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 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 has since 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’).
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 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 155 out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Index of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Its GDP in 2014 was US$10.6 billion (138 out of 194 countries on the World Bank’s ranking), lower than that of Afghanistan, Chad 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 coffee, vanilla, lychee, cloves and cocoa, with coffee and 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 represents about 14% of GDP, with food, drink and textiles the main sectors.
The EU is Madagascar's most important trading partner: it generates 80% of its tourism earnings, receives 50% of Malagasy exports and represents about 15% of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country. As in many parts of Africa, China is becoming an increasingly important trading partner – in a 2015 survey by Afrobarometer, 27% of Malagasies said China was the country with the greatest influence over Madagascar, second only to France (42%).
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 nine kilometres per 1000 sq km, against an average of 35 kilometres per 1000 sq km in sub-Saharan Africa, 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 (57.6% in urban areas, but just 4.7% in rural areas), which is essential for business activity. All in all, rural areas represent two-thirds of the population, but only contribute 26% of GDP.
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. Child labour is also more prevalent, with nearly a quarter of children aged five to 17 classed as economically active in rural areas.
Malagasies love watching international football (soccer; the English Premier League, in particular) and rugby (the French and European leagues, notably). For all this enthusiasm, however, the national football and rugby teams have yet to make a splash on the international stage.
Where Malagasies punch above their weight is in the rather niche sport of pétanque, a form of boule (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, it was vice-world champion in 2010 and 2012 and Africa champion in 2011. Madagascar has also 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.
Cyclone Hudah destroyed more than 20% of Madagascar’s vanilla crop in 2000, causing a shortage of supply and a huge escalation in price. Combined with the political instability of the 2002 elections and more bad weather in 2003, vanilla prices spiked at US$500 per kilogram in 2004. Since this historic high, however, vanilla prices bottomed at US$25 a kilo, and are now around US$50 a kilo.
If you see a young Malagasy man wearing a comb in his hair, he’s advertising his search for a wife.
A common ritual after the death of a family member is for the entire family to go down to a local river and wash all their clothes, an event you’ll often see from the roadside, with clothes drying along the riverbanks.
Many Malagasy surnames start with the honorary prefix ‘Ra’, the equivalent of ‘Mr’. Similarly, many kings’ names started with ‘Andriana’, a term that roughly translates as ‘noble’.
Sidebar: Household Facts
- Households with access to improved sanitation: 50.1%
- Households that have drinking water: 38.9%
- Children who go to primary school: 69.4%
- Students who carry on to university: 1%
Sidebar: Bank Accounts
Only 6% of Malagasies have a bank account, one of the lowest rates in the world.
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 and Jean-Luc Raharimanana. Most of their works are published in French, and some have been 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, 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 (yes, that’s her real name). For more traditional sounds, Jerry Marcos, a master of salegy, is guaranteed to have you shaking your stuff like there's no tomorrow.
A number of musicians have artfully mixed pop and traditional influences, including the wonderful singer-songwriter Nogabe Randriaharimalala (www.nogabe.com), Njava (www.myspace.com/njava), Tarika, Samoela or the more jazz-influenced Nicolas Vatomanga.
Contemporary Malagasy artists are relatively easy to see, especially 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 to make highly valued textiles called lamba mena (red silk). The silks were woven in many colours and pattern combinations and, in the past, had strong links with royal prestige, expressed by the colour 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.
Sidebar: When the Stars Meet the Sea
The interesting film Quand les Étoiles Rencontrent la Mer (When the Stars Meet the Sea), directed by the Malagasy Raymond Rajaonarivelo, is the story of a young boy born during a solar eclipse.
Sidebar: Arts Performances
- Hira gasy, Antananarivo
- Zegny’Zo festival, Diego Suarez
- Donia festival, Nosy Be
- Grill du Rova, Antananarivo
- Institut Français Madagascar, Antananarivo
Two excellent collections of Malagasy writing are Voices from Madagascar: An Anthology of Contemporary Francophone Literature, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa, which contains Malagasy writing in French and English; and Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar by Leonard Fox, with translations of beautiful Merina poems charting love, revenge and sexuality.
Madagascar's endemic silkworm, Borocera Madagascariensis, feeds on tapia trees. Like its Chinese cousin Bombyx Mori, it produces silk in its cocoon. There is no sericulture of Borocera however: cocoons are collected in the wild.
Sidebar: Madagascar at Venice Biennale
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 d’Andringitra.
Going east from the western coastline, limestone is replaced by sandstone, which rises into majestic formations in places such as Parc National de l’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 des Tsingy de Bemaraha, as well as in the Réserve Spéciale Ankarana and Parc National des 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 best-known mammals are the lemurs, of which there are 103 species. As well as being entertaining to watch (they are primates after all, and therefore distant cousins of ours), it’s hard to overrate how unique they are: Madagascar’s lemurs are found nowhere else on earth, which also explains why primatologists class Madagascar in a category of its own, the other three being Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas.
Lemurs are divided into five families: the beautifully marked sifakas and indris (of which only one species is extant), all known for their leaping abilities; a family of small, nocturnal mouse lemurs that includes the world’s smallest primates; the ‘true’ lemurs, such as the ring-tailed and ruffed lemurs; the sportive lemurs; and, most remarkable of all, the bizarre, nocturnal aye-aye, which extracts grubs from under bark with its long, bony middle finger.
Madagascar has many species of small mammals, such as bats, rodents and tenrecs. Tenrecs are related to shrews and fill a similar niche as tiny hunters of the leaf litter. Among their diverse forms are shrew tenrecs, the hedgehog-like spiny tenrecs and even an otter-like aquatic species.
There are six species of carnivores – all are mongooses and civets – including the ring-tailed mongoose, the fanaloka and the puma-like, lemur-eating fossa.
Madagascar’s waters harbour rich marine life – dolphins, dugongs and humpback whales. Whales come to Madagascar to give birth and mate during winter months.
Madagascar’s birdlife has the highest proportion of endemic birds of any country on earth: of the 209 breeding species, 51% are endemic. A large percentage of birds are forest-dwelling and therefore under pressure from land clearing.
Among Madagascar’s unique bird families are the mesites – skulking, babbler-like birds thought to be related to rails; the spectacular ground-rollers, including a roadrunner-like species unique to the spiny forests; the tiny, iridescent asities, similar to sunbirds and filling a similar niche; and the vangas, which have taken several strange twists as they evolved to fill various forest niches. There are a number of predators, including the highly endangered Madagascar serpent eagle and fish eagle, and nocturnal species as well.
Most species are resident (ie nonmigratory), although a few are seasonal migrants to East Africa. Waterbirds are rather poorly represented in Madagascar because there are comparatively few large bodies of water. Some of the best concentrations are in the Mahavy-Kinkony Wetland Complex on the west coast. The richest habitat by far for birds (and all other terrestrial life forms) is the rainforest of the eastern seaboard, although many of these species are rare and poorly known.
Reptiles & Amphibians
There are 346 reptile species on Madagascar, including most of the world’s chameleons, ranging from the largest – Parson’s chameleon, which grows to around 60cm – to the smallest, the dwarf chameleons of the genus Brookesia, which fits on your thumbnail! You might also spot the king of camouflage, the leaf-tailed gecko, and the amazingly colourful Labord’s chameleon. Equally attractive are some of Madagascar’s 300 species of amphibians, including spectacularly coloured frogs such as the bright-red tomato frog and iridescent Malagasy poison frogs.
Amazingly the verdant forests support not a single snake species harmful to people. Among the many beautiful snakes are the Madagascar boa and leaf-nosed snake. In contrast the Nile crocodile is just as dangerous here as it is in Africa and it kills people every year.
Five of the world’s seven species of marine turtle can be found in Madagascar (all endangered, some critically). The country is also home to several species of tortoise, many of which are endangered. With its distinctive and ornate shell, the ploughshare tortoise is the most threatened because of poaching (a shell can fetch US$40,000): there are just 500 individuals left in the wild. In a desperate attempt to stem the illegal trade in ploughshare shells, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (which runs a captive breeding program at Parc National d'Ankarafantsika) and the government decided in 2015 to deliberately deface all remaining animals' shells in order to make them less attractive to poachers.
As you might expect from somewhere that has such thriving wildlife, the bugs in Madagascar are out in force. It is thought there are some 100,000 species of insects on the island. Among the most charming specimens are hissing cockroaches, scorpions, giraffe-necked weevils, tarantulas, giant millipedes, stick insects and the incredible flatid bug, which looks more like a giant bit of paper confetti than an insect.
Freshwater fish are one of the most endangered groups of animal on Madagascar, owing to silting of rivers through erosion. A survey by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) of 98 endemic species of freshwater fish found that 54% of the fish in Madagascar were either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
Marine life is incredibly diverse, but similarly vulnerable to erosion run-off, notably the country’s beautiful coral. Madagascar has the world’s fifth-largest coral reef, but overfishing, pollution, climate change and sediment from soil erosion have greatly impacted its health.
Madagascar harbours a number of sharks, which, depending on your point of view, is either great (conservationists, fishers, some divers) or scary (swimmers, surfers, the other divers). Risks of attacks are particularly high on the east coast, less so in areas where fringing corals protect the shores. Their numbers have dwindled dramatically, however, especially in the southwest, because of demand for shark fins.
Madagascar’s plants are no less interesting than its animals and its flora is incredibly diverse. About 12,000 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.
The spiny desert is truly extraordinary. Dense tangles of cactus-like octopus trees festooned with needle-sharp spines are interspersed with baobabs whose bulbous trunks store water, allowing them to survive the dry season. The baobabs’ large, bright flowers are filled with copious amounts of nectar, often sipped by fork-marked lemurs. About 60 species of aloe occur in Madagascar, and many dot the spiny desert landscape.
Dry deciduous forests are a feature of the western half of the country, although they do not look quite as bare as their northern-hemisphere counterparts in the depths of winter. The thinner winter foliage does make it prime bird- and lemur-watching time, however.
The vast areas of blond grassland of the hauts plateaux are actually the result of extensive felling by humans. The boundary of the sole remaining patch of natural forest, at Parc National Zombitse-Vohibasia, stands in forlorn contrast to the degraded countryside surrounding it.
Growing among the crags and crevices of Parc National de l’Isalo are nine species of Pachypodia, including a tall species with large, fragrant yellow-white blossoms, and the diminutive elephant-foot species that nestle in cliff crevices on the sandstone massif.
Madagascar’s eastern rainforests once covered the entire eastern seaboard and still support the island’s highest biodiversity, most of which is found nowhere else on earth. Giant forest trees are festooned with vines, orchids and bird’s-nest ferns (home to tree frogs and geckos).
There are 1000 species of orchid in Madagascar, more than in all of Africa, and more than 60 species of pitcher plants are found in swampy parts of rainforests. Insects are attracted to the nectar of these carnivorous plants, but are trapped by downward-pointing spines along the inside of the ‘pitcher’ and are eventually dissolved and absorbed by the plant.
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 96% 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). Between 2005 and 2010 Madagascar experienced a deforestation rate of 0.4%. This rate is likely to have increased during the political crisis (2009–2013), but even at 0.4%, conservation organisation WWF concluded that unless something was done, it would mean a 14% reduction in forest cover by 2050. Considering Madagascar has already lost around 80% of its forests since humans arrived, this is a damning prospect.
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 and is striving to become fully compliant.
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.
The government of Madagascar is also working to move its shrimp industry towards Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC). The sector has gone through hard times since the early 2000s with the dwindling of stocks. Sustainable fishing practices would not only protect marine resources, but also guarantee long-term employment for those depending on this activity for their livelihood.
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. Only 25 pochards are currently left in the wild but the captive-breeding program has managed to rear more than 50 birds, giving conservationists hope.
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 from Madagascar (www.standfortrees.org).
- 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$1 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. As of 2015, logs of rosewood continue to find their way to China via Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya and Hong Kong.
The trade is devastating not only because of the deforestation it causes, but also because of the accompanying trafficking it brings (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).
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.
Sidebar: The Natural History of Madagascar
The Natural History of Madagascar by Steven Goodman and Jonathan Benstead provides the most comprehensive overview of the island’s precious natural heritage.
Sidebar: The Eighth Continent
The Eighth Continent: Life, Death and the Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar by Peter Tyson is a scientific travelogue that guides readers through the island’s unique natural history and biodiversity.
Sidebar: David Attenborough
The BBC’s seminal three-part series Madagascar, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, makes for an inspirational introduction to the great island. It features the island’s iconic fauna and flora, as well as its more obscure specimens, in fascinating detail and stunning images.
Sidebar: Tortoise Trafficking
Between 1999 and 2010 an incredible 615 species were discovered in Madagascar, including 41 mammals, 61 reptiles, 42 invertebrates, 17 fish, 69 amphibians and 385 plants.
Sidebar: Common Tenrec
Common tenrec mothers can give birth to 25 infants at one time, the most of any mammal in the world.
Sidebar: Rosy Periwinkle
The rosy periwinkle, a flower endemic to Madagascar, has been a source of alkaloids that are 99% effective in the treatment of some forms of leukaemia.
Sidebar: Forest Guises
- Rainforest, Parc National de Masoala
- Dry deciduous forest, Parc National d’Ankarafantsika
- Spiny forest, Arboretum d’Antsokay
Sidebar: Best Whale Watching
- Baie d’Antongil
- Île Sainte Marie
- Nosy Be
The Malagasy have nicknamed baobabs ‘roots of the sky’, after their scraggly branches. Legend has it that God made the baobab the most beautiful tree on Earth. The devil was so jealous that he decided to plant baobabs upside down so that he could view them from hell!
Sidebar: Handy Field Guides
- Madagascar Wildlife (Daniel Austin, Nick Garbutt)
- Lemurs of Madagascar (Russell Mittermeier et al)
Sidebar: Lemur Numbers
In 1994 there were 50 known species of lemur. By 2006, thanks to extensive research, the number had gone up to 71. Today there are 103 and primatologists say that new species are still being discovered.
Sidebar: Kew Gardens
Madagascar is the only country outside of the UK where the prestigious Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew keeps a permanent presence. It has notably worked on the island's palms, documenting around 200 species.
Sidebar: Cane Toad
In March 2014 scientists made a very unhappy discovery in Tamatave: Asian common toads. The venomous amphibians are thought to have arrived on a shipping container and conservationists are extremely concerned about the impact they could have on Madagascar's endemic fauna.
Sidebar: Fishy Deal
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 deserve 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. Concerned international donors and the Malagasy government joined together 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 51 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. Poaching of rare tortoises, lemurs and birds has also increased substantially since 2009.
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 50% of park admission fees, the government is keen to see conservation play a wider role in Madagascar's economic growth.
Undaunted, the president called on the international community at the 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.
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 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.
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 de Ranomafana. The Wildlife Conservation Society is highly involved in the management and protection of Parc National de Masoala, Baie d’Antongil and its new shark sanctuary and the Parc Naturel de Makira. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has had a captive tortoise breeding centre at Parc National d’Ankarafantsika for nearly 25 years. 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 Conservation International is monitoring biodiversity and climate change in Parc National de Ranomafana as part of its Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) initiative, which seeks to assess the health of tropical ecosystems worldwide.
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 sometimes 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 Fee
|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, Andasibe Mantadia, Andringitra, Baie de Baly, Beza Mahafaly, Cap Sainte Marie, Kirindy Mite, Mananara Nord, Manombo, Manongarivo, Marojejy, Masoala, Mikea, Nosy Mangabe, 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 de Marojejy, Parc National de Masoala, Parc National de Zahamena, Parc National de Ranomafana, Parc National d’Andringitra and Parc National d’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 2015 there was still no sign that the rainforests of Atsinanana would be moved off the red list any time soon.
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.
Feature: Madagascar’s National Parks & Reserves
|Park||Features||Activities||Wildlife||Best time to visit|
|Parc National Andasibe 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 d’Andohahela||Three types of forest: humid, transition and dry||Hiking, camping, birdwatching||Spiny iguanas, birds, including harrier hawks||Apr-Dec|
|Parc National d’Andringitra||Rugged granite peaks, fantastic trails and scenery||Trekking, climbing||Ring-tailed lemurs, orchids||Oct-Nov|
|Parc National d’Ankarafantsika||Diverse landscapes, from dry forest to canyon and lakes||Hiking, birdwatching, lemur-watching, boat trips||129 species of birds, eight species of lemur||Year-round|
|Parc National de l’Isalo||Sandstone mountains, gorges with natural swimming pools||Hiking, swimming||Sifakas, ring-tailed lemurs, Pachypodium||May-Oct|
|Parc National de Kirindy-Mitea||Sand dunes, dry forest, brackish lakes, mangroves||Hiking, birdwatching, pirogue trips||Birds, including flamingos||May-Nov|
|Parc National de Marojejy||Remote peaks, lush rainforest, canyons||Trekking on the Marojejy Massif, lemur-watching||Silky sifakas, reptiles, amphibians, millipedes||Aug-Nov|
|Parc National de Masoala||Primary rainforest, mangroves and protected marine areas||Trekking, sea kayaking||Red-ruffed lemurs, humpback whales, dugongs, turtles, orchids||Aug-Jan|
|Parc National de Ranomafana||Secondary rainforest, forested slopes, waterfalls||Hiking, lemur-watching, birdwatching||Lemurs, birds, insects, orchids||Sep-Dec|
|Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha||Spectacular limestone pinnacles, Unesco World Heritage Site||Climbing, hiking, pirogue trips||Lemurs, birds, reptiles||Apr-Oct|
|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 Naturelle Intégrale de Lokobe||Primary forest on an isolated peninsula||Hiking, lemur-watching, pirogue trips||Black lemurs, boa constrictors, birds, including owls||Year-round|
|Réserve de Nosy Mangabe||Rainforest-covered island||Hiking, camping, night walks||Aye-ayes, whales, reptiles and amphibians||Jul-Sep|
|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 de 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|
Sidebar: Best Protected Areas for Lemurs
- Réserve d'Anja
- Réserve de Nahampoana
- Parc National de Ranomafana
- Réserve Spéciale d'Analamazaotra
Sidebar: Lords and Lemurs
Lords and Lemurs by Alison Jolly is a history of the Réserve Privée de Berenty that skilfully weaves together the stories of the spiny desert Tandroy people, three generations of French plantation owners, lemurs and lemur-watchers.
In 1986 scientists ‘rediscovered’ the greater bamboo lemur (previously thought extinct) in what is now Parc National de Ranomafana. They also discovered a new species, the golden bamboo lemur. So extraordinary were these findings that they led to the creation of the park.
Sidebar: The Aye-Aye and I
Gerald Durrell’s hilarious book The Aye-Aye and I is an account of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s expedition to capture aye-ayes, gentle lemurs, giant jumping rats and other endangered species in a bid to set up captive breeding programs.
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 hot spots in the world, and thanks to a great network of reserves and excellent local naturalist guides, Madagascar is also one of the world’s great ecotourism destinations. Lemurs are the main attraction for most nature lovers, but the island also offers superb birdwatching and there is a host of smaller animals that could keep you occupied for several trips.