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Why visit the real island of Madagascar?

Why visit the real island of Madagascar?

Why visit the real island of Madagascar?
By Rhett Butler,
May 23, 2005

Later this week Dreamworks releases Madagascar, an animated film depicting a group of zoo escapees who visit the island by the same name off the eastern coast of southern Africa. While the film takes certain liberties with its representation of the country, the real-life Madagascar is a fascinating place to visit. 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. Madagascar also offers spectacular landscapes, an unusual history, and a countryside full of generally friendly and wonderful people.

Madagascar, larger than California and about size the size of Texas or France, is the world’s fourth largest island. Isolated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of southern Africa, about 70% of the estimated 250,000 species found on the island exist nowhere else on the globe. The island is home to such evolutionary oddities as lemurs, a group of primates endemic to the island; brilliantly colored lizards including geckos and chameleons; tenrecs, spiny hedgehog-like creatures; and the fossa, a carnivorous animal that looks like a cross between a puma and a dog but is closely related to the mongoose. This assemblage of peculiar and unique animals helped make Madagascar the setting for the new Dreamworks movie.

Madagascar is desperately hoping that the movie will raise the country’s profile and increase its attractiveness as a travel destination for western tourists. In 2004, the country attracted about 310,000 foreign visitors, two thirds of which came from France — Madagascar’s former colonial ruler — and the island only has a 9 300-rooom capacity. The government is currently on a campaign to boost that number to 500,000 by 2007 and 684,000 by 2010. As part of that effort, the government is working with investors and developers to further improve tourist infrastructure. Schools are now teaching English to school children in an effort to prepare for the influx of tourists.

Uroplatus fimbriatus gecko on Nosy Mangabe

Phelsuma madagascariensis kochi

Furcifer pardalis chameleon

Calumma parsoni chameleon

Reptile photos

Tomato frog

Boophis frog, Masoala National Park

Boophis frog at Andasibe

Frog photos

Manambolo River canyon

Beach on the Masoala Peninsula

Ring-tailed lemurs

White-footed lepilemur (Lepilemur leucopus)

Leaping verreauxi lemur

Verreaux’s sifaka at Berenty

Lemur photos

School children near Isalo

Children in Akavandra village

Bekopaka village, canoe boy

People photos


Spiny forest vegetation at sunset

Moss covered tree in Ranomafana river

Limestone tsingy

Isalo National Park at sunrise

Madagascar landscape images

Despite these developments, Madagascar is not cut out for all tourists. Madagascar is not like a trip to Hawaii or even Costa Rica. First and foremost, Madagascar is about as far away from the United States as any major land mass. Depending on where you live, this means an 18-24 hour flight to the capital city, usually with a connection through Paris. Further, Madagascar is an extremely poor country with exceedingly poor infrastructure — flying is often the only option to get between points since roads, when they exist, are frequently in poor condition. Phones and internet access are unknown in parts of the country and in some villages, children have never seen a person with white skin. Also, despite it’s poverty, Madagascar is not a particularly cheap destination for most western tourists who are not willing to put up with the discomfort, frustrations, and hassles of public transportation. Private transpiration and lodgings can drive up travel costs, although traveling in a group can help moderate expenses. Finally, while Madagascar has few debilitating and nasty diseases than mainland Africa, prudent travel in the country does require some vaccinations including Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Tetanus, Polio, and Typhoid (always check with your doctor or the CDC web site well prior to departure).

If this doesn’t scare you away, then you’ll find Madagascar to be a remarkable place. With patience, an open mind and a sense of adventure Madagascar will be unlike any place you have ever visited. Here are some options for visitors to Madagascar, although more information on these and other destinations can be found at


If you’re looking to see wildlife the most accessible reserves are:

Berenty Famous for its tame ring-tailed lemurs and sifakas, Berenty is located in the far south of Madagascar. Though touristy and expensive by Madagascar standards, most visitors enjoy the comforts afforded by the Western facilities. Easy access by road following flight to Fort Dauphin. There are also less costly options in the region.
Andasibe-Mantadia Also known as Perinet, Andasibe-Mantadia is known for the Indri, a lemur that sings songs bizarrely similar to those of a whale. Perinet is roughly 4 hours by on a curvey, but paved highway from the capital city of Tana. Western-style lodgings are available and guides are generally excellent.
Montagne d’Ambre
These two parks are located in the far north of the country. Both offer opportunities for seeing a wide range of reptiles and amphibians, along with several species of lemurs. Ankarana and Montagne d’Ambre can be reached by paved road from Diego Suarez. Overnight facilities are minimal so you should expect to camp.
Kirindy Kirindy is an excellent place to see some of the wildlife associated with the dry deciduous forests of western Madagascar including lemurs, the fossa, and the giant jumping rat. Kirindy is accessible on dirt roads from the town on Morondava. Morondava is a brief flight or a long drive from Tana. Facilities are rugged.
Bemaraha Most people (though not that many) come to Bemaraha for its limestone tsingy rock formations, but there is an abundance of wildlife in the park including sifakas and red-fronted brown lemurs. Bemaraha is a 4-5 hour drive on sometimes rough roads from Morondava. Facilities are rugged and it can get extremely hot.
Ranomafana Ranomafana is one of Madagascar’s better known parks due to the discovery of the golden bamboo lemur in 1986. Ranomafana is rich with mammals — especially lemurs. Ranomafana is accessible by paved road (6-8 hours) from Tana. Facilities are rugged though more Western-style lodgings are in development.
Masoala The Masoala peninsula is Madagascar’s most biodiverse region. Even if you don’t make it past Nosy Mangabe, a delightful island just 30 minutes by boat from Maroantsetra, you’ll still experience the Malagasy rainforest. Since the habitat is rainforest and there has been hunting in the area, lemurs are a bit more difficult to see than in some of the drier parts of the country, though you’ll definitely see Uroplatus geckos and colorful Mantella frogs. Facilities are rugged on the peninsula and Nosy Mangabe only has camping. Maroantsetra is reachable by plane from Tana. Due to its remoteness and catering toward eco-tourists, trips to Masoala are more expensive than other parts of Madagascar

An overview of Madagascar’s wildlife can be found at The Real Animals of Madagascar.


Virtually all of Madagascar’s parks feature great hiking. Below are a couple of the notable parks for outdoor adventures.

Andringitra Andringitra is one of Madagascar’s more accessible mountain parks. Andringitra is characterized by high mountains (peak 2658m), deep valleys, and ridges and sports some of the highest biodiversity in the country.
Ankarana Ankarana is known for itself limestone rock formations known as “tsingy.” Ankarana also features extensive cave systems which were documented in a National Geographic film. Ankarana can be reached by paved road from Diego Suarez. Expect to camp — there are no hotels in the park.
Isalo Isalo’s landscape is comparable to parts of the Grand Canyon. The park consists of eroded ruiniform sandstone formations dating to the Jurassic period, deep canyons with riparian forests, palm-lined oases, fire-resistant tapia forests, and open grasslands. Isalo is an easy 3 hour drive on paved roads from Tulear. Tulear is best reached by airplane.
Bemaraha Most people (though not that many) come to Bemaraha for its limestone tsingy rock formations, but there is an abundance of wildlife in the park including sifakas and red-fronted brown lemurs. Bemaraha is a 4-5 hour drive on sometimes rough roads from Morondava. Facilities are rugged and it can get extremely hot.


Madagascar is a land of extraordinary cultural richness. 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 takes precedence over the law; and western-style religion is freely mixed with beliefs in sorcery and unparalleled funerary customs.

Contrary to what you might expect, there is some debate over who first settled Madagascar. Some anthropologists believe Madagascar was first settled 2000 years ago by Indonesians, not black Africans, and that mainland Africans did not arrive in Madagascar until a later date. Others suggest that the people of Madagascar descended from Indonesians and Africans who mixed prior to their arrival on the isolated island. Regardless, most experts agree that Madagascar’s inhabitants arrived relatively recently (there is no evidence of a stone age in Madagascar and the island was settled around the time Polynesians reached the planet’s most isolated place — Easter Island) and that subsequent migrations have brought other groups (like Arabs and Indians) into the mix.

The mixed origins of Malagasy (the name for the people of Madagascar) has produced an interesting set of cultures that draws from southeast Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. Within the country, people’s physical appearance, religious practices, and traditions are highly regional — the strongest bond between Malagasy is sharing a common language.

Today there are more than 20 ethnic groups in Madagascar from the Indonesian-looking Merina in the highlands to Arabic Antaimoro on the eastern coast. To learn more of Madagascar’s ethic groups, I highly recommend the Bradt guide to Madagascar along with The Eighth Continent by Peter Tyson.

Antananarivo Antananarivo (also called Tananarive or Tana) is the capital city of Madagascar. Located in the highlands of Madagascar, Tana is quite unlike any city you have ever visited before.
Antsirabe Antsirabe lies 169 km south of Tana and is the agricultural and industrial center of Madagascar. It’s also the beer capital of Madagascar — you can smell the brewery as you enter the town


Madagascar has white sand beaches and coral reefs.

L’Ile Sainte-Marie L’Ile Sainte-Marie or Nosy Boraha is an island off the eastern coast of Madagascar. Featuring deserted beaches, Sainte-Marie is especially popular for European tourists
Nosy Be Nosy Be is Madagascar’s most touristy spot. Cheap holiday-goers flock here for the sun and the beaches. Despite its reputation, Nosy Be does feature a small, but diverse area of forest in the Lokobe Reserve.
Ifaty Known for its shark diving, Ifaty also boasts beaches and snorkeling.
Masoala The Masoala peninsula is not only home to rainforest and lemurs; it also sports some of the finest beaches and reefs in Madagascar.

Making Travel Plans

If you do want to plan a trip to Madagascar making the arrangements yourself be 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.

Regardless of where you go on the island and who makes your travel arrangements, your trip to Madagascar will be an unforgettable experience.

Other notes on Madagascar

Madagascar’s environment

Aerial view of burning in Madagascar

Agricultural fires set in humid forests of Madagascar

Airplane view of deforestation in Madagascar

Deforestation in Madagascar

Slash-and-burn deforestation

Deforestation pictures

Madagascar has suffered severe environmental degradation over much of its land mass. Forests that once blanked the eastern third of the island have now been degraded, fragmented, and converted to scrub land. Spiny forests in the south are rapidly giving way to “cactus scrub” as indigenous vegetation is cut and burned for subsistence charcoal production. Viewed from above Madagascar’s rivers look like they are bleeding the country to death as valuable topsoil is eroded away from the central highlands. Each year as much as a third of the country burns and 1% of its remaining forests are leveled.

This ecological decline has not been ignored. Environmental regulations have been in place since Queen Ranavalona II first banned slash-and-burn agriculture in 1881. The French passed rulers followed their own edicts which aimed to protect wildlife and conserve forests. Nonetheless these efforts met mixed results. On one hand there is still forest in Madagascar — forest that houses thousands on endemic species from lemurs to baobabs to Uroplatus geckos. On the other hand the amount of forest today is less than any time since Madagascar was first inhabited by humans less than 2000 years ago.

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.

At present, more dollars are pouring into conservation efforts in Madagascar than any other part of Africa. What can be done to ensure that this time around conservation will be a success in Madagascar?

Madagascar’s parks

Parks in Madagascar are managed by ANGAP (the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas — Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protegees). Founded in 1990, ANGAP’s mission is fivefold:

  1. safeguarding Madagascar’s ecosystems
  2. researching potential Madagascar’s biodiversity
  3. developing environmental education programs for local people
  4. promoting potential commercial applications of Madagascar’s biodiversity (ecotourism for example)
  5. supporting sustainable development activities in areas surrounding protected zones

One of ANGAP’s principal goals is to enable local communities to benefit directly from conservation. 50% of park entrance fees collected by ANGAP go to local communities and visitors cannot enter a park without a hiring a local guide. ANGAP has extensive training programs to ensure local guides are knowledgeable about the flora, fauna, and other details of the protected area. ANGAP also works closely with domestic and foreign scientists to study biodiversity and the impact of visitors on parks and reserves.

Other articles on Madagascar

Other links on Madagascar
Madagascar Pictures

Recommended books on Madagascar