TAKE ACTION: Madagascar - A Biologically Rich & Diverse Island

Madagascar - A Biologically Rich & Diverse Island

By Clyde Odonnell

Clyde Odonnell is a nature guide and wildlife photographer from Porepunkah, Victoria, Australia with 25 years of experience in Borneo, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Madagascar.

Clyde loves photographing insects.

Madagascar, about 500 km east of Mozambique off the south east coast of Africa is the fourth largest islands in the world and home to unique wildlife and plant life still abundant in habitat protected areas. Most species of flora and fauna are endemic to Madagascar. While Madagascar is close to Africa, its wildlife is almost totally unique. Conservationists consider protecting the island’s unique species and habitats one of the most important areas in the world. About 2,000,000 hectares of land is protected in forty-three protected areas across seven different categories of conservation lands. There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, three Biosphere Reserves, and two RAMSAR wetland sites. Conservation organizations are struggling to protect as much land as possible in the face of rapid deforestation.

Madagascar’s amazing unique fauna and flora is due to its geographical isolation. As the super continent “Gondwanaland” broke up about 88 million years ago, land split off from India forming a separate island. Over millions of years, the island developed its unique animals and plants. Madagascar is about 1,580 km long and 570 km wide, orientated on a north-south axis, and located south of the equator between 12 degrees and 26 degrees. Madagascar is similar in size to France, about 58,000,000 hectares. The climate ranges from mild temperate in the south to sub-tropical in the north. Forests range from wet tropical along the east coast to very dry along the west coastal “rain shadow” region.

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Madagascar is considered a biological hot-spot because of its size, high number of unique species, large potential for identifying new species, and rapid destruction of forests and natural habitats. Compared with much of the world, more biological surveys and inventories are needed in Madagascar. New species are being discovered all the time. Therefore, a range of species is often given for most species of plants and animal groups.

Lemurs are the unique primates that have evolved to live in all the island’s ecosystems and habitats. Scientists consider there are about 100 taxa of lemurs in Madagascar with more still to be discovered. This island contains five families of lemurs in fourteen genera - the highest diversity of primates in the world. Lemurs are primitive primates that are diurnal as well as many that are nocturnal. The National Parks with the highest species diversity of lemurs are Andringitra (31,160 hectares, eastern mountain rainforest from 700 meters to 2,658 meters), Zahamena (43,200 hectares, eastern mountain, 254 to 1,560 meters), Marojejy (55,550 hectares on the northeastern slope is wet rainforest in rugged mountain terrain to a height of 2,132 meters), Ranomafara (41,400 hectares, wet tropical rainforest, south eastern), and Andasibe Mantadia (15,500 hectares, middle of eastern slope mountains 800 meters to 1,260 meters, easy to visit from capital city of Antananarivo, home of largest lemur, the Indri).

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Chameleons, a reptile, are another group of special animals. About 75 of the 150 species of chameleons are found only on Madagascar. Chameleons are noted for their bulging eyes that move independently from one another, and for their ability to change the colour of their skin rapidly to frighten predators, or to blend into their habitat while hunting. Chameleons have a special layer of cells under their skin that are able to change colour rapidly and frequently. Many species are nocturnal. They have evolved into a variety of shapes and sizes. The smallest is Brookesia, about 30 mm long. Several species of arboreal chameleons have prehensile tails.

The combination of lemurs and chameleons make Madagascar an amazing island for nature lovers and photographers to visit. Nature photographers are always pleased with the surprising number of new species of mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies and insects spotted while waiting, watching or walking in the national parks. Naturalists are always delighted with spotting new species.

Insects are one of my favourite animal groups to photograph. Madagascar has an amazing diversity of insects. Many insect species remain to be identified.

Sadly more than 90 % of Madagascar has been cleared of natural forest. Invasive plants are found in all areas and destroying many habitats. Surprisingly wildlife is abundant in most reserves and national parks although all species are under constant threat from poaching, habitat burning and hunting by local people who will even eat the spiders off their webs.

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As a tour guide and wildlife photographer I was drawn to Madagascar in the late 1990s and have since returned nine times to photograph wildlife in many of the national parks including Mantadia, Mitsinjo, Masoala, Ranomafana, in the east De Isalo and D’Analamazoatra in the south west, D’Ankarafantsika in central Madagascar and Montange D’ Ambre (Amber Mountain) in the far north west. All have unique wildlife in very diverse habitats from dense rainforest to dry spiny forests. Exploring these parks is exciting and rewarding.

With constant economic and political instability tourism is slow throughout most of the year and many of the parks are poorly managed and sadly have deteriorated significantly in recent years. Fortunately local guides are employed in each park and possess excellent knowledge to offer the visitor. However the cost to visit these parks have increased three fold in recent years, yet the infrastructure is largely in ruins which suggests that the tourist income is not going back into the parks as much as it should, especially in D’ Ankarafantsika and Montange D’ Ambre. Unless this situation changes soon I fear much of Madagascar’s incredibly special wildlife will soon be lost forever.

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Madagascar is world renowned for its diversity of nature with most species found nowhere else on earth. Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects come in a staggering rang of colour and size. For a nature photographer, this amazing island is a must visit to photograph.

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