Expert Reviews – Madagascar
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
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A world apart
Madagascar is, in a word, strange. Mind-bogglingly so, in certain respects. The world’s fourth-largest island, it is sometimes referred to as the Eighth Continent on account of its unique biodiversity and high level of endemism. Home to an estimated 10,000 animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world, Madagascar protects its bountiful natural wealth in a network of 50 official national parks and reserves. Most of these can only be explored on foot, making the island suited to a more active type of safari-goer than the average destination on the African mainland.
The main attraction of Madagascar is its oddball wildlife. Most famous among these are the lemurs, a line of strange and endearing primates that only occur on Madagascar and comprise around 100 different species. These range from the hefty indri, with its panda-like coloration and ear-shattering caterwaul of a call, to 18 species of mouse lemurs, bug-eyed nocturnal cuties that resemble diminutive bushbabies. Madagascar is also an endlessly rewarding birding destination, with roughly one-third of the 300 recorded species being endemic to the island, a list that includes such peculiarities as the ground-rollers, mesites, cuckoo-rollers and couas. Another remarkable feature of the island is a diversity of chameleons that embrace both the world’s largest (about two feet long) and smallest (less than an inch) species.
I love Madagascar for its unique wildlife and relaxed people, as well as the superb beaches that line its tropical coastline. But exploring the island can be hard work, or costly, or both. The road and rail infrastructure might generously be described as patchy and subpar, domestic flights are costly and prone to sudden cancellations and schedule changes (locals refer to the national carrier Air Madagascar as Air Maybe), and accommodation tends to be rustic and lowkey compared to safari lodges on the mainland. Language can also be an issue for non-French-speakers. Madagascar certainly isn’t for everyone, but for true wildlife enthusiasts who place experiential travel above creature comforts, this weird tropical island ranks among the most worthwhile outdoor destinations on earth!
Anthony is a photographer and writer for travel magazines and Lonely Planet, including the guides to Kenya and Botswana & Namibia.
Madagascar: land of lemurs
Often referred to as the ‘Eighth Continent’, Madagascar is epic in scale, a unique world that I love for its wildness, vast tracts of wilderness, and wildlife. Separated from Africa for millions of years, its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. This is a land of lemurs in dozens of different varieties, endemic species of chameleons that seem like an extension of the trees they inhabit, and birds of astonishing diversity. Whales swim offshore from April or May until September or October. Fossas, everybody’s favorite Madagascar predator, roam the forests. But lemurs rule the show here. The clownish ring-tailed lemur seems to be the symbol of an entire country. Then there are the nocturnal mouse, dwarf and mongoose lemurs, not to mention the cute and cuddly sifakas. I’ve been traveling to Madagascar for years and lemurs are always high on my agenda. But there are just so many of them that there are still many species left to see.
A Madagascar safari is also about landscapes, especially in the south and west where I have spent my time. Unlike on the typical African safari, in Madagascar you’ll need to get out of your vehicle and hike into the forests and canyons if you want to see anything And these are landscapes that showcase the country’s color-rich palette in all sorts of unexpected forms. Red escarpments rise from southern deserts within sight of verdant forests. Sawtooth tsingy (limestone ramparts) stab the air across the west like petrified forests. And flowering spiny forests carpet entire ecosystems. Elsewhere, avenues of baobabs, deserted golden beaches and kaleidoscopic coral reefs help to create a world unlike anywhere else you’ll ever visit.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
Ecotourism in Madagascar
Nothing about Madagascar is ordinary. It is a biodiversity hotspot of note – much more so than anyplace else in the world. The island supports around 1,000 endemic vertebrates (found nowhere else on earth) and many of these are part of endemic families and genera, making them even more unique.
Madagascar doesn’t have any of the usual African wildlife. There are no lions, elephants or antelopes. But its wealth of animal life is extraordinary all the same. There are over 100 species of lemur recorded. The charismatic ring-tailed lemurs are well known from zoos all over the world. But there are many others such as the indri, with its incredibly loud wailing vocalizations which give me goosebumps each time I hear them; and the nocturnal aye-aye, with its long, flexible middle finger and enormous ears, often described as the strangest primate on earth.
Animals in Madagascar tend to be remarkably relaxed around humans, perhaps a result of the fact that there aren’t many natural predators on the island. The largest predator is the fossa, a dog-like creature as comfortable in trees as on the ground. Possibly even more fascinating than the furry animals are the reptiles and amphibians. About half the world’s chameleons live in Madagascar and they literally come in all shapes and sizes. Brooksia micra, only discovered as recently as 2012, grows up to 29mm/1.1in and is the smallest chameleon in the world. The largest is the Parson’s chameleon which grows to the size of a domestic cat.
Perhaps it’s fair to say that Madagascar, only suitable to low-impact tourism, is a true eco-destination (a marketing term vastly overused elsewhere). All wildlife viewing is done on foot and this brings you much closer to nature than a conventional game drive. The guides are trained to show you the small stuff; a net-casting spider, a giraffe-necked weevil, a leaf-tailed gecko, or perhaps an orchid blossom. I came to Madagascar to see lemurs, but I walked away with a renewed sense of child-like wonder at nature’s diversity.