ESSAY BY MICAH LeMASTERS
Follow the trade winds southwest out of Indonesia, keeping the Indian subcontinent to starboard, and you will eventually find Madagascar, adrift, at the edge of the Indian Ocean. It floats alone, a dust-red crescent moon, stretching nearly a thousand miles from north to south. Traveling from the central highlands to the coast, one is never quite sure whether the massive island is drifting slowly westward toward Mozambique or slipping slowly south and away from the great African continent. It is known for its astonishing endemic flora and fauna and, of course, as the only place on earth where lemurs live in their natural state.
If you want to travel to Madagascar to “save the lemurs” then you should have come 20 years ago.
If you know anything about Madagascar, it probably has something to do with the eponymous animated film series or, more likely, the lemurs—the most endangered primates on the planet and the principle force driving the Malagasy tourism industry. The situation for these prosimians is so dire that scientists estimate up to ninety percent of the population could face extinction within the next 20 to 25 years.
If you want to travel to Madagascar to “save the lemurs” then you should have come 20 years ago. Madagascar has a single digit percentage of its original forest left and that number is shrinking by the day. Generating tourism dollars or publishing spectacular photographs may buy lemurs some time, but it won’t prevent their extinction. The challenge is much greater than a marketing campaign can solve. In order to stave off extinction, Madagascar—a country with a per capita income around $450 dollars, approximately 30 percent less than North Korea—needs to provide viable alternatives to impoverished farmers who have few options to generate a meager subsistence other than clear-cutting forest timber to sell as charcoal.
Unless significant and strong action is taken to stem the upsurge in unsustainable and illegal logging and exploitation of other natural resources, the ultimate risk may be irreversible loss of forest and biodiversity for Madagascar.
According to USAID, “The illegal export of…threatened and endangered species that are found nowhere else on earth will result in the loss of globally renowned biodiversity. Unless significant and strong action is taken to stem the upsurge in unsustainable and illegal logging and exploitation of other natural resources, the ultimate risk may be irreversible loss of forest and biodiversity for Madagascar.”
Although Madagascar is listed as the seventh poorest country in the world, the travel and tourism sector contributed $1.16 billion to the economy in 2014, one-sixth of the country’s revenues. Tourism isn’t suffering from a dearth of funds, the people of Madagascar are. The problem is economic inequality. According to the World Bank, 99 percent of Madagascar’s population lives on less than four dollars a day. Poor policy has led to mass poverty, and the resultant desperation has led to the destruction of critical ecosystems.
Tourism isn’t suffering from a dearth of funds, the people of Madagascar are. The problem is economic inequality.
A small cadre of both amateur and professional scientists and intrepid explorers spend thousands of dollars to travel across continents to see the few remaining lemurs that still live free and wild in the dwindling forests of the Red Island. These people touch down in the dense, polluted air of Antananarivo clad in adventure-grade pants, floppy-brimmed hats and vests made to hold rolls of film no one has carried in years. They are whisked from the tiny airport in air-conditioned 4×4 trucks and set off on a small predictable loop that takes them to the few well-known spots where they stand a reasonable chance of seeing what they came to see.
A person traveling to Madagascar for the sole purpose of seeing a lemur runs the risk of missing an incredible number of amazing things
A person traveling to Madagascar for the sole purpose of seeing a lemur runs the risk of missing an incredible number of amazing things that can’t be found in the dwindling forests. They will miss the inviting smell of rice cakes cooking in an early morning market. They will miss the singsong of an excited seller loading unsold bread at the end of a long day or the choke and cough of an ancient taxi running out of fuel on a steep hill. They will miss the way the sun slides across a terraced rice paddy as a day quietly ends. They will miss the warm embrace of a sincere handshake. They will miss the taste of too much sugar and condensed milk in the tiny cups of coffee sold on the back streets of Antananarivo. They will miss the heavenly taste of freshly fried bananas. They will miss long afternoons chewing sugarcane under the shade of a small tree. They will miss the loom of ancient baobabs in the distance. They will miss the warmth of burnt-rice tea. They will miss the excited laughter of children racing water carts down the dirt-and-stone roads of some forgotten highland village. They will miss the scent of saltwater and the sound of a traveler’s palm bending in the breeze. They will, almost undoubtedly, miss the actual essence of what it is to be someplace as preternatural and wondrous as Madagascar.
The problem is that Madagascar’s chances to attract attention, international aid and tourism dwindle with each passing year, and each year fewer lemurs remain in their natural habitat. Sadly, most people who make it to Madagascar end up missing the real beauty of the place. And in missing the beauty, they miss an opportunity to learn about and draw attention to the conditions and factors that are perpetuating irreversible harm to the fragile ecosystems that support the last remaining lemur populations. What the tourist or scientist misses on the preordained journey is tragic because it neglects the human factor. To neglect the human factor is to ignore the agent singularly responsible for the extinction of the lemurs.
To neglect the human factor is to ignore the agent singularly responsible for the extinction of the lemurs.
Madagascar, like so many countries in the world, is infinitely more important and fantastic than we think. As Westerners, we tend to push our own values and expectations onto the places where we travel, and because of this we tend to build a very narrow and unstable idea of what a country should be and what it should offer us. Long before we board the plane, we tend to decide what an experience should look and feel like. We imagine photographs of dirt-stained farmers and coy children half-hidden behind open doorways. It is unfair and unsafe to allow a place as unique and beautiful as Madagascar to be pigeonholed as some sort of tropical bazaar or uncanny nature park. It is home to around twenty-five million of the most welcoming and compassionate people on the planet. People that will, without fail, invite you into their homes to share whatever they have (although often they have next to nothing) with you.
A few months back I was traveling from the capital city of Antananarivo to Lac Aloatra, about 250 kilometers away. A friend of mine heard I was going that way and came over to ask if I would get her a couple of fish from the lake and bring them back for her. In making the request she held up her right arm, bent at the elbow like a Hula dancer, to indicate that she wanted a fish at least as big as the distance from her elbow to the tips of her fingers. I agreed to keep an eye out for some nice fish and bring them back for her. While I wasn’t crazy about the idea of hauling any number of fish 15 hours from Ambatodranzaka to Antananarivo without a cooler or ice, I did wander through a couple of fish markets just to see what was available and maybe snap a picture that could serve as a surrogate gift. I immediately noticed a lack of fish and when I asked around I quickly found that the lake had been drying up at an alarming rate and that huge parts of what used to be open, fresh water, were now just a mixture of muck and silt run-off from the deforested hillsides.
My friend, who lives just a few hundred kilometers away, had no idea that what once was Madagascar’s biggest freshwater lake and the center of what was referred to as Madagascar’s “rice bowl” is but a glimmer of what it used to be. Similar stories can be told of the beautiful remnants of forest that streak down the eastern coast of the island and the bizarre and unique moonscapes of the western deserts. Madagascar’s unique beauty is slipping away and not many people seem to be noticing.
If you ask a Malagasy person what is unique about their country, they will tell you about their beautiful forests and their lemurs. They are proud of those things and rightfully so. However, Madagascar is losing huge amounts of forest every year, most lemur species are near extinction and too few realize it. One of the best things that can be done for the lemurs and forests of Madagascar is to create space and opportunities for people to truly understand and appreciate all of what the island has to offer and not just the few things that we expect it to provide for us.
One of the best things that can be done for the lemurs and forests of Madagascar is to create space and opportunities for people to truly understand and appreciate all of what the island has to offer
Frankly, there is more at stake in Madagascar than the prolonged existence of the lemurs. Madagascar, like a ship caught in a storm, wildly sliding down the face of a churning wave, is jettisoning its last few precious resources in hopes of keeping her bow pointed into the wind and sea. Madagascar, an island in distress, is frantically holding on, tossing endangered species and precious hardwoods overboard in desperation, because there seems to be no other way to stay afloat.