Madagascan National Parks
Madagascan National Parks: Madagascar is one of the most unique places in the world when it comes to the plant and animal life with approximately 92% of its mammals and 89% of its flora life found nowhere else on earth1. Some staggering statistics when you take a second to think about it.
The breakup of the continents happened about 135 million years ago and Madagascar split form India over 80 million years ago to form a large island 400km off the east coast of Mozambique. Evolution has had a chance to do its own thing here and it certainly has forged a path incomparable to the rest of the world. The island’s isolation and physical makeup has allowed it to develop ecosystems which have a huge range of life from the lush rainforests of Ranomafana in the east to the arid regions around Isalo in the southwest. The mountains which run down the centre of the island divide the east from the drier west forming ecosystems and habitats so different its makes Madagascar one of the most biodiverse places on earth.
I visited as many Madagascan National Parks as I could in my three months in Madagascar and the range of environments differed vastly from watching the Golden Bamboo lemurs in the rain of Ranomafana to seeing lizards sunning themselves in the early morning heat of Makay. Each park and area of the country was different and offered a fresh view of nature at its most fantastic. It is a truly unforgettable experience to have a Verreau Sifaka lemur look at you or see a Baobab tree which is over 300 years old and still sustaining life in the forest.
At the back of my mind through all of this time I wondered what was happening beyond the gaze of the few tourists some of these parks get in the areas which are further off the trails and paths. The government has more than tripled the area officially protected since 2003 but illegal logging, smuggling and mining continues to be carried out in these areas. A rapidly expanding population and successive corrupt governments means these areas are not as protected as they may seem on the surface. Some astounding examples of the inability of the government to enforce its own laws can be found by only looking at the members who make up Magagascan politics. Export of Rosewood has been illegal in the country since 2010 but some of the countries biggest exporters have seats in parliament and illegal exports continue.
A chance encounter with a pastor called Honora on a trip between Fort Dauphin in the south of country and Vangaindrano 250km up the east coast gave me an insight into the corruption I had suspected all along. We were travelling in the same 4×4 when one of the ferries crossing the river broke down so we had a six hour wait before it was going again.
During this time he gradually opened up to me about life in Madagascar in general from what he has seen during his time as a missionary in different parts of the country. “There are a lot of problems in Madagascan national parks and the government is very corrupt. They sell the rights to peoples land and they just have to move. The government writes new deeds and the people have no choice but to leave. Big mining companies come and give the government money and they can do what they like. You see the big 4x4s in Tana belonging to the politicians and the people don’t benefit from these resources………… The poverty in Tana is just unbelievable in places and can be seen within a short walk of the city centre.”
As the conversation continued he went into more depth about smuggling of all kinds of things from animals to precious stones, some of which is disturbing. An extraordinary example of this occurred in 2015 when a family on their way to China gave a bag of extremely rare Ploughshare tortoises to a police officer at the airport to bring through security after which the bag burst open and the animals spilled out onto the floor in front of other passengers4. As of 2018 there were only thought to be fifty adult Ploughshares left in the wild and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust which breeds them in captivity in Madagascar has stopped releasing them into wild where they will be poached.
As recently as march 2019 a national geographic investigation into illegal sapphire mining in in the east of the country in the habitat of the critically endangered Indri lemur found camps which are allowed to operate without interruption resulting in the destruction of the valuable forest with some of the lemurs even being kept as pets by miners in their homes5.
I don’t have to just rely on local sources of information about government either as Madagascar has been near the bottom of the Corruption Perception Index which is an assessment of public sector corruption since its inception in 20122 and in May 2019 more than half of sitting members of parliament were suspected of corruption by the country’s anti corruption agency3.
Amid all this gloom positive steps have been taken and there has been a sharp rise in convictions for smuggling with jail terms now being more common for people caught red handed. However the people convicted have been relatively low down the pecking order and there are much more powerful people controlling these operations. Generals, judges and the leaders of the national assembly are rumoured to be among the people who control the trade in smuggling of animals and precious stones and until they are brought to justice the trade will continue and Madagascan national parks will continue to suffer. The only people who benefit in a big way are the people at the top of the smuggling food chain with those further down receiving a relative pittance. If there is a greater influx of people who want to visit these parks and increase income from tourists this would make habitat destruction less attractive. The people involved in mining at a local level do so in order to provide for their families and if alternative ways can be provided to make money this would be a step in the right direction.