary fauna and flora. With its unique biodiversity and its ancestral knowledge, the country is a real sanctuary for botanists and pharmacologists. Since the time of the ancestors, Malagasy traditional medicine has revealed the secrets of many plants with exceptional virtues. Malagasy people have always chosen the traditional remedies for their treatments as a cheap alternative to modern medicine. In a context where trends favor natural medicine, which is less polluting but efficient nonetheless, the medicinal plants of Madagascar have opened a path to the design of a new generation of medicines. The Red Island is a sanctuary for medicinal plants: its endemic vegetal species are full of remarkable virtues that contribute to the well-being, the beauty and most importantly, to the health of those who use them.
THE SOUTHERN BUSH
The southern Bush, Malagasy flora gem, consists of low, dense, drought-persistent vegetation, which adapts an arid climate of less than 500mm of rainfall per year. General Lyautey, who ruled the South at the beginning of the colonial era, was describing the Southern Bush in these terms: “if one is to get an idea of this, one should think of the most fanciful compositions by Gustave Doré illustrating witch stories, or Riou’s creations of Jules Verne’s imaginary worlds. Not a single familiar plant. This is surreal (…) A forest from sub-marine fantasies, a forest of leafless trees sitting on a bed of cactuses and underneath, a thicket of fantastic trees: the rahondra or sausage tree, the famata where each leaf is replaced by something that resembles a pickle …” We can also mention the scruffy twigs of the Alluaudia humberti, the tentacles of the squid-tree, the tricorne-shaped leaves of the Beharensis, or the scarlet flower clusters of the Aloe Vaombe… But one should not picture the South as a spooky area dedicated only to thrill-seekers! Among the 38 species of Aloes for example, the Aloes Vaombe might be one of the most beautiful plants in Madagascar; its clusters of scarlet flowers scorch its surrounding dry landscape, and it blooms there for all of us to enjoy.
THE CAMELEON, ANOTHER EMBLEM OF MADAGASCAR
Madagascar has a great variety of chameleons: with approximately 346 species recorded, chameleons are, just as the lemur, an emblem of the country. Completely harmless and very discrete, the chameleon seems to always dissolve in its environment. Its languid way of walking and its perfect camouflage have created the myth of the invisible animal, the little dragon from prehistory. In some regions of Madagascar, people believe it has magical powers and can see the future. This is why it is often feared…
The Indian Ocean was a whale hunting area during the nineteenth century, up until the beginning of the 20th. But since 1979, it has become a sanctuary for whales. Malagasy humpback whales come from Antartica where they spend all summer gorging on krill. Around June, the lactating females and their calves born the year before are the first ones to arrive after a 5000km journey. To the tourists’ delight, the observation season extends until September.
It is all the more interesting that humpback whales are the most talented in jumping, also called “breaching”. They can thrust their body entirely out of the water, and dive back in in a huge splash. Though no one really knows why whales stick their tail fins on the surface of the water, this facilitates the photographic identification of each individual. Whales can be seen off the shores of Nosy be, Tuléar, Fort-Dauphin or Morondava. Two major sites, however, single out: the Baie d’Antongil that is an important breeding area and the Island of Sainte Marie where commercial observation is thoroughly regulated. The Association CETAMADA and the Group of Touristic Operators offer scientific tutorial whale cruises with onboard explanations and conferences in the evening.