Flying over the 400-mile wide Mozambique Channel that separates Madagascar from the African continent, my heart raced at the prospect of visiting a remote island that separated from the African continent some 165 million years ago.

Imagine an island more than 1,000 miles long in a blue tropical ocean uninhabited for most of its history. Forests cover vast areas, interspersed with swamps where eight-meter-long crocodiles lie in wait to prey on pygmy hippopotamuses. In the rain forests and in dryer parts of the island live some of the strangest primates to have ever existed on earth. Some 110 species of these lemurs live throughout the island and range in size from the world’s smallest primate, weighing about one ounce, to a lemur the size of a gorilla (now extinct).

Peering out of my aircraft window, I watched the stratocumulus clouds tower over the many swollen rivers draining the rainwaters as we descended towards Antananarivo (Tana), the capital of Madagascar located in the cool central highlands. With golden paddy fields blanketed by green clusters of trees, I was descending into what appeared to be a paradise of forests, paddy fields and rolling hills.

At the arrivals area, I was surprised to be greeted by faces that displayed a unique blend of African and Indonesian bloodlines. First populated 1,600 years ago by ancient sailors from Borneo, in today’s Indonesia, its early history is being slowly peeled by anthropologists one excavation at a time.

What You Don’t See In Travel Brochures

Nearly all the species here evolved in isolation since it broke off and drifted away from east Africa many million years ago. What I found here is a lost world of unique animals and plants, unseen by humans until their first arrival.

My planned take-away from this trip included photographing colorful chameleons, trekking the lush rainforests, navigating spiny thorn forests and climbing the spectacular rock formations. At the end of it all, what left me with a deeper sense of this country was its unique people following ancient customs, despite their wanton destruction of a paradise.

My guide in Antasibe, Maurice Ratsesakanana, was instrumental in me tracking down the apex lemur, indri. Its haunting calls are reminiscent of the songs of the humpback whales. Each morning in my bungalow, at the Hotel Fenny Ala at the edge of the rain forest, I woke up to its call. The indri is the largest lemur in existence today and tracking and photographing them in rain was a trophy to be had. Indris have never been successfully bred in captivity and this is the only place on earth that one can see these unusual primates.

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Maurice also exposed me to some of the 600 amphibians and reptiles that inhabit the forest, most of them endemic to Madagascar, meaning found nowhere else on earth. Frogs of every imaginable color and pattern leapt in this wet jungle. Chameleons, some brilliantly colored, and others shades of mottled brown, crept invisibly about. The largest can capture mice and birds, while the smallest, measuring only an inch, feeds on insects.

More than 80% of Madagascar’s 14,883 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. The rain forests had many orchids growing on tree barks and stems. Maurice indicated that three-fourths of Madagascar’s 860 orchid species are endemic, as are six of the world’s eight baobab species. I found orchid nursery’s lining all along the Antasibe road, simply harvested from the rainforest each day.

At the World Heritage rain forest of Ranomafana, Theo Farafidison, my guide, educated me on so many aspects of the fauna there. Theo worked with filmmaker David Attenborough during the shooting of the BBC series there. Almost all the amphibians and reptiles in Madagascar, half the 300 birds and all its 110 species of lemurs are endemic. Theo and I spotted a Parson’s chameleon that was almost two feet long and capable of grabbing birds with its sticky tongue. I could not help but coax it to walk on my arms, a small violation of the park’s rules. The bamboo lemurs are a specialty here, along with seven other species.

The Planet Of The Apes

My personal highlight was that of grabbing a six-foot tree boa at night while we were looking for nocturnal lemurs and chameleons. He was quite docile and surprisingly comfortable in my hold. After studying him in my confines, I gently eased him on to a tree, not realizing that they hunt on the ground. After photographing many species of frogs, scores of geckos, including those that mimic leaves, several chameleon species, five snake species, including a very large Madagascar tree boa, I moved to the drier side of the highlands. The unique animals of this country, especially the tree boa constrictor, are a target for pet suppliers from all over the world.

Some of the amazing landscapes I found in the country’s national parks included spectacular rock massifs, canyons, aquatic environments, savannahs and dry lands. Isalo, Zombitse, Kirindy and Andatringa come to mind as places that cannot be missed. Waterfalls abound, cascading down tall cliffs into rivers and lakes, the central highlands are a mosaic of woodland and savannah, while the eastern regions are covered in dense, humid rainforest.

In my quest for soaking up this paradise I swam in cool pools inside canyons, trekked the Tsaranoro massif, a sheer rock 800 meters tall known for world-class rock climbing, went sapphire prospecting on river banks, walked in wet, dry, semi-humid and spiny forests enjoying everything from insects like the endemic kung fu cricket, which takes on a martial posture when approached by the diverse ethnic groups that populate this island.

One great adventure that will last in my memory was my attempt to reach the spectacular limestone karst formations of Tsingy de Bemahara in the rainy season. It is an impenetrable wilderness of limestone spikes and sharp rocks that dominates the North West. The Tsingy is an ancient 200-mile long coral reef lifted from the ocean and carved over the millennia by wind and water into dagger-edged pinnacles. Crossing rivers on barges and driving through the dirt roads that had become three-feet deep streams during the rainy season, I reached this remote area to be hailed as the first tourist to arrive there that season. A nine-mile trek and climb ensued my visit to this world heritage site from the top looking down since all road access was inundated.

Deforestation has been present on the island since its colonization by humans, approximately 2,000 years ago, with 90% of the original forests lost. With an unprecedented population growth, extreme poverty (one of the highest in the world), and a brewing political crisis, the nature of the island is helpless and besieged by multiple fronts including corruption at the highest level. There is a police stop almost every few miles; they find something wrong with every vehicle in order to squeeze a few arriaris out of innocents and crooks alike. Thankfully, they do not bother tourists. One interesting behavior that I wish to write about is that of the gendarmerie (national police) who offered a full ceremonial salute when all our papers were in order.

In addition to the traditional system of slash and burn deforestation, which allows local people to open forests to cultivate, international players in cahoots with local officials selectively log rosewood tree species and have become the main threat for the biodiversity of the island. Lorries of hardwood leaving forested areas forced me to enquire about its legitimacy to everyone I met. They all shrugged almost helplessly even though their future was being stripped one day at a time.

Other threats include killing lemurs for meat, poaching reptiles and amphibians for the pet trade (the ploughshare tortoise fetches $200,000), habitat alteration and the clearance of forests, primarily for firewood and charcoal production. En route to the rainforests of Antasibe, I could see virgin rainforests burning outside the limits of the park for agriculture and cattle grazing that brought tears to my eyes. At every turn during my trip, my driver Tony Rebetsitonta, reflected on the different forested areas that had disappeared in his 25 years of driving around the country. It is anticipated that all the island’s rainforests, excluding those in protected areas and the steepest eastern mountain slopes, will have been deforested by 2025. As a result, several charismatic species such as chameleons and lemurs that evolved for millions of years here may become extinct by the end of the century.

The urgency to conserve the habitat has long been noticed by western scientists and conservation funding for Madagascar is at its peak. From protecting flora, fauna, habitats and large swathes of remaining forest, organizations are finding new ways to compensate the locals, educate them on sustainable land use and above all deal with a complex system of taboos that hold back progress.

While at Ranofamana National Park, I came to realize that this large virgin rainforest was protected and later converted into a park by none other than Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University in 1980, while studying bamboo lemurs as a post doctoral research worker there. This is another example of a driven woman scientist challenging government officials, locals and vested interests to create a legacy for mankind.

By the 16th century, the central highlands where the bulk of Madagascar’s population resides had been largely cleared of their original forests. It was small wonder that I saw red top soil getting washed off into the rivers from the air with no roots to hold them down. More recent contributors to the loss of forest cover include the growth in cattle herd size since their introduction around 1,000 years ago.

I met a professor from the University of Pretoria who is studying land grabs and cattle rustling in Madagascar and did not want his name publicized. This is a country where people still keep their wealth in cattle and not cash. He told me that rustling cattle is big business and as a result big groups of heavily-armed men attack villages and run away with the several hundred heads of cattle. I am told that the Malagasy people register their Zebu cattle at birth with the authorities, and not their own children.

Today, there are around 18 different ethnic groups living on the island. These include the Asiatic Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and the Bantu Sakalava. The Malagasy language is very similar to the Indonesian language Minaan; spoken only in Borneo, it has accepted some Bantu/Swahili words over time. Their customs especially of burials, land ownership, taboos and professions are very unique for the traveler to see and experience.

The Malagasy burial customs matches closely with cultures from Indonesia where I have traveled extensively to study them. This includes periodic exhumation of the bones and huge celebrations, keeping the corpse at home until it dries before burial or placing them inside rock cairns in hard to reach places, all of which bankrupt families in pursuit of satisfying their forefathers. Their philosophy, much like the ethnic Indonesians of Sulawesi and Borneo, is that life on earth is very ephemeral when compared to the soul’s journey through the universe.

This beautiful land and its people are in a ticking time bomb of land loss, top soil erosion and desertification in a few centuries. While western agencies are doing their best to stem the degradation, it is inevitable that it cannot be reversed. Added to this, poor education, absent healthcare and a corrupt government have kept the people very poor, just living under an annual $500 per capita.

It is a paradise in retreat and all our efforts to decelerate this decline is all I can hope for these wonderful people and its other living denizens. It is a travesty created by man in his effort to conquer nature. – Words and photos by Ramdas Iyer