Isolated from the African mainland and marked by extraordinary geographical variation and seasonal extremes, Madagascar has been the stage for a unique evolutionary direction for its plant and animal life. Far from adaptation dead ends, these organisms have found ways to endure the most hostile environments. In the event of a global catastrophe, this unique island will suffer its share, but the great variety of life and their methods of survival would have little difficulty in recovering. A spine of mountains runs the length of Madagascar’s north-south axis, splitting it in two for both climate and animal populations. The moist air and monsoon rains bathe the lush tropical forests of the east, while the west is shielded from water for the most part, a land of dry groves of thousand-year old baobab trees. The southern aspect of the island is an alien world of salt, and dry, gnarled woodlands. The center of the island is a plateau of rock plagued by earthquakes, rending the surface with cracks and valleys; the center is occupied by a lake born of this upheaval. The Western edge is a series of limestone reefs, resembling an ancient skeletal leviathan. Each habitat is rife with extraordinary species; more than 80% are found nowhere else on Earth.
When Pangaea broke apart 90 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period, Madagascar chipped off the Indian subcontinent and sat astride Africa’s east coast, the world’s oldest island. At some point in its history, plants and animals were swept across the ocean onto the land, for the most part remaining isolated from the rest of the African continent since. Some of the inhabitants are similar to animals found elsewhere, but genetic drift has crafted something other entirely. Extreme forms of life have come to being here. There are eighty different species of lemur, primates that live nowhere else. Half the world’s chameleon species can be found here, with brilliant coloration that matches any tropical bird. The giraffe necked weevil can be found here, an odd insect whose neck takes up over half its body length. Reed lemurs spend their entire lives on mats of reeds in a lake. Sifaka lemurs dine heartily on Euphorbia cacti, which are filled with a milky poisonous fluid that burns human flesh upon touch; they are able to leap at speed upon cacti without impaling themselves upon the dangerous spines. The elusive Fossa, a distant relative of the mongoose, is the largest predator, and hunts the lemur. Underground rivers are filled with ancient fish unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Radiated tortoises live in scrub brush, living as long as 180 years. A vast salt lake oversees a spiny forest of arid extremes. The variation in landscape and the effect it has on the climate are why this island has among the greatest diversity of any place on Earth.
The impeccable photography captures a strange world unlike anything you have seen before, with intimate images , but with a distanced sensibility. Attenborough manages to reveal Madagascar as hostile, yet deeply intriguing, and from a wildlife perspective a coveted destination. Environmental degradation has taken its toll on the whole of the island, fragmenting habitats for farmland and charcoal production. Deforestation has succeeded in eroding what viable farmland there is. The rural Malagasy population is amongst the poorest in the world, and such poverty serves to further degrade the land with badly planned efforts to feed the people. In the recent past, Madagascar’s government had taken greater steps toward conservation; land had been set aside for parks to drive ecotourism, with half of set fees returning to local populations to incentivize conservation. With the coup that chased President Ravalomanana into exile, the park system and conservation efforts have collapsed, allowing gangs to sack the forests for lumber and endangered species for pets. Of course, the outgoing President was well on his way to reversing his own work, attempting to sell half his nation to Daewoo for export-only crop production. Protected rosewood rainforest was cut to the ground, sold to China, making more cheap crap for Americans and Europeans to buy. All of this serves organized crime traffickers, leaving the domestic population worse off than before. This has served to convince, to some extent, the Malagasy people that it behooves them to protect the biodiversity as a valuable investment, rather than selling it off to soulless foreigners.
Madagascar gets across all too well the importance of the natural habitats here. Elephant birds, at 3 meters in height, were the tallest birds that ever lived. They once lorded over the southern beaches, until they met the first explorers to reach Madagascar. Now all that remains of them are eggshell fragments on a southern beach. This story has repeated itself since across the whole of this fragile nation, erasing forever innumerable plants and animals that fought for survival. Conservationists and the local population have a renewed passion to create a more sustainable model, and the most important agents are the people of Madagascar. Understanding of this land has only just begun, and such learning is more than academic. The Rosy Periwinkle, found only in Madagascar, is the source of a chemotherapy agent used for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and pediatric leukemias. The struggle to preserve Madagascar is the same as that all over the world – it is to preserve ourselves.
Tourism is one of the best ways to get involved – to learn about this strange and beautiful land, contact one of the many tour operators: Rainbow tours (www.rainbowtours.co.uk), Cactus Tours (www.cactus-madagascar.com), or the tourism board (www.madagascar-tourisme.com). The high definition version of Madagascar is not much of an improvement upon DVD quality, but it is still in equal turns breathtaking and illuminating.