Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Madagascar: Africa's isolated and unique island neighbor is at risk

Madagascar, that large island you see off the east coast of Africa, is a remarkably unique and, conversely, typical place. What is special about Madagascar is the good news. And what is not so special is the bad news. First the good news.

Being somewhat isolated, Madagascar can act as a gigantic evolutionary petri dish, bringing forth a variety of animals that are found nowhere else. According to MSNBC, since 1999 scientists have discovered as many 615 new species, ranging from Berthe's mouse lemur - the world's smallest primate weighing in at one ounce - to lizards with tree bark-like camouflage to a whole host of plants.

"All the species are so special, and many are unique to Madagascar," said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, conservation director for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Madagascar. "They don't exist anywhere else in the world."

With something new being discovered almost on a weekly basis, this island - the fourth largest island in the world - has, in little over a decade, provided scientists with 17 new species of fish, 41 mammals, 61 reptiles, 69 amphibians, 42 invertebrates, and 385 plants.

I have a niece, Kathryn Theiss, who is a botanist and has spent a considerable amount of time in Madagascar studying species of orchids. She must be in heaven every time she's there in the field. But heaven can be fleeting and this is what makes Madagascar typical. Now, the bad news.

Like many other developing nations, many of Madagascar's plant and animal species are at risk or out right endangered because of the subsistence-level needs of the people - from farming to
poaching for exotic animals. For most of the Malagasy people, wood is their primary source of energy. And a growing population demands farmland. So, deforestation is a major problem. From 1950 to 1990, the forests were cleared at a rate of 2 percent a year. While the level of deforestation has decreased by as much as half since then, the damage had been done and the island's total forest acreage has been reduced by as much as 90 percent.

"The sad part is that there could be many species that will disappear before they are discovered," Ratsifandrihamanana said.

So there is a race taking place in Madagascar, with continuing advances in scientific study methods allowing for ever-increasing numbers of new species to be identified, while the accelerating degradation of the forests threaten more and more species with extinction. The WWF continues to work in Madagascar to both assist the scientists and bring the issue of deforestation to the people on a local level.

"We're really trying to empower local communities so they are better managers of the resources, because they are the ones who make the daily decisions for how they will use the forest," observed Ratsifandrihamanana.

WWF has its work cut out for itself. To educate the populace to better conserve their isolated and precious resources, the overall economic situation must improve, and Madagascar is considered one of the poorest nations on the planet with an unsettled government (a coup occurred in 2009). But whatever progress is achieved would be worth the effort.

OurAmazingPlanet recently listed eight of the world's most endangered places - and Madagascar made the list. A dubious distinction for an evolutionary jewel that can provide scientists with knowledge about the development of species that could be transferred to how we can best preserve plants and animals worldwide. What a tragedy it would be if Madagascar's only legacy was to serve as a lasting reminder of what can happen when mankind takes without giving back.

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