A Lesson From the Eighth Continent?

By Robert Bernstein   |   October 18, 2022

Over 20 years ago I attended a talk on Madagascar at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. It was one long rant about how the ecosystems of Madagascar had been almost totally destroyed. How there were no indigenous organizations for outside conservation groups to work with. And how the Pope had gone there to encourage even more overpopulation on this island nation already devastated by overpopulation.

Furthermore, there was no infrastructure to support an ecotourism industry to make conservation profitable. And the government was too corrupt and unstable to invest in such infrastructure.

The speaker offered this as the only possible hope: Preserving the most valued Madagascar species on nearby Seychelles.

Just before COVID, the British journal New Scientist offered a tour to Madagascar and I immediately placed a deposit. After years of watching and waiting, I could actually go! It finally became a reality last month. I had no idea what to expect.

This “Eighth Continent” is home to 150,000 endemic species. Madagascar broke away from Pangea during the time of the dinosaurs and evolved unique life forms from lemurs to chameleons to baobab trees found nowhere else. It was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans.

The Malagasy natives are believed to be from faraway Borneo and Indonesia, only recently mixed with people of East Africa. In the 1800s it was conquered by the French, with independence won in 1960 at a huge loss of Malagasy lives.

What I saw was a place that did not look overly crowded with people. Most of the land is green, not covered with buildings. But looks are deceptive. Most of the “green” is human agriculture. Primarily rice, with pastureland for the “zebu” cows. Most of the remaining “forests” are imported trees like Australian eucalyptus that offer zero habitat for the endemic species.

Lemurs, chameleons, day geckos (think of the GEICO ads), and other precious endemic species need first-growth forest plants that can take a hundred years or more to establish.

Malagasy culture combines with the worst of imported colonial religion to say that every child is a “blessing.” It is rare to see a young woman who is not carrying a baby. Agriculture is slash and burn, with no plans for reforestation with native species. Cooking fuel is charcoal, consuming endless amounts of vegetation. Every bicycle and scooter is loaded with multiple passengers and/or charcoal.

Our excellent guide “William” (not his real name) explained these challenges. He explained that there are 18 different Malagasy dialects, corresponding to as many different tribal cultures. He could not accompany us into a large cave complex because his tribe is banned from it by the local tribe. Taboos, animism, and ancient tribal beliefs still rule. Governments change every few years and corruption siphons off what little money comes into the country.

On the few numbered “highways” in the country, I measured our speed at less than 10 mph on average. Heavy trucks rumble on these potholes interspersed with bits of pavement, carrying valuable materials to and from ports. But little of that money maintains the roads. Locals pile dirt into the holes and hold out their hands for tip money.

Through this all, “William” offered some slim hope: National parks and private reserves are barely keeping most of the endemic species alive. There are now local organizations able to work with outside conservation groups like World Wildlife and the Durrell Trust. And to try to connect the tiny bits of fragmented habitat together.

Ecotourism infrastructure is happening. Most of the places we stayed were less than 10 years old; many were much newer. With tourism comes hustlers and criminals. We almost always had an escort. But tourism also brings money to tourism workers. Including people like William who educate themselves in biology and geology and can educate tourists and locals alike.

We were impressed that most of the places we stayed were solar powered, with limited battery power at night. Solar panels are seen everywhere we went.

Most hopeful: William told us that in the past couple of years the government is mandating that all schoolchildren be taken to the national parks to see the lemurs and other unique wildlife treasures of their country.

It might take hundreds of years to restore habitat. But at least there is a chance if the locals can see and reap the value of what they have.  


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