Mad about Madagascar: mesmerized by a mini-continent

The Environmental Magazine 15.01.2003

By Josh Harkinson

Along the road in rural Madagascar, giant baobab trees sit like vegetable elephants and malnourished children dance in hopes that travelers speeding by will toss them money. Our van, lurching over the rutted Malagasy National Highway, had long ago passed the last wooden shanty when the front tire fell off and rolled into the distance. Some of the passengers found this unsettling, but others agreed that it was only an average debacle, climbing out of the van to mill around termite mounds.

The wheels of tourism turn slowly on this Texas-sized island. As if driving in "bush taxis" wasn't enough of a challenge in this east African island famed for its spectacular wildlife and terrible roads, an electoral controversy early this year pretty much stopped travel completely. Flights rarely took off, roadblocks severed connections and fuel supplies slowed to a trickle. For a few confusing months, the country had two governments as Marc Ravalomanana, who claimed victory in the December election, jostled for power with Didier Ratsirika, Madagascar's corrupt despot for most of the past 25 years.

By August, Ratsirika had moved to France, the U.S. recognized the new government, and Madagascar again seemed a safe place to travel. A speedy recovery for the tourism industry will be crucial for the country, which relies on its status as one of the most stunning ecotourism destinations in the world to steady its teetering economy.

Unique Wildlife

Travelers accept Madagascar's discomforts because the country houses some of Earth's most unique wildlife. In the Spiny Desert, the green tentacle-like branches of "octopus trees" soar 30 feet in the air, while in the mountains, a small insect called the giraffe-necked weevil has a red body and a neck like a cherry picker. But perhaps the strangest creature of all is the Aye Aye, which seems like a fusion of monkey, bat and woodpecker. Over 80 percent of species in Madagascar are found nowhere else, making the country, in the eyes of biologists, less an island than a mini-continent.

Once attached to the ancient landmass Gondwanaland, Madagascar split off 150 to 165 million years ago, allowing new species to evolve widely. Alison Jolly, who studies the island's boisterous lemurs, writes that in Madagascar, "Time has broken its banks and flowed to the present down a different channel." When humans first drifted to the island from Africa and Indonesia beginning only about 1000 B.C., it was as if they followed the wake of a second Noah's Ark. They found lemurs the size of gorillas, pygmy hippos no bigger than pigs and elephant birds, which stood 10 feet tall and weighed half a ton.

These animals disappeared long ago, and by the 21st century, 90 percent of the island's original forests had been destroyed. Yet environmental groups still list Madagascar among the world's top eight megadiversity nations—places given the highest priority for immediate conservation. With more than 50 protected areas housing one-of-a-kind wildlife, the country has bet on tourism for environmental salvation.

The president of Conservation International, Russell Mittermeier, says it's a good wager. "Madagascar could become one of the world's premier ecotourism destinations over the next decade," he says, "and that industry could become the country's number-one foreign-exchange earner."

The new government has begun marketing ecotourism and rebuilding roads, but Roger Rakotomalala, owner of U.S.-Malagasy tour company Lemur 2000 asks customers to sign waivers before traveling to remote places like the famed Ranomafana National Park because he can't guarantee how soon they'll get there. The country needs to improve roads and hotels, he says, "But if the locals have a better life, I think it will open up immediately."

Spending Green

For travelers who can handle fluid plans and exposure to abject poverty, Madagascar offers the chance to spend tourist dollars where they will count. Foreigners can also volunteer with Earthwatch to help track lemurs or radio-collar Madagascar's lynx-like fossa.

Flights to Madagascar start at about $1,500, and for a few thousand more, reputable outfits like Lemur 2000, Cortez Travel or Manaca offer all-inclusive packages with some green accommodation options. The tours are well suited to people who want to see the country but don't speak French, and lack the time or temerity to negotiate a vastly different culture.

Typical rooms in Madagascar with common baths and no air conditioning can be had in exchange for the largest bill in the Malagasy currency, worth $5. First-class hotels are mostly confined to larger cities and touristy Nosy Be in the north. Fancy restaurants are scarce, but there are imitations of the American hamburger made from the ox-like zebu. Most food is French, and $5 secures fine multi-course tributes to Parisian sidewalk café fare.

Visitors who linger in Madagascar often come to view even ominous setbacks with a Malagasy nonchalance. When our van lost its wheel, some of the passengers found a snake and photographed it in a girl's hair. The driver meanwhile reattached the tire with bolts he took out of other wheels, and we trundled down the road, gingerly avoiding tortoises.

CONTACT: Cortez Travel, (800)854-1029,; Earthwatch, (800)776-0188,; Lemur 2000, (415)695-8880,; Manaca, (866)362-6222,

JOSH HARKINSON, a former E intern, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He spent a semester in Madagascar with the School for International Training.

Copyright 2003, E/The Environmental Magazine