Far Flung Correspondents (Madagascar)
New Yorker, Mar 7, 1988
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THE countryside through the train window could be almost anywhere. The villages dotting it, each clustered around a tall, thin steeple, look French, and the trucks and cars on a road running alongside the tracks are definitely FrenchPeugeots, Renaults, the redoubtable Citroen 2-CV. But they are battered models from ten or twenty years ago, and the earth bared on slumped, rain.: beaten hillsides in the distance is too red to be European; it is the brick-red lateritic soil of the tropics. So this must be some former possession of the French. But where? Passing details are pantropical: a burst of tattered banana leaves, a row of eucalyptus, a mat of water hyacinth, with its attractive purple flowers (it is native to the Amazon but now clogs warm waterways around the world), a flock of white egrets shimmering against a slate-gray sky. But here, to the right, is a clue, perhaps: a stand of tall sedges with airy round heads-papyrus-says that this could be the Nile Delta; and over there is a grid of shallow pools, with people wading in them-rice paddies-so we are probably in Asia, or on the edge of Asia. Now we are pulling in to a station of turn-of-thecentury French design-the walls edged with staggered quoins, a peaked, dormered roof projecting over the platform. This could be a stop in Provence, except that the sign on the station's wall says "AMBOHIMANAMBOLA," and the people milling on the platform, rushing up to the windows of our c.ar with platters of bananas and litchi nuts and tart little peaches, are not European. They are dark-skinned, tropical people, but they aren't African, and they aren't Indian or Oriental, either. They are AfroIndonesian. Most of them are probably Merina, the largest and most urban of Madagascar's eighteen ethnic groups, who live Qn the central plateau. In the nineteenth century, the Merina conquered the island, and were, in turn, conquered by the French.
Madagascar. For as long as I can remember, the word has had a magical ring, has been swathed in visions of the exotic bordering on the unreal. I remember doing a report when I was a schoolboy on the coelacanth, a fivefoot-long fish that was known to have lived in the Paleozoic Era, when fish were starting to grow limbs and come out on land. It was thought to have been extinct for three hundred million years but was rediscovered in 1938, forty fathoms down, in the waters between Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, using its paddlelike fins to walk along the ocean floor. I imagined Madagascar, that huge island out in the Indian Ocean, as a lost world, where all kinds of fantastic holdovers from earlier times lived on.
As I grew older, I kept running into references to the island which made it seem even stranger: a certain genus of stringy, epiphytic cactus, Rhipsalis, is found in Amazonia, Africa, Ceylon, and on Madagascar; the closest relative of an Amazon river turtle is Erymnochelys madagascariensis. How could these two places, on opposite sides of the globe, have such close relatives? The answer, or part of it, I learned, is that long ago South America and Madagascar were both attached to Africa: with Australia, Antarctica, and India, they were all part of the southern supercontinent known as Gondwanaland. Madagascar was up by Tanzania. Then, around a hundred and sixty million years ago, a chunk of the African part of Gondwanaland broke off and, over a span of some seventy million years, was slowly rafted to its present position, two hundred and fifty miles east of Mozambique. The chunk was, and is, a thousand miles from tip to tip and three hundred and fifty miles at its widest point, a minicontinent half again the size of California. ("In shape it resembles the print of a gigantic left foot with an enlarged big toe pointing pigeon-toed slightly to the right of north," Sir Mervyn Brown, Britain's Ambassador to the island during the nineteen-seventies, writes in his dry, affectionate history, "Madagascar Rediscovered.") Meanwhile, South America had separated from western Gondwanaland and was drifting west. Much later, during the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended only ten thousand years ago, Africa suffered widespread desiccation; its tropical forests, which had not been extensive to begin with, shrank, and many of their plants and animals were wiped out. But some of the Gondwanaland forms survived on Madagascar and in Amazonia, among them the prototypes of the boa; today, there are many species of boa in the Americas, three on Madagascar, and none in tropical Africa.
By about fifty or sixty million years ago, overland migration between Africa and Madagascar was no longer possible. Cut off from the rest of the world, with no competition from higher, more successful forms of life, the flora and fauna on the island, which were still at a primitive stage of evolution, developed in astonishing ways. A thorn forest-known as "the spiny desert"-that looks like a Dali creation sprang up in the dry southern part of the island. There, too, are many trees with bloated, bottle-like trunks, for storing water from the infrequent rains (a bizarre adaptation known as crassulescence); Madagascar boasts seven species of baobab to Africa's one. The chameleons-lizards that can change color and can swivel each eye independently-speciated madly: two-thirds of the world's species, including the world's largest (Chamaeleo oustaleti) and smallest (Chamaeleo nasutus), hail from Madagascar.
The island is the world headquarters not only of chameleons but also of the lemurs: long-snouted, bug-eyed, usually long-tailed, tree-dwelling prosimians, ranging from squirrel size to cat size, whose ancestors are also those of monkeys, apes, and man. The most intelligent form of life to be stranded on the island, the lemurs filled all sorts of empty niches. Somethe giant lemurs-became grazers; there being no hoofed animals to compete with. (Hoofed animals had not evolved when Madagascar drifted away.) One filled the woodpecker niche, there being no woodpeckers on the island. But many developed the social behavior and the diurnal, fruiteating habits of monkeys, there being no higher primates, either. Some forty types of lemur are known; all live on Madagascar and-except for a few on the Comoro Islands-only there.
The first European naturalists to explore the island were astonished by
the animal and plant life. In 1771, Philibert de Commerson, a Frenchman,
called Madagascar "the naturalists' promised land," and wrote, "Nature
seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could
work on different models from any she used elsewhere. There, you meet bizarre
and marvellous forms at every step." A century later, the great Victorian
evolutionist and biogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace called the island
"one of the most remarkable zoological districts on the globe." As naturalists
began to catalogue the flora and fauna, they discovered that the levels
of endemism-species unique to the island-were unequalled even in the Galapagos.
Of some eight thousand flowering plants found on Madagascar, eighty per
cent are endemic. So are half the bird species, which number two hundred
and thirty-eight. As the naturalists classified the species and sorted
out their relationships, they discovered that the tremendous diversity
on the island had arisen from relatively few models. Some orders are poorly
represented, some not at all. There are no vipers, since poisonous snakes
are a recent development in snake evolution. The indigenous carnivores
include a peculiar, weaseloid form of civet cat. Because of the nearabsence
of predators, the naturalists found, the animals there had a virtual lack
of fear. One could walk right up to them.
TODAY, Madagascar is on the brink of environmental catastrophe. After centuries of deforestation, the island is self-destructing: it is washing into the sea, going the way of Haiti and the Sahel. Huge gashes of eroded red earth are such a characteristic feature of its landscapes that there is a special word for them in Malagasy, the locallanguage-lavaka. Recent research conducted by the World Wildlife Fund has determined that Madagascar is the most heavily eroded place on earth. Much of the island is already barren, burned-over, brickhard, sunbaked laterite. The destruction has been going on since prehistoric times. The largest of Madagascar's animals were gone before any European got a chance to see them: giant lemurs, a pygmy hippopotamus (which probably swam over from Africa during the Pleistocene), and the elephant bird, one of whose eggs, it is said, could have provided an omelette for fifty people, and which went the way of the dodo on nearby Mauritius and the moa oh New Zealand, but without European help. Human beings are thought to have first arrived on Madagascar less than two thousand years ago, and since that time sixteen genera of vertebrates have become extinct. Islands go a lot faster than mainlands do, because the minimum critical habitats of their species, being smaller, are disturbed more quickly, and because a lot of the species aren't adapted to predation; flightless birds, for instance, are helpless against introduced terrestrial mammals like pigs, dogs, rats, mongooses, and man. Because eighty per cent of the Malagasy, as the island's ten million inhabitants are called, live off the land, the need for farmland, pastureland, timber, and charcoal has put tremendous pressure on the last remaining tracts of forest. The people are in a terrible plight: the ecologist Alison Jolly, who has been doing brilliant work on Madagascar for twenty-five years, and her husband, Richard Jolly, who is an economist with UNICEF, have pointed out that the Malagasy are being forced to sacrifice their future so that they can survive in the present; they are caught in a "tragedy without villains." Most of them aren't aware of the consequences of what they are doing to the land, and unless they are stopped there will soon be nothing left. A food crisis like the one that has taken up to a hundred thousand lives right across the channel in Mozambique will erupt.
The last good survey, completed twenty-five years ago, estimated that only twenty-one per cent of the original forest, which is thought by some to have once blanketed almost the entire island, remained. Recent satellite photographs suggest that only half of those patches are standing today, and a 1981 study by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization determined that thirty per cent of the 1980 forest cover will be gone by the year 2000. Because of the island's unique level of endemism (to continue the list, more than ninety-five per cent of its reptiles and nearly all of its hundred and fifty frogs are not found anywhere else in the world), clearing a patch of forest on Madagascar probably has more devastating repercussions than clearing one anywhere else. And, undoubtedly, many species haven't yet been discovered. "Entire mountain massifs and river basins have never had a botanist in them," the botanist Porter Lowry, who was on a recent expedition that discovered two new genera of palms, told me not long ago. "It's one of the truly underexplored areas in the world."
Late in 1984, the government (Madagascar was granted independence by the
French in 1960, and has a nominally Marxist government that in the last
few years has become friendly with the West), prodded by foreign scientists,
enacted a new program, a Strategie de la Con.s'ervation et du Developpement
Durable, but the money to carry it out is lacking. For that matter, Madagascar
has long had an excellent park system on paper. Established by the French
in 1927, it was one of the first in the African region. Ten special reserves
were set aside (and more have since been added), but these protect only
one per cent of the island, and that only theoretically, since in all of
them poaching of timber and wildlife is virtually unchecked; the entire
annual budget for maintaining the system is only a thousand dollars. So
the government has entrusted nothing less than the salvation of the island
to Western organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, which now accords
Madagascar the highest conservation priority in the world. Thomas Lovejoy,
who was overseeing the Fund's work on the island, told me, "We're identifying
critical areas, shoring up local institutions and creating new ones, sending
Malagasy graduate students to the States for training, educating the local
people and getting them involved in anti-poaching activities. All islands
have a peculiar intensity. They are self-contained worlds that lend themselves
to study as microcosms. It is easier to trace the fates of the limited
number of life forms that are turned loose on them. This great red island
Madagascar is particularly