Magical Madagascar worth saving

April 11, 2008

A Black and White Ruffed Lemur clings to a branch at the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary near Pletteberg Bay on South Africa’s scenic Garden Route September 30, 2007. Common to Madagascar, the Black and White Ruffed Lemur is currently classified as Endangered by the World Conservation Union. World Animal Day is commemorated on October 4. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA)Scientists have joined forces to save magical Madagascar by using a new method they hope to apply to other hot spots of biodiversity. For full details you can check my colleague Deborah Zabarenko’s story.

As someone who has had the great privilege of visiting this island continent twice I can only say: “Right on!”

Madagascar is a classic example of natural selection at work: most of its species have evolved in splendid isolation because the island broke free from the rest of Africa tens of millions of years ago. 

This is what evolution and natural selection are all about. It is no coincidence that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace separately stumbled upon this profound notion in the 19th century while observing life on islands — or, more specifically, the difference to be found in life on islands often only a few miles apart. 

Madagascar, because of its size and the length of time it has been a cast away, is a prime an example of natural selection run riot. A Coquerel’s Sifaka lemur leaps between trees inside the Lemurs Park, a private eco-tourism enterprise which hosts 9 of 49 known lemur species, 22 km (14 miles) from Antananarivo December 5, 2006. The lemurs, which are found only on Madagascar, are an endangered species due mainly to deforestation and hunting in the Indian Ocean island. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti (MADAGASCAR)

Its snakes have no venom because that is an evolutionary trait they picked up after Madagascar and the rest of Africa went their separate ways.

It has boa constrictors (which I have observed in its forests) which are found nowhere in Africa but are found in South America. Why? How? Because, or so goes one theory I have heard, Madagascar and South America BOTH broke free from Africa at one point. So it stands to reason that they might both keep something that died out in Africa and vice versa.

That is the dynamic of natural selection.

I could go on and on and on. Madagascar is most famous for its roughly 70 species on lemurs, dainty primates that come in all shapes and colors. The largest among them, the indri, has a haunting cry that belies its small stature and which sent tingles down my spine the first time I heard it.

Much of the indri population is now restricted to a fragment of isolated habitat in a protected reserve. An island on an island.

For a good popular introduction to the study of island life I would recommend David Quammen’s superb book “The Song of the Dodo.” It inspired me to go to Madagascar in the first place with my wife when I was a Johannesburg-based correspondent.

And if you really want to see natural selection at work on an island, go to Madagascar yourself. Eco-tourism can help preserve species by giving rural people an economic incentive not to hunt them or destroy their habitat.  And that can only help the scientists and their new efforts to save this cradle of weird and wonderful evolution.

One comment

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“Go to Madagascar yourself.”

We second the motion! Although the situation in Antananarivo is not good throughout the vast majority of the island life continues as before the coup d’état. You can easily pass through Tana and enjoy the wonders of the island. We continue to receive visitors and now need you more than ever!

Posted by john bogen | Report as abusive