Wow. The hype is not hype; Madagascar delivers on its promise of exotic animals, dramatic landscapes, rare botany and friendly people. This island lost in time keeps alive the dream of a faraway land with mystical creatures and magical landscapes.
Seacology's 15 person expedition began with a brief stint in the capital of Antananarivo ("Tana"), and the architecture did not disappoint. A bustling city of nearly two million people, its history is rich with dynasties boasting some of the longest names in the world. To the left is King Andrianampoinmerina's palace which sits on the highest of the capital's 12 hills, standing as a sentinel overlooking the city.
We flew to the extreme south of the island to begin our trek to the project site, a Seacology supported nursery for rare and endangered plants at Ft. Dauphin. Riding for hours over seriously rugged roads, we shared the terrain with a constant chain of Malagasy people traveling on foot -- generally barefoot -- carrying their impossibly heavy wares from market to home and back. The indigenous plant nursery was thriving and we spotted a grove of Madagascar's unusual pitcher plants (right) and a small stand of critically endangered water palms along the way; only four remain in their original habitat.
Our visit to the Berenty Reserve the next morning was a wonder. We were greeted by a Madagascar day gecko, ringtail lemurs (national symbol of Madagascar), and the spectacular dancing lemur, Verreaux's sifaka. Both lemur species are listed as vulnerable. This guy on the left was awesome (photo credit: Kathryn Fox Winokur), and when he graced us with his unlikely ballet our hearts were captured. If you love lemurs too, check out this Monty Python legend who's also goofy for them.
Our next project visit brought us to the remote highlands of Perinet east of Tana, where seven communities have come together to protect the endangered Madagascar flying foxes (fruit bats), vital pollinators for the island's endemic flora. Their lives hold many survival challenges, yet these communities work hard to protect the prehistoric-looking bats in exchange for the 11 new or repaired schools Seacology funded. In their new classrooms, the village children are learning the importance of Madagascar's vibrant natural legacy; they told us the bats gave them their schools. The warm and enthusiastic reception from these highland villagers took our breath away.
While in the region we visited Andasibe National Park to view the native fauna. We caught only a brief glimpse of the Indri -- the island's largest lemur -- but its famous haunting cry could be heard all around us. Our luck held out for sighting the vulnerable brown lemur, the beautiful and endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur, the endangered Diadem sifaka, the odd and brilliant Parson's chameleon (left) and the insanely camouflaged leaf-tailed gecko. It was species heaven!
We traveled west back toward Tana for our last project preview on Mt. Angavokely, a granite dome that juts out starkly from the gently sloping cultivated hills of the area. While Perinet was a bonanza for creature spotting, this striking mountain was a botanist's fantasy. Our robust hike took us to dizzying heights of the mountain, on top of which a small plateau presented us with a thrilling array of rare plants. This toadstool was a favorite. Seacology's efforts here, in conjunction with Madagascar native Dr. Rabakonandrianina, have helped preserve 120 species of orchids found nowhere else on earth, among other treasures. In addition, preserving this great mountain has presented employment opportunities for the surrounding communities through park service and sales of natural handicrafts, encouraging environmentally-friendly tourism. (See the related article, Madagascar: Can tourists help save the "Noah's Ark" of wildlife?)
Visiting Seacology's successful projects halfway around the world was immensely gratifying. Seeing firsthand the mysterious beauty of Madagascar was a privilege and strengthened my understanding of the island's vulnerability. Because of its extraordinary biodiversity, Madagascar is the number one priority in the international community for conservation of endangered species and preservation, and rightly so. Though one of the poorest countries in the world, the Malagasy government plans to increase habitat preservation, both admirable and necessary. Habitat destruction from subsistence farming and charcoal production for a rapidly growing population remains the biggest threat, but they are committed to finding solutions.
As a living world symbol of island species diversity, Madagascar is a priority for Seacology as well. We look forward to supporting even more projects in the future, working with these remarkable people to protect their extraordinary captive zoo. (Right: Diadem sifaka. Photo credit Kathryn Fox Winokur.)