Tourism in Madagascar; Visting the World’s Most Unusual Island

/ Rhett Butler

Madagascar is a place like no other. Separated from mainland Africa for some 160 millions years, 80% of its native flora and fauna are unique to the island.

Tourism in Madagascar; Visiting the World’s Most Unusual Island

Tourism in Madagascar; Visiting the World’s Most Unusual Island

By Rhett Butler, /

Revised September 9, 2005

My tent is perched atop a forested bank over-looking a clear, fast-moving stream. As I sit recording notes from a days’ worth of hiking through narrow fern-lined canyons I am startled by a loud meow.

Ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar

Looking up, I am face to face with a bored-looking ring-tailed lemur. Her beady amber eyes stare back at me as she meows again. A second head appears. She’s carrying a young lemur on her back. A few moments later she arrogantly swaggers away. I stumble to my feet and climb out of the tent to find myself surrounded by ring-tails. Their indifference towards me is strangely comforting in this charming yet decidedly peculiar land.

I’m camping in Isalo National Park, an expanse of gorgeous sandstone formations more reminiscent of the Grand Canyon than of the an isolated African landscape. With lemurs as companions, there is only one place I could be, the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar.

Madagascar is a place like no other. Separated from mainland Africa for some 160 millions years, 80% of its native flora and fauna are unique to the island. Madagascar is home to such evolutionary oddities as the fossa, a carnivorous mammal that looks like a cross between a puma and a dog but is closely related to the mongoose; the indri, a cat-sized lemur that leaps from tree to tree with ease and sings eery, whale-like songs; the sifaka, a lemur, that swears rudely but dances like a ballet performer; and the streaked tenrec, a spiny yellow and black insectivore that resembles a miniature hedgehog and makes grinding-chirping noises when threatened. It has baobab trees, which look like they’ve been planted upside down; the rosy periwinkle, a delicate flower used to cure pediatric leukemia and Hogkin’s disease; and an entire desert ecosystem consisting of just spiny plants. To top it off, the residents of Madagascar, the Malagasy, have equally unusual origins as reflected by their mixed traditions and cultural practices. The Malagasy speak a language native to Borneo (across the Indian Ocean in Indonesia) and observe some distinctly southeast Asian religious practices; use Arabic-rooted words for months and days of the week; and greatly treasure African Zebu cattle. Given Madagascar’s proximity to the African coast who would have expected such a background? Who would have thought that 2000 years ago the island’s first settlers had origins in Indonesia?

Malagasy culture

While Madagascar is best known for its wildlife, it is a land of extraordinary cultural richness.

Sakalava boy in western Madagascar

It’s a place where ancestors are as much a part of the present day as they are of the past; where in many areas taboo and tradition take precedence over the law; and western-style religion is freely mixed with beliefs in sorcery and unparalleled funerary customs.

There are few experiences that can match entering a remote Malagasy village at dusk to the sound of music played on hand-fashioned instruments accompanied with a lyrical chorus of voices. Despite their everyday hardships and adversity, rural Malagasy have to be some of the most cheerfully optimistic and upbeat people I have ever encountered. They are also exceedingly forgiving when you manhandle and botch their language, one that to my ears seems to be spoken in a manner where half the syllables are either swallowed or dropped . And, where else in the world can you go where your passing in a car will elicit genuine, non-hostile excitement with smiling faces, waving hands, and cheerful shrieks of Bonour vazaha! (“hello foreigner”) in virtually every village?

Madagascar’s wildlife

Most people who visit Madagascar come for its wildlife*. Madagascar’s wildlife is among the best in the world in terms of diversity, abundance, and approachability and travel to Madagascar for this purpose is most rewarding. Visiting certain parks, you are virtually guaranteed to see some of the island’s better known animals including several species of lemurs, absurdly colorful chameleons, and brightly hued day geckos. Because Madagascar’s species evolved without natural predators, many of its animals show little fear of humans. It is not unusual to be approached by a group of lemurs while hiking in some parks, though this is less a case in regions where hunting is a problem (yes, lemurs are still actively hunted for meat in parts of Madagascar). Take a look at some of Madagascar’s incredible animal diversity:

    Birds: Birders love Madagascar. Of the island’s 260 or so species, 115 are endemic including 36 genera — more than any other country in Africa. Sadly, it’s too late for the real Malagasy treasure, the Elephant birds, which disappeared in the past couple hundred years. These giants stood ten feet (3m) tall, weighed over 1100 pounds (500 kg), and laid an egg large enough to make an omelette to feed 150 people.

    Ring-tailed lemurs

    White-footed lepilemur

    Verreaux’s sifaka at Berenty

    Lemur photos

    Lemurs: Technically lemurs are mammals but I’m separating them out because they are considered the flagship animals of Madagascar. Lemurs are primates that look something like a cat crossed with a squirrel and a dog. They are unique to the island and display a range of interesting behaviors from singing like a whale (the indri) to sashaying across the sand like a ballet dancer (the sifaka). Lemurs belong to a family of primates (the prosimians) that were the precursor to modern monkeys and apes. The only reason lemurs survive as they do today is because of Madagascar’s isolation. Most other lemur-like primates in other parts of the world went extinct millions of years ago when more “advanced” monkeys came along. Humans have done their best to continue the trend by extinguishing a number of lemur species over the past millennium. Today there are around 60 types of lemurs, though new discoveries are being made (the discovery of two new species was announced). Lemurs range in size from the 25-gram pygmy mouse lemur to the indri, which may weigh as much as 22 pounds (10 kg). Non-scientists generally group lemurs by their primary time of activity: day or night. Nocturnal lemurs are typically smaller and more reclusive than their diurnal counterparts. Lemurs are vocal animals ranging from the grunts and swears of brown lemurs and sifaka to chirps of mouse lemurs to the eerie, wailing call of the indri which has been likened to a cross between a police siren and the song of a humpback whale.

    Mammals: Besides lemurs, a number of other interesting animals live in Madagascar. Madagascar has eight species of “viverrids,” which are a group of mammals that includes the mongoose. The most exciting of these is probably the fossa, Madagascar’s largest surviving predator. Tenrecs are another notable group of mammals found on the island. Tenrecs are unusual insectivores that have radiated into ecological niches filled in other lands by hedgehogs, mice, shrews, opossums, and even otters. While a few species of tenrec are found in central Africa, they are most diverse in Madagascar which has around 30 species. Finally Madagascar has various bats and rodents, including the famous giant jumping rat

    Tomato frog

    Frog photos

    Leaf-tailed gecko

    Panther chameleon

    Reptile photos

    Frogs: Frogs are the only amphibians found in Madagascar — there are no toads, salamanders or newts. Madagascar is thought to have more than 300 species of frogs, 99% of which are endemic including the colorful Mantella frogs and the toxic — but only if you eat it — Tomato frog.

    Reptiles: Madagascar is home to more than 300 species of reptiles of which over 90% are endemic but none of whom can be considered dangerous to humans. Madagascar’s snakes are rear-fanged and effectively harmless. Some of the better known reptiles on the island are the chameleons including the true chameleons which are masters of color change and the unbelievably diminutive Brookesia chameleons where a full grown adult easily fits on your fingertip.

    Fish: Madagascar has excellent coral reef ecosystems and some of the finest whale-watching spots on the planet. Its freshwater fish are in a much less fortunate state. Habitat loss — especially the conversion of native vegetation to rice paddies — combined with horrendous erosion resulting from deforestation and the introduction of exotic species have doomed many of Madagascar’s native fish.

    Invertebrates: Even Madagascar’s “crunchy” and “squishy” creatures will be of interest to the casual wildlife observer. The island has a number of remarkable insects including the gorgeous comet moth and the infamous hissing cockroach. Less pleasant but equally notorious for visitors exploring the rainforest on a rainy day are the leeches. But rest assured, these carry no disease and really cause little or no harm.


Spiny forest vegetation


Isalo National Park

Landscape images

Madagascar’s flora

Madagascar’s wildlife is only rivaled by its plant richness. The island is home to as many as 12,000 plant species — 70-80% of which are endemic — making it one of the most diverse floras on the planet (for comparison, tropical Africa has 30,000-35,000 species and covers almost 35 times as much area as Madagascar). Madagascar has nearly 1000 known species of orchids, of which 85% are endemic and 6 of the world’s species of baobab tree. An entire family of plants, the Didiereaceae is unique to Madagascar. These bizarre plants are found in the arid and otherworldly southwest and closely resemble some forms of cacti with their menacing thorns and spines. Madagascar’s plant diversity is perhaps best exemplified by its palm trees. 165 of Madagascar’s 170 palms are not found anywhere else. For comparison, mainland Africa has less than 60 species of palm.

Land of adventure

Madagascar offers almost an infinite number of adventure possibilities. From whitewater rafting down remote and obscure rivers to surfing deserted breaks to strolling empty white sand beaches to trekking in the mountains, Madagascar has a plethora of options for outdoor enthusiasts willing to go literally to the other side of Earth to seek their thrills. Mountain biking, spelunking through crocodile infested caves, hang-gliding, diving with sharks, the list goes on….

A special place

Madagascar and Madagascar

The Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar is hoping that a recently released Dreamworks’ movie will spur tourism in the country despite its lukewarm success in the American box office. The animated film has grossed a disappointing $192 million since its launch over Memorial Day weekend. For comparison, Shrek 2 generated $441,226,247 in the United States when it was released by Dreamworks in 2004.

Opening to mixed reviews, the computer-animated film tells a fish out of water story of four urbanite zoo-dwelling animals who escape from New York and experience major culture shock when they arrive in a vastly foreign and decidedly wild Madagascar. The movie features voice performances by Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock, Ali G creator Sacha Baron Cohen, David Schwimmer and Ben Stiller.

The movie hasn’t exactly entralled the locals in the country for which the film is named — according the The New York Times, “Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, has exactly two movie theaters, which offer exactly two types of entertainment: locally produced martial-arts films and evangelical religious films… On Madagascar, there is no Madagascar.”

Even though Madagascar has yet to open on the island, the country hopes the film will be the second “Out of Africa,” a popular film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, that produced a boom in tourism for the country in which it was filmed, Kenya, over the five following years. It is likely that Madagascar will only see a similar increase in visitors and subsequent economic benefit from the film if enough money is spent to properly market the country while interest in the picture is still high. Luckily, for Madagascar the country, Dreamworks will likely continue the promotion of the movie well past its run in American theaters since the company is still smarting from its failure to meet DVD sales objectives for its last picture. Promotion for the Madagascar DVD release will surely be extravagant and further raise awareness on the real-life destination.

Despite offering all these fantastic and wonderful attractions, Madagascar is not a destination for all visitors. Madagascar remains a desperately poor country and one that is at least an 18-24 hour flight away from anyone who lives in the United States. Few people speak English and the infrastructure is in a state of total disrepair in much of the country. Phones and internet access are unknown in much of the country, while bandits are still a threat in some remote areas. Nor is the country inexpensive for tourists.

If you do want to plan a trip to Madagascar making the arrangements yourself are a bit tricky due to poor telecommunications, language barriers, and other minor issues. While some intrepid travelers have had success simply showing up in the country and figuring it out from there, most Western travelers — especially Americans — will have a smoother time if they plan things beforehand. I highly recommend picking up the Bradt Travel Guide to Madagascar to help you make travel decisions and learn about the country. It’s probably easiest to go through an operator who specializes in the country, like Cortez expeditions in California, or use a group organizer like Rainbow Tours in the UK.

While Madagascar is not Costa Rica, it is an destination that offers unrivaled wildlife, outstanding landscapes, incredible people, and a fascinating history. Madagascar is quite certainly like no place you ever visited and it will be a trip you will never forget. Madagascar is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime type destination, although once you visit, there may be nothing stopping your imminent return.

As you consider visiting this remarkable world, remember that Madagascar’s future depends on tourists, especially those interested in seeing its natural wonders and willing to underwrite wildlands preservation costs by hiring local guides, paying park entrance fees, and buying local handicrafts. Without tourists there will be little economic incentive for poor rural Malagasy to conserve what’s left of Madagascar’s wilderness.

Madagascar is among the world’s poorest countries. As such, people’s day to day survival is dependent upon natural resource use. Most Malagasy never have an option to become a doctor, sports star, factory worker, or secretary; they must live off the land that surrounds them making use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty costs the country and the world through the loss of the island’s endemic biodiversity. Responsible, respectful, and tolerant tourists can play a crucial role in saving Madagascar’s wildlife and wildlands.

Other links on Madagascar

Madagascar Pictures

Recommended books on Madagascar

According to the leading travel guide to Madagascar, more than 50% of visitors to the country now visit a protected area when they visit the country (up from 20% in 1995)

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