Traditions and beliefs hold an important place in Malagasy life, influencing everything from the orientation of houses to who you should vote for. This isn't to say Malagasy society is static: economic development, population growth and globalisation are changing the country, although more slowly than many would like.
Behaviour & Etiquette
On arrival in Madagascar your first impression is likely to be of a polite but rather reserved people. This apparent timidity is a reflection of fihavanana, which means ‘conciliation’ or ‘brotherhood’. It stresses avoidance of confrontation and achievement of compromise in all walks of life. It is unseemly to discuss some subjects, such as personal problems, even with close friends. Likewise, searching or indiscreet questions are avoided at all costs.
Politeness in general is very important to the Malagasy, and impatience or pushy behaviour is regarded as shocking. Passengers queuing for a flight, for instance, will place their tickets in a neat row on the check-in desk or put their luggage in an orderly line before patiently awaiting their turn.
The welcoming of strangers and the traditions of hospitality are held sacred throughout Madagascar. It is considered a household duty to offer food and water to a guest, no matter how poor the inhabitants are themselves. In return, travellers should always honour this hospitality by accepting what has been offered to them.
Population & Language
Malagasy people are divided into 19 tribes, whose boundaries are roughly based on old kingdoms. Tribal divisions are still evident between ancient enemies such as the Merina and the Antakàrana. Also important is the distinction between Merina highlanders, who have more prominent Asian origins and are associated with the country’s aristocracy, and so-called côtiers (literally, ‘those from the coast’), whose African influences are more pronounced and who are often looked down on by the Merina. In Antananarivo, well-off côtières (women from the coast) often straighten their hair to avoid discrimination against their coastal origins.
The main tribal groups are Merina, who make up 27% of the population, Betsimisaraka (15%), Betsileo (12%), Tsimihety (7%), Sakalava (6%), Antaisaka (5%) and Antandroy (5%). There are also small groups of Indian, Chinese, Comorian and French living on the island.
This ethnic patchwork is matched by a hotchpotch of dialects. The official Malagasy language of newspapers and schools is based on the Malagasy of the Merina people, but each region has its own dialect. Vocabulary and accents vary to the extent that people from different provinces struggle to understand one another.
Religion & Beliefs
About half of Madagascar’s population adheres to traditional beliefs, while the efforts of proselytising Europeans during the 19th century have resulted in the other half worshipping at Catholic and Protestant churches. A small, but growing, proportion is Muslim. In recent years, evangelical churches have become popular, too, with charismatic preachers, inspirational singing and dancing, and unusual venues (from stadiums to town halls).
The church and politics have gone hand in hand for many years, too. Former president Marc Ravalomanana was vice-president of the FJKM, the largest Protestant church in Madagascar, for many years, while the Catholic Church officially endorsed coup leader Andry Rajoelina when he took power in 2009 (a decision it then regretted). Religious leaders have also been involved in reconciliation efforts to turn the page on the transition years.
Christian Malagasies often retain great respect for traditional beliefs, which are rooted in reverence for one’s ancestors and their spirits. Among most tribes, this is manifested in a complex system of fady (taboos) and burial rites, the best known of which is the ceremonial exhumation and reburial known as famadihana (literally, ‘the turning of the bones’), practised mostly in the Highlands.
Malagasies invoke spirits for protection, fertility or good health at sacred sites, be it a baobab tree, a forest waterfall or a royal tomb. You’ll recognise these sites from the offerings – zebu horns, lamba (white cotton or silk) scarves, small denominations of money, blood, honey, sweets etc. Praying and offering ceremonies are popular Sunday family outings and are often accompanied by a picnic.
Concepts of time and date also have a great influence. Malagasies strongly believe in vintana (destiny), which determines the most auspicious date for activities (building a house, planting a new crop etc) or events (such as circumcisions, weddings and funerals). Each day of the week has its connotations: Wednesday and Friday are good for funerals; Saturday, which is associated with nobility, is considered good for celebrations. To make sure they choose the most favourable date for an occasion, Malagasies will consult a mpanandro (astrologer) for guidance on vintana.
Every ceremony is invariably accompanied by the slaughter of a zebu, more than one if the family is wealthy or influential in the community. The blood and the horns are valuable offerings and the meat is shared by those attending, the hump (which is brown fat) being the most sought-after part.
The complex set of beliefs of the Malagasy has been constructed through the assimilation of diverse influences. The funeral rites of many tribes, for example, have Austronesian roots, while the status of cattle is thought to have African roots. Belief in vintana, on the other hand, is thought to originate from Islamic cosmology.
Family Life & Home
The family is the central tenet of Malagasy life and includes not only distant cousins, but also departed ancestors. Even urban, modern Malagasies, who reject the belief that ancestors have magic powers, regard those who are no longer alive as full members of the family. Famadihanas are an opportunity to communicate with ancestors. Families spend a great deal of time and money on family reunions, and taxis-brousses (bush taxis) are often full of individuals visiting relatives.
Malagasy homes are arranged according to astrological principles: the northeast corner is the noble and auspicious part of the house, and doors always face west. Many Malagasies think life on earth is temporary, whereas life after death is permanent, so families will favour lavish tombs and keep a modest house.
Marriage is a pretty relaxed institution and divorce is common. Children are seen as the primary purpose of marriage and essential to happiness and security. The idea that some people might choose not to have children is greeted with disbelief.
Women are a dynamic force in Malagasy society. They are very active in the workplace and are represented at every echelon of society, from street vendor to politician, school teacher to entrepreneur. Women are also regarded as the head of the domestic sphere, even if they also go out to work.
Women tend to marry and have children young: 16 or younger is typical in rural areas, while 20 is about average in urban areas, where women are more likely to go through secondary and superior education. A woman will generally move to her husband’s village. Polygamy exists but is not commonplace.
Sexually, Malagasy society is fairly liberated. Women can dress quite provocatively, and they can be quite forward with sexual advances to men, including foreigners. Prostitution is rampant in a number of areas, and travellers should be aware that sex tourism is heavily punished.
Most Malagasies bemoan the fact that their country, despite having so much going for it, has failed to develop economically. Political instability and economic mismanagement are primarily to blame. Madagascar therefore remains one of the world’s poorest countries. It ranked 161 out of 189 countries in the 2018 Human Development Index of the UN Development Program (UNDP). Its GDP in 2018 was US$12.1 billion (136 out of 205 countries on the World Bank’s ranking), lower than that of Afghanistan, Armenia and Yemen.
Madagascar’s economy is mainly subsistence agriculture, with rice, cassava, bananas and maize as the main food crops. The principal cash crops are vanilla, lychee, cloves and cocoa, with vanilla earning a substantial percentage of foreign exchange. Madagascar also exports nickel, cobalt and ilmenite (titanium ore) from two large-scale mining projects (one in Fort Dauphin in the south, the other in Ambatovy near Moramanga). The manufacturing industry is experiencing strong growth, with textile and seafood processing leading the charge.
Although the EU is one of Madagascar's most important trading partners, China is becoming increasingly important: in a 2016 survey by Afrobarometer, 27% of Malagasies said China was the country with the greatest influence over Madagascar, second only to France (42%).
Although Madagascar signed the 2018 Kigali declaration setting up the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, it was yet to ratify it (making it effective) as of 2019. In fact, Madagascar does surprisingly little trade with its continental neighbors, a missed opportunity given the size of these economies (South Africa notably).
Urban & Rural Life
Any visitor to Madagascar will notice the huge disparities in development between rural and urban areas. This is due to several factors: physical isolation (road density in Madagascar is just 5.4km per 100 sq km, which is low: Zambia for instance has 6.9km per 100 sq km and Kenya 28.4km per 100 sq km, and the roads that do exist are in poor condition); climate (the southern half of the country is arid and the east coast is prone to cyclones and floods, both of which affect agricultural productivity); and access to electricity (13%, one of the lowest in Africa), which is essential for business activity. All in all, agriculture is the livelihood for 80% of the population but contributes less than 20% of GDP. This explains why poverty (defined as people living under $1.90 a day) has shifted so little: it inched back from 77.7% in 2014 to 75.1% in 2018.
On virtually every indicator (schooling, access to water and sanitation, malnutrition etc), rural populations fare worse than their urban counterparts. Surveys have found that poverty is not only more generalised in rural areas, it's also deeper, with people facing chronic and severe malnutrition: 49% of children under the age of five suffer from stunting (impaired growth and development due to poor nutrition), one of the highest rate in the world.
Malagasies love watching international football (soccer; the English Premier League, in particular) and rugby (the French and European leagues, notably). National team Les Barea took part in its first African Cup of Nations in 2019, where it made it to the quarter finals and got a hero's welcome for its performance.
Where Malagasies punch above their weight is in the rather niche sport of pétanque (played with metal balls on dirt ground). A French import, it’s become a case of the student outdoing (or certainly equalling) the master: Madagascar won the Pétanque World Championship in 1999 and 2016 and has won numerous international opens, so don’t be surprised to see the game played up and down the country, on the beach, in village squares, or wherever there is a flat enough bit of ground.
Fady is the name given to local taboos designed to respect the ancestors. Fady can take innumerable forms and vary widely from village to village. It may be fady to whistle on a particular stretch of beach, to walk past a sacred tree, to eat pork, or to swim in a certain river.
Although foreigners will be excused for breaking fady, travellers should make every effort to respect these taboos. The best thing to do is to ask locals for information, and be particularly careful on sacred sites and in the vicinity of tombs or burial sites.
On the crest of a hill, a grove of pine trees whispers gently. In the shade, trestle tables are spread with sticky sweetmeats and bowls of steaming rice. A band plays a rollicking, upbeat tune as the stone door of a family tomb is opened. Old ladies wait at the entrance, faces dignified under their straw hats. Middle-aged men indulge in lethal homemade rum, dancing jerkily to the rhythms of the band.
One by one the corpses are brought out of the tomb, wrapped in straw mats and danced above the heads of a joyful throng. The bodies are rewrapped in pristine white burial lambas (scarves), sprayed with perfume and meticulously labelled by name with felt-tip pens. Everyone wants to touch the ancestors and talk to them. A period of quiet follows, with family members sitting by the head of the dead in silent communication, weeping but happy at the same time. The air is charged with emotion.
Then it's time to feast, celebrate and gossip with all the relatives, all the while checking in on the ancestors, filling them in on the action, making sure they are part of the festivities.
Then the bodies are danced one more time around the tomb, a few traditional verses are read out and the stone is sealed with mud for another seven years.
Famadihana ceremonies take place between July and September in the hauts plateaux (highlands) region from Antananarivo south to Ambositra. These days it’s generally OK to attend one, as long as your visit is arranged through a hotel or local tour company. On no account should you visit without an invitation and never take photos unless specific permission has been granted.
The vanilla plant was introduced to Madagascar from Mexico by French plantation owners over the course of the 19th century. They named it vanille (lavanila in Malagasy), from the Spanish vainilla or ‘little pod’. It is a type of climbing orchid, Vanila planifolia, that attaches itself to trees. Each flower must be hand-pollinated, which makes vanilla production extremely labour intensive. The vanilla seeds grow inside long pods hanging from the plant, which are collected and cured in factories.
Madagascar produces about 80% of the world’s vanilla. The plant grows most abundantly in northeastern parts of the country, particularly the SAVA region (comprising Sambava, Andapa, Vohémar and Antalaha), where the hot and wet climate of the coast is ideally suited for its cultivation.
Madagascar's vanilla made headlines in 2017 when prices rocketed to $635 a kilo (more than silver), 30 times more than in 2013. The spike was due to a combination of factors: in March 2017, cyclone Enawo struck the island and destroyed much of that year's crop. Growers have since struggled to match demand as it takes three to four years for a new plant to produce vanilla pods. Prices have since oscillated between $500 and $600 a kilo.
This spike in prices has created 'vanillionaires' and led to 'vanilla wars' with theft, violent robberies, trafficking and even murders taking place, all in order to gain a share or even control of this most lucrative market.
Madagascar has a rich and diverse artistic tradition that goes far beyond the wonderful craftsmanship displayed in popular souvenirs – music, literature, poetry and storytelling are especially prolific genres. Discovering and appreciating it can be tough for those who speak neither French nor Malagasy, so make a point of asking your guide, or enthusiastic anglophone locals, to introduce you to their favourites.
The earliest Malagasy literature dates from historical records produced in the mid-19th century. Modern poetry and literature began to flourish in the 1930s and 1940s. The best-known figure was the poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, who committed suicide in 1947 at the age of 36, reputedly after the colonial administration decided to send a group of basket weavers to France to represent the colony instead of him.
Modern-day literary figures include Michèle Rakotoson, Johary Ravaloson, David Jaomanoro, Elie Rajaonarison, Jean-Luc Raharimanana and Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, who goes by the pen name of Naivo. Most of their works are published in French; Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo, is the first ever Malagasy novel to be translated into English.
Hira gasy are popular music, dancing and storytelling spectacles held in the central highlands of Madagascar. Brightly clad troupes of 25 performers compete for prizes for the best costumes or the most exciting spectacle. An important part of hira gasy is kabary, in which a performer delivers an oratory using allegory, double entendre, metaphor and simile. Hira gasy has long been used to deliver important information, or raise awareness of certain topics (health, politics, environmental issues, respecting family values etc). Unfortunately, unless you are fluent in Malagasy, you’re unlikely to agree with the proverb that says, ‘While listening to a kabary well spoken, one fails to notice the fleas that bite one’. All the same, it is a cultural event well worth seeing.
More accessible are the songs and dances after the kabary. Dancers are dressed in bright gowns called malabary, and women also wear the traditional lamba (scarf). The competition winner is decided by audience members, who throw small denominations at their favourite troupe.
Most traditional Malagasy music revolves around favourite dance rhythms: the salegy of the Sakalava tribe, with both Indonesian and Kenyan influences; watsa watsa from Mozambique and the Congo; the tsapika, originating in the south; and the sigaoma, similar to South African music.
The most widely played traditional wind instrument is the kiloloka, a whistle-like length of bamboo capable of only one note. Melodies are played by a group of musicians, in a manner similar to a bell ensemble. The tubular instrument you’ll see on sale at tourist shops and craft markets is a valiha, which has 28 strings of varying lengths stretched around a tubular wooden sound box (generally made of bamboo). It resembles a bassoon, but is played more like a harp and originates from Southeast Asia. The most famous performer of valiha is Justin Vali, a household name in world-music circles.
Apart from at special events such as the Donia festival in Nosy Be, or hira gasy performances, traditional Malagasy music can be hard to find and it is often restricted to rural areas.
Malagasy pop music is usually a cheesy blend of guitar rock, rough-and-ready rap and hip-hop, and soulful ballads, a genre best represented by national treasure Poopy (she was awarded the Malagasy equivalent of an MBE in 2014 for her long and distinguished career). Current big names include AmdondronA, Mage 4 and Black Nadia.
Perhaps Madagascar's most successful band ever is the folk-pop Mahaleo, led by charismatic frontman (and presidential hopeful in 2018) Dama. In the same vein, you'll find singer-songwriter Nogabe Randriaharimalala, Lala Njava and Nicolas Vatomanga.
For more traditional sounds, Jerry Marcos, a master of salegy, is guaranteed to have you shaking your stuff like there's no tomorrow.
Contemporary Malagasy artists are relatively easy to see in Antananarivo, where there are numerous venues (look in the newspapers on Friday for event details, or the free listings available in hotels and restaurants).
Each region of Madagascar has its own architectural style and building materials. The Merina and Betsileo of the hauts plateaux (highlands) live in distinctive red-brick houses. The typical Merina home is a tall, narrow affair with small windows and brick pillars in the front that support open verandahs. The Betsileo dispense with the pillars and trim their houses with elaborately carved wood.
Coastal homes are generally constructed of lighter local materials, including ravinala (literally, ‘forest leaves’; also known as travellers’ palm) and raffia palm. Houses in humid areas are generally raised to promote ventilation and avoid insects.
Death being considered the passage to eternal life, tombs are often more elaborate than everyday dwellings. In the highlands, tombs are grand affairs: rectangular brick pavilions, often whitewashed, decorated with colourful geometric shapes. In the west, the Sakalava decorate their tombs with erotic sculptures (increasingly rare because of looting), whilst in the south Antandroy and Mahafaly people decorate theirs with aloalo, ornate carved wooden steles topped with zebu horns. The carvings can be figurative or abstract.
Textiles have always played a huge part in Malagasy society, with some types of cloth even being imbued, it is believed, with supernatural powers. The Merina used cocoons collected from wild silkworms (endemic to the island, and which are harvested in the wild rather than farmed) to make highly valued textiles called lamba mena (red silk). The silks were woven in many colors and pattern combinations and, in the past, had strong links with royal prestige, expressed by the color red. Worn by the aristocracy in life and death, lamba mena were also used in burial and reburial ceremonies.
Lamba are still used in funeral rites and you’ll see red-and-white cloths tied to sacred trees across the country as tokens of gratitude to ancestors for fulfilled prayers.
Madagascar is the world’s fourth-largest island, after Greenland, Papua New Guinea and Borneo. Its incredibly diverse landscapes and unique wildlife are a product of history: cast adrift from Africa about 165 million years ago, Madagascar took with it a cargo of animals and plants that have been evolving in isolation ever since.
In the Beginning
What is now the island of Madagascar was once sandwiched between Africa and India as part of the supercontinent Gondwana, a vast ancient land mass that also included Antarctica, South America and Australasia.
Gondwana began to break apart about 180 million years ago, but Madagascar remained joined to Africa at the ‘hip’ – in the region of modern East Africa – for another 20 million years. About 88 million years ago the eastern half of Madagascar broke off, moving northward to eventually become India, by which time modern Madagascar had drifted to its present position. Since then, Madagascar has remained at its present size and shape, geographically isolated.
The Eighth Continent
Madagascar measures 1600km on its longest axis, aligned roughly northeast to southwest, and 570km from east to west at its widest point. Almost the entire island is in the tropics, albeit well south of the equator, with only the southern tip protruding below the Tropic of Capricorn. The 5000km-long coastline features many long, sweeping sandy beaches, with coral reefs and atolls offshore in some areas, and is dotted with around 250 islands, of which Nosy Be and Île Sainte Marie are the largest. It is such epic numbers that have earned Madagascar the nickname ‘the eighth continent’.
A chain of mountains runs down the eastern seaboard, forming a steep escarpment and trapping moisture that helps create the island’s rainforests, which are rich in biodiversity. There is no modern volcanic activity on the island, although volcanoes previously erupted in the central highlands.
The island’s highest point is 2876m Maromokotro, an extinct volcanic peak on the Tsaratanana massif, followed by the 2658m Pic Imarivolanitra (formerly known as Pic Boby) in Parc National Andringitra.
Going east from the western coastline, limestone is replaced by sandstone, which rises into majestic formations in places such as Parc National Isalo.
Northern and western Madagascar host impressive limestone karst formations – jagged, eroded rocks that contain caves, potholes, underground rivers and forested canyons rich in wildlife such as crocodiles, lemurs, birds and bats. Karst is known locally as tsingy and is protected within one of Madagascar’s three Unesco World Heritage Sites, Parc National Bemaraha, as well as in the Réserve Spéciale Ankarana and Parc National Tsingy de Namoroka.
Madagascar’s 80-million-year isolation has allowed its wildlife to take a remarkable evolutionary turn. Undisturbed by outside influences and human beings (who ‘only’ arrived 2000 years ago), the various fauna and flora followed their own interpretation of the evolution manual. The result is that 70% of animals and 90% of plants found in Madagascar are endemic.
As well as being completely unique, their sheer variety is staggering: Madagascar hosts 5% of all known animal and plant species. Habitat degradation threatens much of this incredible natural wealth, though, and habitat conservation is now a priority.
Madagascar’s plants are no less interesting than its animals and its flora is incredibly diverse. About 15,000 species are known to science, including the bizarre octopus trees, several species of baobab and a pretty flower that is used to treat leukaemia.
The island’s vegetation can be divided into three parallel north–south zones, each supporting unique communities of plants and animals: the hot, arid west consists of dry spiny desert or deciduous forest; the central plateau (hauts plateaux) has now been mostly deforested; and the wettest part of the country, the eastern seaboard, supports extensive tracts of rainforest. Mangrove forests grow in sites along the coast, particularly near large estuaries. All of these habitats have suffered extensive disturbance.
Madagascar faces tremendous environmental challenges, none greater than deforestation. Just like every other country, Madagascar is also going to have to contend with the effects of climate change on its unique biodiversity.
Around 90% of Malagasy households rely on firewood and charcoal for their domestic energy needs. This reliance has put immense pressure on Madagascar’s forests, as has the need for agricultural and grazing land (slash-and-burn, or tavy in Malagasy, is widespread). A 2019 study by French Agricultural Research Center for International Development (Cirad) found that Madagascar had lost 44% of its forest cover since the 1950s and that the rate of deforestation had accelerated since 2005. Even more concerning is the fact that 46% of remaining forests are highly fragmented, with 46% of the forest now less than 100m from a cleared or open area.
Mangroves are similarly affected: a 2019 WWF survey found that since 1995, Madagascar had lost 24% of its mangroves and that the trend had accelerated since 2015.
The impact of deforestation on such a large scale is catastrophic for Madagascar's wildlife. A 2015 report from IUCN found that 114 of the country's mammal species were threatened – the second-highest number for any country in the world.
Deforestation has also led to an increase in soil erosion. During the rainy season, Madagascar’s laterite soils ‘bleed’ into the country’s streams and rivers. The red earth saturates coastal waters, threatening fragile marine ecosystems, including precious coral reefs. Landslides have also become more common during the rainy season, damaging roads, rail tracks and people's homes.
Natural Resource Exploitation
Madagascar has immense natural wealth: minerals, rare earth metals, coal, gemstones and precious woods. There are already a couple of large-scale mines in operation – one exploiting nickel and cobalt in Ambatovy near Moramanga, and another one mining ilmenite (titanium ore) and zircon (a gemstone) near Fort Dauphin (Taolagnaro).
Madagascar may also have large deposits of oil and gas – its proximity to Mozambique and Tanzania, where large reserves were discovered over the past few years, suggest this is likely, although prospecting is still at an early stage. Only one on-shore block has so far been confirmed as being commercially viable (a heavy oil deposit in western Madagascar).
Prospecting in the extractive sector virtually ground to a halt during the transition years (2009–13), but with the return to political stability in 2014, many are keeping a watchful eye on developments. The Malagasies are understandably keen to make the best of their natural wealth, but with this expectation comes great anxiety about the environmental impact of such projects. Madagascar was suspended from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) during the transition but was reintegrated in June 2014. It was suspended again in 2018–19 for failing to comply with reporting requirements but the new government, appointed after the 2019 parliamentary elections, has vowed to make full compliance a priority.
Madagascar’s seas also suffer from overfishing. Human population growth and lack of food and employment alternatives in the south have pushed marine ecosystems to the brink. A number of NGOs are currently working with coastal communities to improve their livelihood’s sustainability and have developed successful Locally Managed Marine Protected Areas.
Stakeholders in southwest Madagascar launched an ambitious action plan in early 2019 to move the region's octopus fishery towards Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC). Sustainable fishing practices would not only protect marine resources, but also guarantee long-term employment for those depending on this activity for their livelihood.
Madagascar is considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change: its location in the Indian Ocean leaves it hugely exposed. The country's pervasive poverty and lack of economic development also severely restrict its capacity to adapt to climatic shifts.
Broadly speaking, the main changes experienced by Madagascar will be rising temperatures, extended drought periods, as seen in the south, greater variability in rainfall, the intensification of cyclones (cyclone Enawo, in 2017, was the most destructive in 13 years), and rising sea levels and sea temperatures.
Feature: Lost Giants
When humans first arrived, Madagascar supported many animals much bigger than contemporary species: hippopotamuses, aardvarks, gorilla-size lemurs and giant flightless birds, similar to modern African birds such as the ostrich, roamed the island. With the arrival of humans, many of the larger animals, which no doubt provided a ready supply of protein, were wiped out. Over the last 1000 years, scientists estimate that 16 species of lemurs, plus tortoises, the hippopotamuses, giant aardvarks, the world’s largest bird (the 3m-high elephant bird Aepyornis) and two species of eagle have become extinct.
Feature: Wild Expectations
Many first-time visitors naturally associate Madagascar with two things – Africa and wildlife – leading to visions either of East African game parks, or of zoo-like rainforests. The reality is quite different. First, there are no plains full of roaming beasts here. In fact, there are no wild animals larger than a small dog.
Outside the parks, the most common impression is of the absence of wildlife. You can drive for days through the spiny forest in the south, for example, and see virtually nothing but a few domesticated zebu. Likewise, along the lush wetlands of the Canal des Pangalanes there are hardly any birds. There are many reasons for this, beginning with the impact of hunting and deforestation, which has decimated animal populations. But even the great biological diversity in the forests is not always obvious. Some animals are nocturnal, or shy of humans, or simply rare. The broad-nosed gentle lemur, for example, was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Ranomafana in 1972. It was observed again in the late 1980s and is only occasionally seen today. Many fascinating animals, such as the world’s smallest chameleon, are simply tiny. And rainforest is, by its very nature, a fairly effective shield for its inhabitants.
So when seeking out this country’s wildlife, it is best to adjust your focus to a smaller scale, look carefully around you, be patient and hire a good guide. It can be challenging to spot that bamboo lemur in the canopy, but that’s what makes it so rewarding when you do.
Feature: Going, Going...Back Again!
The last century saw several Malagasy bird species pushed perilously close to the brink of extinction. Waterbirds have fared particularly badly: the Alaotra grebe was last seen in the 1980s and was declared extinct in 2010.
All three of the country’s endemic duck species are rare. One, the Madagascar pochard, had last been observed in 1994, when a female was rescued by a conservation worker from a fisherman’s net on Lac Alaotra. The rescuer kept the bird alive in a bath in the hope that a mate would be found, but it succumbed and the Madagascar pochard was presumed extinct. But in 2006 the unthinkable happened: nine adult Madagascar pochards were discovered with young on a remote lake in the Alaotra basin in northern Madagascar.
In a desperate effort to save the species from extinction, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), the Peregrine Trust and the government of Madagascar recovered eggs about to hatch and set up an emergency captive-breeding program, with the long-term aim of reintroducing the rare duck to its habitat. The program has managed to rear 114 birds and in December 2018, 21 were released on Lake Sofia in northern Madagascar after a period of acclimatisation.
Feature: Iconic Trees
The photogenic Allée des Baobabs in western Madagascar has done much for the popularity of this giant tree. Madagascar is home to seven of the world’s eight baobab species, of which six are native and endemic (the seventh species is that found on mainland Africa, the eighth in Australia).
The trees stand out for their size (up to 30m high), huge trunks (one of the largest in the country is in Majunga, with a circumference of 21m), old age (many are thought to be several centuries old) and signature scraggly branches, which are in full view over the winter months, when baobabs have lost their foliage. The trees store water in their trunks and are therefore well adapted to dry environments.
Another of Madagascar’s iconic plants – it is, technically, not a tree – is the ravinala, or travellers’ palm, named so after the large quantities of rainwater it can store at the base of its leaves. Ravinala, which is native to the island, has many uses in Madagascar. The leaves are dried and used for building roofs in traditional houses, and bundles of dried leaves are sold by the roadside everywhere in northern and eastern Madagascar. Done well, a ravinala roof can last 10 years. The tough stems are often used to make beautiful ceiling or wall panels. The wood from the trunk is also used for various building purposes.
Perhaps as a nod to its durability, Air Madagascar chose the ranivala tree as its emblem.
Feature: What You Can Do
- Offset your air miles to Madagascar with carbon credits.
- Carefully consider your purchase of precious wood items.
- Never buy lemurs, tortoises or other protected species, no matter how sorry they look. Instead, report any mistreatment of animals to the police or the nearest MNP office.
- If you buy gemstones, make sure you buy them from an established dealer and get an export permit.
Feature: Illegal Rosewood Logging
In April 2000, Cyclone Hudah tore through the Masoala Peninsula in northeast Madagascar. The storm left a trail of devastation in its wake: satellite images revealed that around 3% of the forest was severely damaged. Although rosewood (known locally as bola bola) exploitation had been banned, then president Marc Ravalomanana exceptionally allowed fallen trees to be sold as timber. Little did he know that this would open the floodgates of illegal logging.
In 2009, the transitional authorities decided to make rosewood export legal in a bid to generate new revenue streams (foreign donors had withheld their funding because of the unconstitutional change of power). The traffic, driven by demand for luxury furniture and musical instruments from China and the US (a rosewood bed sells for US$2 million in China) spiralled out of control. The worst-affected areas were the northeastern national parks of Marojejy and Masoala and the adjoining Makira forest (now a protected area).
In 2009, an investigation by Madagascar National Parks, the environmental NGO Global Witness and the US Environmental Investigation Agency uncovered the scale of the pillaging. The report revealed that 100 to 200 trees were being taken down every day, a bounty worth US$80,000 to US$460,000. It also found that the police and officials at every level of the forestry sector had colluded with traffickers.
The Malagasy authorities reacted by forbidding all precious wood exports in April 2010. Its implementation has remained symbolic, however, with bola bola traffic continuing unabated. Even the addition of rosewood and ebony to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and an international embargo since 2013 did little to stem the flow. Logs of rosewood have continued to find their way to China via Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya and Hong Kong. In 2014, Singapore authorities seized nearly 30,000 rosewood logs valued at $50 million – one of the largest wildlife seizures ever in the history of CITES.
The trade has been devastating not only because of the deforestation it causes, but also because of the accompanying trafficking it has brought (animal poaching, gold prospecting etc). Rosewood trees are now critically endangered: there are no seed-bearing trees left outside of national parks (rosewood grows slowly and takes 40 to 50 years to reach this stage).
Focus has now shifted to the vexing question of what to do with the stockpiles of precious timber in government custody. The government is intent on selling it to bring in revenue but conservationists argue that this would fuel rather than curb illegal felling of precious timber. Instead they argue that rosewood and other precious timber should be granted the highest protection status under CITES, Appendix 1, which bans all trade of listed species.
Feature: Lemurs in Peril
Few people realise quite how endangered lemurs are. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they are now the most threatened mammal group on earth, with 94% of all species threatened with extinction (up from 64% in 2005).
This sorry state of affairs is down to several factors: deforestation, which has squeezed their natural habitat; poaching (for wildlife trade) and hunting (from impoverished local communities); and the 2009–13 political crisis, which not only saw a complete breakdown of the rule of law in protected areas, but also led a number of donors to suspend their funding for environmental conservation.
Lemurs are also at risk of climate change, which could shrink their habitat even further, and shift it by hundreds of kilometres in some cases.
Thankfully, the situation is now well documented and an internationally supported strategy is in place to protect lemurs. At its heart is the involvement of local communities and greater financial support for conservation efforts.
Parks & Reserves
Many visitors come to Madagascar for its amazing parks and reserves, and rightly so: they often are the highlight of a trip. Madagascar's efforts to set aside so much of its land for protection deserves to be saluted and supported: poaching, financing and sustainable management remain challenges, although the government seems determined to tackle them.
A Brief History
Although protected areas in Madagascar have existed since the 1950s, the environmental movement began in earnest in 1985 with an international conference of scientists, funding organisations and Malagasy government officials. Biologists had long known that the country was an oasis of amazing creatures and plants, but the clear felling and burning of forests all over the island was threatening these treasures. The Malagasy government joined together with concerned international donors to plan a major conservation program.
By 1989 Madagascar had a national Environmental Action Plan, which offered a blueprint for biodiversity action for the next 15 years. The first step was to create a national park system, called the Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protégées (Angap; National Association for the Management of Protected Areas), and then set Angap to work on creating new parks and training staff. The last phase of the program, which started in earnest in the naughts, aimed to develop sustainable tourism in the country’s protected areas.
Although not perfect, great strides have been achieved in the country’s protected areas since 1985. Angap changed its name to Madagascar National Parks (MNP; www.parcs-madagascar.com) in 2009 and it now manages 43 protected areas covering around 20,000 sq km. In total, Madagascar now has more than 60,000 sq km of land (and sea) under protection.
At the World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003 (an event organised every 10 years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), then president Marc Ravalomanana announced a bold plan to triple the extent of Madagascar’s protected areas. Amazingly, the country achieved its goal, a feat that president Hery Rajaonarimampianina proudly announced in November 2014 at the World Parks Congress in Sydney.
Despite this achievement, the picture inside Madagascar's protected areas isn't all rosy. National parks in the northeast of the country such as Marojejy and Masoala have been subject to severe illegal logging of precious hardwoods (rosewood in particular) during the transition (2009–13), and despite the return to constitutional rule in 2014, the illegal trafficking has continued. Others such as Ankarana, Ranomafana and Isalo have struggled to contain mining rushes, notably for sapphires.
The government faces two more challenges: the sustainable management of protected areas (notably their financing, which is largely supported by international donors) and how to translate conservation efforts into economic development. Although local communities receive (in theory) 50% of park admission fees, the government and conservation organisations alike are keen to see conservation play a wider role in Madagascar's economic growth.
Undaunted, the president called on the international community at the 2014 Sydney conference to help Madagascar meet these challenges and set his country another goal: to triple the extent of marine protected areas by the next World Parks Congress (likely to be held in 2024).
Enlightened conservationists know that for conservation programs to succeed in poor developing nations, local people must be involved.
From the beginning, the needs of the people living in and around the parks were incorporated into park management plans. Money from park admission fees is used to build wells, buy vegetable seeds, help with tree nurseries, rebuild schools and build small dams to facilitate paddy, rather than hillside, rice cultivation.
Tourism has also fostered employment opportunities in villages around major national parks, with rangers, guides, porters and those working in guesthouses and restaurants all benefiting.
Every organisation involved in conservation has dedicated funding and projects to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity and to improve the livelihoods of communities living on the edge of protected areas. Activities include income-generating projects, training for park rangers and field assistants, school outreach programs, reforestation etc.
But the most successful examples are those where local communities are directly involved in the management of the protected area. The Réserve d’Anja is a great example. It is run and managed by village association Anja Miray, whose 250 members are local residents, and it attracts around 14,000 visitors a year, more than many national parks.
The many Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA) are another shining example of protected areas where local communities own, manage and enforce the protection of their coastline and seabed. A 2015 study of LMMAs in southwest Madagascar found that, over a period of eight years, short-term bans on octopus fishing had helped stocks recover and doubled fishermen's incomes during the fishing season thanks to bigger catches – a win-win situation. There are now 65 LMMAs in Madagascar, covering about 11% of the country's seas.
Scientific Research & Parks
The biodiversity that Madagascar’s parks and reserves protect is of great interest to scientists, and many of the country’s protected areas host research programs in primates, biodiversity, endemicity, the effects of climate change, deforestation and much more.
The Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments set up the ValBio research centre next to Parc National Ranomafana. The Wildlife Conservation Society manages Parc Naturel de Makira, the largest protected area in Madagascar. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has had a captive tortoise breeding centre at Parc National Ankarafantsika for nearly 25 years and is fighting to save the Menabe Antimena Protected Area in the southwest. The German Primate Centre has been researching Réserve Forestière de Kirindy’s lemurs since 1993. WWF is working on wildlife corridors between protected areas, and American scientists from Harvard, Montclair State University and the Californian Academy of Sciences are looking at ways to increase insect consumption and improve chicken rearing in the northeast in order to reduce the consumption of endangered bushmeat (notably lemurs).
These are just a handful of projects taking place in the country’s protected areas, but they highlight their importance to the scientific community, a fact that is, sadly, not always well explained to visitors.
National park admission prices for foreign nationals depend on the park’s category. The fee is per day. Children pay Ar25,000 per day in all parks.
Admission to other protected areas varies between Ar10,000 and Ar60,000 per day for an adult. Children generally pay a nominal fee.
Guides are compulsory in all MNP protected areas (national parks, special reserves and strict nature reserves), but not always in other protected areas. You don’t need to book a guide in advance: just turn up at the MNP office on the day (or the day before if you’d like to discuss itineraries) and you will be assigned a guide who matches your request (guides work in rotation).
Unfortunately, there can be big variations in the level of knowledge about fauna and flora from one guide to another. All MNP guides speak French, and an increasing number now speak English.
Fees vary depending on the park and the length of walks, but in any case they are generally clearly displayed at the reserve or park entrance. A charge of Ar40,000 for half a day’s walk is about average.
Almost all national parks have designated camping areas. The locations are invariably atmospheric, but facilities vary from pretty good to really basic.
Don’t be put off if you haven’t come equipped for camping: all you really need is a warm sleeping bag and some toilet roll. Some parks rent tents, cooking utensils etc and if they don't, they will usually know a local outfit that does. You can also hire porters and cooks (who can usually sort out supplies for you). Just drop by the MNP office the day before you need to set off to reserve everything.
Feature: National Park Admission Fees
|Protected Areas||Admission (Ar/day)|
|King Parks||Ankarana, Isalo||65,000|
|Main Parks||Andohahela, Ankarafantsika, Bemaraha, Lokobe, Montagne d'Ambre, Nosy Hara, Ranomafana||55,000|
|Other Parks||Ambohitantely, Analamazaotra, Analamerana, Andringitra, Baie de Baly, Beza-Mahafaly, Cap Sainte-Marie, Kirindy Mite, Mananara Nord, Manombo, Manongarivo, Mantadia, Marojejy, Masoala-Nosy Mangabe, Mikea, Sahamalaza, Tsimanampesotse, Tsingy de Namoroka, Zahamena, Zombitse-Vohibasia||45,000|
Feature: World Heritage Site in Danger
In 2007 Unesco declared the eastern-seaboard Rainforests of the Atsinanana a World Heritage Site. The site includes six rainforest national parks: Parc National Marojejy, Parc National Masoala-Nosy Mangabe, Parc National Zahamena, Parc National Ranomafana, Parc National Andringitra and Parc National Andohahela. Unesco acknowledged the importance of these forests in maintaining Madagascar’s high levels of biodiversity.
But in July 2010 the World Heritage committee decided to move the Rainforests of the Atsinanana to its List of World Heritage in Danger because of illegal logging and hunting of endangered species. The committee noted that ‘despite a decree outlawing the exploitation and export of rosewood and ebony, Madagascar continues to provide export permits for illegally logged timber’.
Unesco urged Madagascar to respect the legislation, but as of 2019 there was still no sign that the rainforests of Atsinanana would be moved off the red list any time soon because of continued trafficking, wildlife poaching and illegal mining.
Feature: Carbon for Sale
The Parc Naturel de Makira in eastern Madagascar is the country's largest protected area and home to 1% of the world's biodiversity. In an effort to make the park financially sustainable, the government of Madagascar and the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org) set up a REDD+ carbon credit scheme (REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus Conservation).
The idea is to assign financial value to the carbon stored in trees and to compensate the institution or community (in developing countries only) protecting the forested areas. Deforestation is thought to contribute around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, so finding incentives to avoid it is an important climate-control mechanism. It's also a good way to 'make conservation pay', with 50% of carbon revenues used to benefit communities directly.
In September 2013, the government announced that more than 700,000 credits had been approved for sale, which would save 32 million tonnes of CO₂ from reaching the atmosphere. But the scheme hit a snag in 2016 and sales were suspended. As of 2019 however, there were signs that they would resume under the new administration.
Feature: Madagascar’s National Parks & Reserves
|Park||Features||Activities||Wildlife||Best time to visit|
|Parc National Andohahela||Three types of forest: humid, transition and dry||Hiking, camping, birdwatching||Spiny iguanas, birds, including harrier hawks||Apr-Dec|
|Parc National Andringitra||Rugged granite peaks, fantastic trails and scenery||Trekking, climbing||Ring-tailed lemurs, orchids||Oct-Nov|
|Parc National Ankarafantsika||Diverse landscapes, from dry forest to canyon and lakes||Hiking, birdwatching, lemur-watching, boat trips||129 species of birds, 8 species of lemur||Year-round|
|Parc National Isalo||Sandstone mountains, gorges with natural swimming pools||Hiking, swimming||Sifakas, ring-tailed lemurs, Pachypodium||May-Oct|
|Parc National Kirindy Mite||Sand dunes, dry forest, brackish lakes, mangroves||Hiking, birdwatching, pirogue trips||Birds, including flamingos||May-Nov|
|Parc National Marojejy||Remote peaks, lush rainforest, canyons||Trekking on the Marojejy Massif, lemur-watching||Silky sifakas, reptiles, amphibians, millipedes||Aug-Nov|
|Parc National Masoala-Nosy Mangabe||Primary rainforest, mangroves and protected marine areas||Trekking, sea kayaking||Ruffed lemurs, brown lemurs, humpback whales, orchids||Aug-Jan|
|Parc National Ranomafana||Secondary rainforest, forested slopes, waterfalls||Hiking, lemur-watching, birdwatching||Lemurs, birds, insects, orchids||Sep-Dec|
|Parc National Bemaraha||Spectacular limestone pinnacles, Unesco World Heritage Site||Climbing, hiking, pirogue trips||Lemurs, birds, reptiles||Apr-Oct|
|Parc National Lokobe||Primary forest on an isolated peninsula||Hiking, lemur-watching, pirogue trips||Black lemurs, boa constrictors, birds, including owls||Year-round|
|Parc National Mantadia||Pristine forest, excellent local guides, well-marked trails||Hiking, lemur-watching, birdwatching||Lemurs (including the indri), abundant birdlife, reptiles, orchids||Oct-Nov|
|Parc National Marin Nosy Tanikely||Tiny tropical island surrounded by shallow reefs||Snorkelling, swimming, walking||Turtles, coral, numerous species of fish||Year-round|
|Parc National Montagne d’Ambre||Humid forest, old French botanical gardens, waterfalls||Hiking, birdwatching, lemur-watching||Brookesia chameleons, amphibians, lemurs||Year-round|
|Parc National Zombitse-Vohibasia||Southwestern Madagascar's last island of dense, dry forest||Hiking, birdwatching||85 species of birds, lemurs||May-Oct|
|Réserve d’Anja||The mountain-size ‘three sisters’ boulders; forest||Hiking, climbing, lemur-watching||Ring-tailed lemurs||Year-round|
|Réserve Forestière de Kirindy||Dense, dry deciduous forest||Hiking, night walks, lemur-watching||Fossas, giant jumping rats, lemurs||Year-round|
|Réserve Spéciale Ankarana||Tsingy (limestone pinnacles), caves, dry forest||Hiking, caving, birdwatching, night walks||Bats, 11 species of lemur, birds (including flycatchers)||Jun-Dec|
|Réserve Spéciale Cap Sainte-Marie||Stark, windswept cape, Madagascar’s southernmost point||Hiking, camping, searching for elephant bird eggshells||Radiated tortoises, spider tortoises, whales offshore||May-Oct|
When Madagascar broke away from Africa some 160 million years ago, its cargo of primitive animals evolved in some novel directions, free from the pressures felt on other land masses, such as human hunters. The result is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world, on land as well as sea. You'll need a good guide, patience and a little bit of luck, to appreciate it in all its glory.
Colourful Typical Lemurs
Lemurs are an extraordinarily diverse group of prosimians (primate ancestors) found only in Madagascar. ‘Typical’ lemurs are long-tailed, monkey-like animals with cat-like faces, prominent ears and prehensile hands with separate fingers and toes.
These sociable lemurs forage on the ground in groups of 13 to 15, searching for fruit, flowers, leaves and other vegetation in spiny and dry deciduous forest. Habituated troops live at Réserve d’Anja. Length 95–110cm; weight 2.3–3.5kg.
Black & White Ruffed Lemur
This species’ social behaviour is complex: males and females may occupy separate territories, or live in mixed social groups. They are easily seen at the Andasibe area parks. Length 110–120cm; weight 3.1–3.6kg.
Red Ruffed Lemur
Like other ruffed lemurs, this species primarily eats fruit, is highly vocal and sometimes hangs by its hind feet while feeding. It is found only in lowland primary rainforest on the Masoala Peninsula. Length 100–120cm; weight 3.3–3.6kg.
Recognisable by their piercing orange eyes and strongly marked bibs, mongoose lemurs live in pairs with their offspring. They tend to be more secretive than other ‘typical’ lemurs, but can be readily seen at Parc National Ankarafantsika. Length 75–83cm; weight 1.1–1.6kg.
Plain Typical Lemurs
Many lemurs are plainly marked with mousy brown or grey colours that make them inconspicuous in the shaded forests where they live. Lemurs don’t need strong social markings because they rely on scent to mark territories and signal their readiness to breed.
Male and female crowned lemurs have different colourations. They live in dry deciduous forest and rainforest in northern Madagascar. Habituated troops can be seen at Réserve Spéciale Ankarana. Length 75–85cm; weight 1.1–1.3kg.
Common Brown Lemur
Living in groups of three to 12, these lemurs are active during the day but may be partly nocturnal in the dry season. Common at the Andasibe area parks. Length 100cm; weight 2–3kg.
Males are dark brown or black, while females vary from golden brown to rich chestnut with flamboyant white ear and cheek tufts. They’re easily seen in Parc National Lokobe. Length 90–110cm; weight 2–2.9kg.
You can tell male red-bellied lemurs from females by the white ‘teardrops’ of bare skin under their eyes. See them at Parc National Ranomafana, especially from May to June. Length 78–93cm; weight 1.6–2.4kg.
Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur
The most common of the bamboo lemurs is widespread in eastern rainforests at Parc National Ranomafana and the Andasibe area parks. Length 56–70cm; weight 0.7–1kg.
Sifakas & Indri
Also known as simponas, sifakas are prodigious leapers that move rapidly by propelling themselves from tree to tree with their elongated back legs. Many are attractively marked and easily seen at national parks where troops have been habituated. Indris and sifakas are members of the same family.
This beautiful lemur is famous for balletic bounds across clearings, leaping sideways on its strong back legs. The species is restricted to dry deciduous forest in the south and is easily seen at Parc National Isalo. Length 90–110cm; weight 3–3.5kg.
These attractive sifakas commonly travel in groups. They’re restricted to dry deciduous forest in Madagascar’s northwest, such as Parc National Ankarafantsika. Length 93–110cm; weight 3.7–4.3kg.
Protected by a strong local fady (taboo), these little-known sifakas sometimes live in towns in western Madagascar. They’re common in Parc National Bemaraha. Length 92–110cm; weight 3–4.5kg.
Arguably the most beautiful of all lemurs, this species is almost the same size as the indri. It’s widely distributed on the eastern seaboard but is best seen at the Andasibe area parks. Length 94–105cm; weight 6–8.5kg.
Known locally as babakoto, the indri is the largest lemur and has the strongest voice, which can travel 3km through the forest. Indris can leap up to 10m between tree trunks, and they travel in family groups of two to six while foraging, mostly for leaves. See them at the Andasibe area parks. Length 69–77cm; weight 6–9.5kg.
Common Nocturnal Lemurs
Approximately half of all lemur species are nocturnal. The nocturnal species are the smallest lemurs, and include mouse lemurs (the smallest of all primates), dwarf lemurs and sportive lemurs. The aye-aye is classified in its own family and even among lemurs stands out as unique.
Gray Mouse Lemur
Like most mouse lemurs, this species can be very common in suitable habitats, which include deciduous dry forest, spiny forest and secondary forest. It is typically active in the lower tree layers, although it moves very quickly and often retires from torchlight soon after being spotted. Mouse lemurs eat insects, fruit, flowers and other small animals, and are preyed upon by forest owls. Length 25–28cm; weight 58–67g.
With its shaggy, grizzled coat, bright orange eyes, leathery bat-like ears and long, dextrous fingers, the aye-aye is a strange-looking animal and the subject of much superstition. The middle digit of each forehand is elongated, and is used to probe crevices for insect larvae and other morsels. Aye-ayes are difficult to see but widely distributed in rainforests and dry deciduous forests. Your best chance to see one is on Aye-Aye Island. Length 74–90cm; weight 2.5–2.6kg.
Weasel Sportive Lemur
Found in rainforests of east-central Madagascar, these lemurs have dense woolly fur and spend the night munching on leaves, often staying for hours in the same tree. Males are solitary and highly territorial, while females remain with their offspring. Length 30–35cm; weight 0.5–1kg.
Rare Nocturnal Lemurs
Nocturnal lemurs are hard to find and may require the assistance of expert guides to spot. Some are thought to be highly endangered, while so little is known about others that their numbers and distribution have not been accurately determined.
Milne-Edwards’ Sportive Lemur
Long, powerful back legs enable the eight species of sportive lemur to leap from tree to tree, balanced by their long tails. They sleep during the day in holes in trees and emerge after dark to feed. This species live in dry deciduous forest in the west and northwest and can generally be seen at Parc National Ankarafantsika. Length 54–58cm; weight 1kg.
The nine species of avahi have dense fur that gives them a woolly appearance, hence their alternative name of ‘woolly lemurs’. Their diet consists of a large variety of leaves and buds, and families huddle together during the day in dense foliage in the forest canopy. Woolly lemurs can be found in both humid and dry forests. Length 59–68cm; weight 0.9–1.3kg.
Pygmy Mouse Lemur
Owing to its size and nocturnal habits, this very small lemur went undetected for more than 100 years until it was rediscovered in 1993. It has been found in dry forests at Parc National Bemaraha and Réserve Forestière de Kirindy, but almost nothing is known of its history, whether it’s threatened or if new populations will be found. Length 12–13cm; weight 43–55g.
Although lemurs are the undoubted highlight, Madagascar has many other types of native land mammal, including eight predators, dozens of bats and rodents, and tenrecs (primitive, shrew-like animals that have evolved into at least two-dozen forms, including spiny and aquatic species). A few of the island’s unique carnivores are highlighted here.
The legendary fossa is a solitary and elusive predator of lemurs and other animals. It is extremely agile and cat-like, even descending trees head first. It is reputed to follow troops of lemurs for days, climbing trees to pick them off as they sleep at night. Fossas were the villains in the animated film Madagascar. They are regularly spotted at Réserve Forestière de Kirindy. Length 140–170cm; weight 5–10kg.
Also known as the Malagasy or striped civet, the nocturnal, fox-like fanaloka is found in eastern and northern rainforests. It hunts mostly on the ground but can climb well, eating rodents, birds and other animals. During the day it sleeps in tree hollows and under logs. It can be found at Parc National Ranomafana. Length 61–70cm; weight 1.5–2kg.
This attractive mongoose is widespread and active by day, and is therefore probably the easiest carnivore to spot. Family parties communicate with high-pitched whistles as they forage for small animals, including reptiles, birds and eggs, insects, rodents and even small lemurs. Generally seen at Parc National Ranomafana and Réserve Spéciale Ankarana. Length 60–70cm; weight 0.7–1kg.
Most of Madagascar’s mammals feed off insects, berries, fruit and seeds. Some focus on certain foodstuff; others vary their diets according to which foods are available at different times of the year. Many bats play an important role in disseminating seeds and pollinating flowers.
Nocturnal hedgehog tenrecs forage by sniffing out insects and their larvae and fallen fruit among leaf litter. During the day they shelter in tunnels under logs or tree roots. They are found in many habitats, including forests near Antananarivo and in Parc National Montagne d’Ambre. Length 16–22cm; weight 180–270g.
Madagascar Flying Fox
Flying foxes roost upside down in big, noisy colonies, like most bats, but use trees rather than caves as roosting sites. Colonies can number up to a thousand individuals and great flocks take to the wing at dusk, fanning out across the countryside to feed on fruit. A colony of this species is a permanent fixture at Réserve Privée de Berenty. Length 23–27cm; wingspan 1–1.2m; weight 500–750g.
Giant Jumping Rat
Madagascar’s largest rodent is strictly nocturnal. Pairs live in burrows with their offspring, foraging for seeds and fallen fruit after dark. They generally move on all fours but also hop on their hind legs. They were formerly more widespread but now live in a relatively small area of dry deciduous forest in western Madagascar; the only place where you may see them is Réserve Forestière de Kirindy. Length 54–58cm; weight 1.1–1.3kg.
Birds of Open Country
Madagascar’s birds are unusual: many evolved in isolation and 80% of the country’s species are found nowhere else in the world. Sadly, many of these are now rare or endangered and others have become extinct within the last 100 years or so.
Best seen in full sunlight, loose flocks of these graceful birds forage for flying insects over open country. They nest in hollows in river banks and road cuttings. Length 23–31cm.
A flash of orange usually gives this bird away when it dives into water for small fish and tadpoles. Otherwise, it sits still for long periods and could be overlooked. It is common everywhere near fresh water, especially mangrove forests. Length 15cm.
Madagascar has comparatively few birds of prey but this is a common species. It is often seen hovering over grasslands near highways before swooping down to catch small animals. Length 25–30cm.
In flight this extraordinary bird shows off its stripes and looks like a huge butterfly. Its crest can be fanned but normally lies flat. It is common across the island, especially in dry deciduous forest. Length 32cm.
This crow-sized bird lives in noisy flocks that move through forests making nasal waa waa waa calls, and probes for food under bark and crevices with a long, down-curved bill. It’s common at Parc National Ankarafantsika. Length 32cm.
Madagascar’s rainforests support the island’s highest bird diversity; birdwatching in this environment can be both challenging and extremely rewarding. Long, quiet spells can be suddenly broken by a frenetic ‘wave’ of feeding birds composed of a dozen or more different species that will have you flipping through your field guide trying to identify them before they disappear into the foliage.
Females of this large, active rainforest flycatcher are rufous with a black head, while males sport 12cm tail streamers and may be rufous, white or black, or a combination of all three. They’re common at Parc National Ranomafana. Length 18–30cm.
The helmet vanga looks like no other bird – its extraordinary, bright-blue bill is incongruously large, almost toucan-like, and thought to act as a resonator when it calls in the forest. Restricted to intact rainforests of the Masoala Peninsula. Length 29cm.
The stunning vanga is unmistakable and common in a variety of forest types across the island. Vangas can be conspicuous birds that travel in pairs or small groups, often in the company of other forest birds. Length 16cm.
Most weavers are found in grasslands, but this rainforest species often associates with flocks of greenbuls while foraging in the forest. Both sexes have yellow heads but females lack the striking black mask of males. Length 15cm.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Reptiles are usually overlooked, but chameleons are among Madagascar’s most famous animals – for good reason. They have a fantastic ability to change their colors, and have eyes that swivel independently of each other on raised cones, and sticky tongues that shoot out to catch prey.
Crocodiles are found in freshwater habitats, including the Tsiribihina River, and in the cave system of Réserve Spéciale Ankarana. Length up to 5m.
The world’s largest chameleon prefers rainforests and lives in the forest canopy. Males have a massive casque (helmet-like structure) and two blunt ‘horns’. Length up to 40cm, in rare cases up to 69cm (males); females are smaller.
Confined to dry forests in southern Madagascar, this striking tortoise is endangered due to poaching. It is the subject of an intensive conservation program and is being bred in captivity at Arboretum d’Antsokay. Length 40cm; weight 15kg.
Pygmy Leaf Chameleon
This chameleon is one of the world’s smallest vertebrates. It can be found on Nosy Be, where it hunts among leaf litter and on low branches. Length 28mm (males), up to 33mm (females).
This bizarre frog is restricted to northeastern Madagascar (Maroantsetra specifically) and is endangered because of the pet trade. Females are larger and brighter than males, and both sexes exude sticky mucus when threatened by a predator. Length 6cm (males), up to 10.5cm (females).
Coral reefs and marine environments are among Madagascar’s most overlooked and relatively unstudied treasures. The island’s southwest coast alone has the fifth-largest coral-reef system in the world. While reefs in the southwest have suffered massive damage from coral bleaching, scientists were stunned to discover on a recent survey that the reefs of the northeast coast are remarkably healthy and have the highest coral diversity in the western Indian Ocean.
Hawksbill Sea Turtle
These attractive coral-reef sea turtles were once abundant in the waters around Madagascar but are now critically endangered because of pollution (plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish), loss of nesting sites, fishing malpractice (floating nets) and hunting. Length 1m.
Whale-watching is a popular activity at the Baie d’Antongil and Île Sainte Marie when several hundred humpbacks arrive from Antarctica in June and linger with their calves until September. Length 12–16m.
This exceptionally colourful reef fish has a stout orange-lipped mouth adapted for crushing sea urchins and clams. When threatened, they wedge themselves among rocks with their rigid fins. Length 25–50cm.
This large, endangered species of shark feeds exclusively on plankton. The distinctive spot patterns are unique to each individual. Researchers recently found that a small population clustered seasonally around Nosy Be in the northwest. Length 9–13m.
Insects & Other Invertebrates
Madagascar’s forests support thousands of fascinating and unusual invertebrates. Most are inconspicuous and easily missed, but you will also encounter clouds of brilliant butterflies, huge moths and bizarre beetles unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
These stunning yellow moths with long dangling tails are bigger than your hand. Their habitat is threatened but fortunately the legendary moths are being successfully bred in captivity. Wingspan up to 22.5cm; tail length 20cm.
Flatid Leaf Bug
Looking at first glance like clusters of tiny fuchsia flowers, colonies of adult leaf bugs have evolved in this way as protection against predators. Their young, known as nymphs, look like pieces of lace or lichen attached to branches. Length 5mm.
This bizarre little beetle with an outrageously long neck is found only on the small tree Dichaetanthera cordifolia. They are quite common in Parc National Ranomafana and the Andasibe area parks. ‘Necks’ on males are much longer than on females. Length 2.5cm.
Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
Strangely, this flightless cockroach has become a popular pet outside its native Madagascar. In the wild it lives in rotting logs, where females give birth to live young. Females are gregarious but males are solitary. When disturbed, both sexes can emit a hissing sound by forcing air through their spiracles (breathing pores) as a defence mechanism, although rival males also hiss to assert dominance. Length 12.5cm.