13 février 2010 6 13 /02 /février /2010 10:42

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
January 27, 2010
Madagascar is renowned for its biological richness. Located off the eastern coast of southern Africa and slightly larger than California, the island has an eclectic collection of plants and animals, more than 80 percent of which are found nowhere else in the world.

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 whose haunting song resembles that of the humpback whale; the sifaka, a lemur that “swears” rudely but moves across open ground like a ballet dancer; brilliantly colored chameleons and day geckos; and cryptic leaf-tailed geckos, which are nearly impossible to distinguish from bark or moss. 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 Hodgkin's disease; and an entire desert ecosystem consisting of just spiny plants, none of which are cacti. Accordingly, scientists have made the island—dubbed the Eighth Continent—a top conservation priority.

Loss of lemurs can have ecological effects in forests. According to Patricia Wright, lemurs appear to be the most important seed dispersers in Madagascar. Worryingly, Wright says that the "tastiest" lemur—as revealed by surveys of more than 2,000 individuals in local villages—is also one of the most important dispersers: the black-and-white-ruffed lemur.

Indri lemur and Coquerel's sifakas in Madagascar. Photos by Rhett A. Butler

But Madagascar's biological bounty has been under siege for nearly a year in the aftermath of a political crisis which saw its president chased into exile at gunpoint; a collapse in its civil service, including its park management system; and evaporation of donor funds which provide half the government's annual budget. In the absence of governance, organized gangs ransacked the island's biological treasures, including precious hardwoods and endangered lemurs from protected rainforests, and frightened away tourists, who provide a critical economic incentive for conservation. Now, as the coup leaders take an increasingly active role in the plunder as a means to finance an upcoming election they hope will legitimize their power grab, the question becomes whether Madagascar’s once highly regarded conservation system can be restored and maintained.

Madagascar has been separated from mainland Africa for 160 million years and isolated from other land masses for at least 80 million. The result is an unusual mix of flora and fauna, most of which either predated separation or rafted to the island. These animals radiated to fill Madagascar’s many niches—ranging from dry deserts to mountain moorlands to tropical lowland rainforests—that result from its diverse topography and climate.

Humans were late arrivals to Madagascar, journeying across the Indian Ocean from what is now Indonesia (not Africa, despite its proximity) sometime in the past 2,000 years, making it one of the last major land masses to be colonized by man. Mankind has had profound impacts on the island's flora and fauna. Humans hunted the largest species—including giant ground lemurs, hippos, and massive elephant birds—to extinction and drove landscape changes through persistent burning and the introduction of non-native species. Forests that once blanketed the eastern third of the island are today fragmented, degraded, and greatly reduced, while endemic spiny forests have been diminished by subsistence agriculture, cattle grazing, and charcoal production. The central highlands have mostly been cleared for pasture, rice paddies, and eucalyptus and pine plantations.

Environmental degradation in Madagascar is so extensive that it is now even visible from space. Astronauts have remarked that the red color of Madagascar's rivers suggest the country is bleeding to death. In a sense, it is. The rivers are hemorrhaging topsoil. Poor as it may be, soil is the basis of agriculture and as one of the poorest nations on Earth, the people of Madagascar can ill afford this loss. Each year as much as a third of the country burns, primarily the result of fires set by farmers and cattle herders clearing land for subsistence agriculture or promoting the growth of new vegetation for animal fodder. Meanwhile industrial miners from developed countries are tearing away at some of Madagascar's last remaining forest tracts for ore and mineral deposits.

Rosewood logging in Masoala National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; burning near Andringitra National Park; and mining near Mantadia National Park. Photos by Rhett A. Butler

Verreaux's sifaka in southern Madagascar

Chameleon in northern Madagascar. Photos by Rhett A. Butler

Continue: http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0127-madagascar.html

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