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The Wilds of Madagascar

June 7, 2000
Forest of Hope

Without the forest, there will be no more water,
without water, there will be no more rice.
—Malagasy proverb

Two days ago, while the rest of the team left the forest to attend the National Day of the Environment in nearby Andapa, I stayed behind at Camp Two. After five days lost to a blazing foot infection, and two more days of delicate hobbling around, I needed a final day to do at least some cursory exploring of this extraordinary forest.

The view from above Camp 2 The view from just below the razorback ridge, high above Camp Two at Marojejy.
My guide Desiré Rabary, a tough-looking young porter named Bevo Rajaonina, and I left camp around eight in the morning. It was strange after a week of frenzied activity at Camp Two, with Malagasy and Westerners up early to work and singing late into the night, to find the camp silent and empty. It was just the three of us plus Nestor Randrianasy, the cook, who as usual had water on the boil at dawn.

Our destination was a narrow opening on a razorback ridge high above Camp Two. It was called Mandrivotra ("nice wind"). It would be a long, steep climb up a slippery trail, but it afforded one of the few views out over the forests of Marojejy. On Monday it had rained all day, making a miserable, leech-rich hike out for the team. But Tuesday felt drier, and by the time we reached Mandrivotra after a strenuous 90-minute slog, the sun was scooting in and out of fleecy clouds.

The view was magnificent. On both sides of the steeply pitched ridge, mountains feathered in pure, primary rain forest stepped back as far as the eye could see. All save in the direction of the road from which we'd trekked in, that is. There, off in the blue distance, I could just make out bare slopes where local Malagasy had cleared hillsides to plant rice.

Forest edge The edge of Marojejy National Park, where primary forest meets secondary forest and farm fields, is clearly defined.

As vast as Marojejy is, about 150,000 acres, it's but an islet in a sea of degradation. Driven by expanding numbers in need of more land, the people of Madagascar have slowly slashed and burned the island's rain forests for rice fields. It's what their ancestors have done for millennia, but now the forests are vanishing at an alarming rate. In the second half of the 20th century alone, half of Madagascar's remaining forests disappeared.

What rural Malagasy need is alternatives to shifting agriculture, and one of the most promising is ecotourism. Now that Marojejy is a national park, half of all visitor entrance fees will go to local villages (the other half goes to the national parks authority). People like Desiré Rabary and Nestor Randrianasy can make good money guiding and cooking and providing other services for visitors. But even a successful national park like Ranomafana, a rainforest park in the southeast, gets only about 10,000 visitors a year, and there will always be only so much work to go around. The challenge in such situations - and it's a monstrous one - is to find ways to ensure that as broad a swath of the local population benefits from the park as possible.

After a lunch of rice and beans, forked down while rain fell in great sheets just beyond the edge of the cook tent's overhanging tarp, we headed down out of the park. Along the way, we encountered more of the park's natural wonders: a paradise flycatcher with its impossibly long tail feathers; two troops of eastern gray bamboo lemurs eyeing us silently before crashing off through the trees; a black, squiggly fungus aptly called "dead man's finger"; innumerable tiny waterfalls spilling out of the heights.

Bevo Rajaonina Bevo Rajaonina, a brawny young porter, makes his way through the pastiche of rice fields, small hamlets, and secondary forest just outside Marojejy National Park.
At the park's demarcation line, we suddenly exited primary rain forest into a pastiche of rice fields, hut clusters, burned hillsides, and secondary forest. The contrast was extreme: One moment, dense, dark forest with trees shooting 80 or 100 feet up. The next, open landscape with the sun burning down on our heads. Though they bear their own beauty, such forest-unfriendly human environments are what await Madagascar's remaining unprotected forests. As one long-time researcher on the island put it once to me, "After about the next 20 years, what is left outside of reserves probably won't be worth saving."

Rabary understands this implicitly. He was telling anyone who would listen - including Pat Wright, who did listen—about the urgent need to protect a corridor of rain forest that stretches from Marojejy to Masoala. Formed in 1997, Masoala is another national park that protects the largest remaining stand of primary rain forest on the island. Unless this corridor gains protection, he fears it will be gone within just three years.

Such conservation-mindedness is sorely needed in Madagascar—along with continued and increased conservation and development funding from the West. One can only hope that protected areas like the Ankarana Reserve and the new Marojejy National Park, along with the benefits that can accrue from them, foster such thinking on a broader scale than currently exists. Hope springs eternal, especially with people like Desiré Rabary around.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

Forest of Hope (June 7, 2000)
A Great Day for Silkies (June 4, 2000)
Camp Life Unveiled (June 3, 2000)
Three Hours with the Silkies (June 1, 2000)
Angels of Marojejy (May 31, 2000)
Wildlife (May 30, 2000)
Into the Marojejy Massif (May 28, 2000)
Croc Cave (May 26, 2000)
Fossa! (May 25, 2000)
Bat Cave (May 24, 2000)
Update: English Camp (May 23, 2000)
Update: Sunken Forest (May 21, 2000)
Update: Night Walk (May 20, 2000)
Update: 70 Feet Up (May 19, 2000)
Update: Tropical Downpour (May 18, 2000)

Photos: Peter Tyson.

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