Continuing our series on Africa’s parks posts ahead of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, we visit Madagascar this week. What we have been trying to show is that Africa is a big place and not all parks are the same!
I have been lucky enough to visit Madagascar and to see many of its national parks. The thing that strikes you immediately is that there is very little natural habitat left. Cattle ownership, as a proxy for wealth, demands huge areas of pasture, created by repeatedly clearing and burning the landscape. The burgeoning population also has a massive dependency on rice (Madagascar is said to have the world’s highest per capita consumption of rice) which means that every watercourse and accessible hillside is cleared and terraced for agriculture. Outside of protected areas, small remnants of forest left clings to inaccessible hilltops and steep ravines.
The island has distinctly different vegetation zones, because of the rainfall pattern, but before man arrived 2,000 years ago almost all of it was heavily forested, and home to many more species than survive today. Credit: March Turnbull
So, this week I wanted to look at small parks. They are all relatively small in Madagascar. In southern Africa you would want a minimum 40,000 hectares to sustain the Big Five, the (unfair) litmus test of an iconic park. Madagascar doesn’t have any of the big five (water buffalo don’t count..) and few parks would be big enough anyway. But small can be beautiful, especially in a landscape of environmental chaos.
They don’t come much smaller than the Site Ecotouristique d’Anja, Anja Community Reserve. It is just 30 hectares in size. In the late 1990s, aware that its globally significant endemic species were under huge pressure, the Madagascan government worked hard to expand the land under formal protection. One of the results was small community managed reserves, like Anja.
Like all reserves in Madagascar your visit is guided, in this case by a local villager rather than a National Parks employee. Credit: March Turnbull
Incidentally, for those from mainland Africa who are used to exploring the wilderness independently, you need to adjust your mindset in Madagascar. Every hike or visit to a reserve requires a guide, even if it is a 30 minute signposted circuit. There are lots of good reasons for this but don’t expect to contemplate nature in solitary splendour, or to get away with just paying the park entrance fee!
Anyway, back to Anja. This tiny patch of forest, squeezed on all sides by cattle and rice, is magical. You get here because you are south of the capital on the RN7 – perhaps on your way to see lemurs at Andringitra National Park. Before you get there, pop in and see these habituated ring-tailed lemurs. You are going to see big ones, small ones, baby ones. Playing, fighting, eating, dozing, in the trees, on the ground – up close and personal. It is very cool and, because the short hike offers panoramic views of the stripped hillsides, it makes you rather wistful for what must have been.
Ring-tailed Lemurs in Aja Community Reserve. Credit: March Turnbull
Human pressure is hardly new for Madagsacar’s wildlife. Since the arrival of people about 2,000 years ago, dozens of species have gone extinct, including at least 15 species of lemur bigger than the indri, the largest of today’s survivors. One was as large as a gorilla.
But enough doom and gloom. In a country infamous for its chaotic political order, there is a functioning wildlife authority, presiding over some very special national parks. The flora and fauna is outstanding even though you have to work hard for it.
In fact, I think we must talk about another more conventional Madagascan park next week. The best things often come in small packages.
Did you know that Africa has 7 species of baobab – and 6 of them are endemic to Madagascar? Credit: March Turnbull
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