Madagascar is a land of purple leaves, bugs with long necks, and stunted trees. Lying off the East coast of Mozambique, Madagascar is fondly referred to by some as the ‘Galapagos of Africa’; a biodiversity hotspot with many endemic species.
Upon landing in the capital Antananarivo, locally referred to as ‘Tana’, you will be transported back in time. A string of white taxis awaits you with lack of general functioning components, before you are whisked bumpily into the city centre through paddy fields, wooden shacks, and sprawling developments.Travellers may transit cities in the omnipresent taxi brousse – an old Japanese minivan with no catalytic converter – travelling double the recommended speed on the country’s ~12 ‘highways’ of varying quality, from swirling scenic mountain passes to bumpy coastal dirt tracks. Though roads are improving throughout Madagascar, they are prioritised for tourist routes and trading ports, leaving much of the South disconnected; we note the ‘riverbed’ that marks the drive South to Tulear.
You will be known as a ‘Vazaha’ or ‘vaza’, and asked for your empty water bottles – a piece of undeniably important equipment; homeless children especially prize these.
Sprouting from the red soils in the dry deserts to the West you may find fields of fluorescent green rice paddies diverting irrigation from important rivers, magnificently obscure baobabs punctuating the skyline, and flattened fan-like palms. The smells of burning land for agriculture overwhelms any journey. Madagascar is on fire, by means of the rife slash and burn agricultural methods, the street-side burning of waste and landfill, and the emergence of a new country where residents are tiring of this never-ending poverty.
Other highlights of the West coast include Kirindy National Park – focus for part of Durrells novel “The aye-aye and I”; the park contains a huge abundance of species, including enemy star of Disney’s animation the fossa, whose mating cries lasted throughout the night in breeding season (late October).
The possession of a zebu for a malagasy is his prize and most precious thing – hence the emergence of bandit involvement in the South. A zebu, originating in India, is a healthy, strong, and well-groomed cow whose hump contains a fat store. The horns are prominent and rather dangerous. ‘Dahalu’, zebu bandits, are rife in the South. A malagasy man described the scene as ‘worse than Afghanistan’, with gang shooting and villagers massacred regularly. Needless to say, the Foreign Commonwealth Office strongly advises against any travel to the country.
November marks the beginning of lychee season on the East coast, a tropical fruit originating in China. Found in huge, ripe quantities, lychees are best eaten in the heat of the day. Other specialities from this region include vanilla and cloves.
Despite slash and burn’s prominance in Madagascar, further issues lie in the logging industry. Tampolo Forest Reserve, lying in the Northeast region near Fenerive Est, is one of Madagascar’s last remaining areas of littoral forest. Unique for its coastal characteristic palms and nocturnal lemur abundance, the forest is slowly being selectively logged of its valuable primary materials with no regard to the protective label it retains. The lack of enforcement is to be expected, however, and during our research in the area the team accosted dozens of loggers in the dark of the forest, often resulting in a mess of shouting, rustling, and speedy getaways. The paths are littered with remnants of bark and cut logs, offering no positive hope for Tampolo, in coordination with a decline of lemur species we noted over the research period.
“The forester said, ‘Here in Tampolo people say aye-ayes bring good luck. They are hard to see, though, because aye-ayes are very good at hiding'”
– Alison Jolly, lemur research pioneer, who sadly passed away on February 6th 2014.
We interviewed some villagers nearby to investigate their relationship with the forest. With sunglasses lowered down her nose, beneath a wide brimmed thatch hat, she slowly sifted her rice and thoughtfully described her picnics in the forest. Behind her loomed the brown remnants of slash and burn’s hillside scars.
The aye-aye is a curious animal, and the most bizarre looking of all the lemur species, with a bony middle finger which it uses to echolocate small bugs living within branches. Many villagers describe taboos connected with the aye-aye, including immediate death to the witness or a loved one, bad luck for future generations, or your child turning into a lemur if you kill one. Sadly we found no aye-ayes during our research in Tampolo, even with the aid of a camera trap.
Madagascar is also a land with outlaws, bandits, and bubonic plague, living with 14th century problems has been largely down to poor law enforcement and a chain of dictatorships. Autumn 2013 produced former finance minister Rajaonarimampianina Hery as the new president-elect, resulting in reacceptance back into the African Union following a period of isolation, when former dictator Andry Rajoelina took over backed by the military in 2009.
It is hopeful that a new government will set a new standard for Madagascar, and bring the country up to speed with the rest of the word so rapidly developing.