Madagascar is a delight for the nature lover—from the smallest endemic snail (there are over 650 species) to the lush plant life, rare avian species and spectacular beaches and scenery. You simply won’t find more unique biodiversity anywhere else on earth.
The entire island has a feel of magic and mystery. Locals believe the waterfalls, caves and animals have supernatural properties. It’s not hard to imagine the now-extinct elephant bird—the world’s largest known bird—stomping around in the thick jungle. Indeed, many of the plant and animal species still living today seem right out of a fairytale. Glance out to the open ocean and imagine the pirates that once frequented Madagascar, or explore one of the many shipwrecks that litter the coastline.
Among the otherworldly flora you’ll encounter on your Madagascar tour are the twisted “octopus” trees, over 60 varieties of carnivorous pitcher plant, and the unforgettable baobab tree. Of the islands 10,000 vascular plant species, 80% are endemic. The lovable lemurs will certainly be among your favorite fauna—especially the indri lemur, which sounds like a police siren, or the sifaka lemur that dances like a ballerina. You’ll also want to photograph the flying fox, aye-aye, tenrec and narrow striped mongoose for some truly unique pictures to hang on your wall back home.
Spectacular marine life also awaits your discovery. Dive pristine coral reefs to spot clownfish, butterflies, lions, unicorns, napoleons or surgeons. Look for the coelacanth, an ancient fish species once thought to be extinct. If you’re looking for bigger fish, you won’t be disappointed by the massive whale sharks found in these waters.
Although Madagascar is just 250 miles away from Africa, 80% of the flora and fauna are endemic to the island. Interestingly, the people of Madagascar are not African either—most have their origins in Indonesia. Locals will warmly welcome you in Madagascar’s settlements. Towns like Antsirabe will charm you with colonial architecture, colorful market stalls and the rickshaw-like pousse-pousses.
A Madagascar cruise is the perfect way to experience the fourth largest island in the world—and all the natural and cultural wonders within.
Around the time that dinosaurs were roaming the Earth, Madagascar split from the African continent. About 88 million years ago, it split from India. Since then, it has existed in isolation in the Indian Ocean and is remarkably different from either of its former neighbors. More than 80% of Madagascar’s flora and fauna—found dispersed among the island’s incredibly diverse ecosystems—are found nowhere else on earth. The country is what scientists call a “biological hotspot.”
The first settlers arrived about 2000 years ago from Indonesia, making their way to the world’s fourth largest island in outrigger canoes along trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Even today, the Malagasy people who inhabit Madagascar are more closely related to Indonesians than to Africans. From its early days of settlement and for centuries after, Madagascar was an important trading hub in the Indian Ocean.
The first written history of Madagascar was provided by Arabs who established trading posts in the region in the 7th century. The Arabs introduced Islam, Arabic script, astrology and other cultural elements to the islanders. Madagascar is mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo, but Portuguese sailor Diogo Dias is the first European credited with making land there in 1500. During the 17th century, the British, French and Portuguese all made attempts to colonize Madagascar. All were unsuccessful.
By the late 17th century, Madagascar was frequented by pirates attracted by the wealth of the ships passing through. Some historians speculate that Madagascar’s island of Nosy Boroha is the location of the legendary pirate community of Libertalia.
The wealth brought to Madagascar through trade lead to the formation of organized kingdoms. These kingdoms grew to considerable power by the 1600’s and lasted until 1896, when the French annexed the island after more than a decade of hostilities. Slavery was abolished the same year.
The Malagasy people resented the French, who attempted to suppress their language and culture. Nationalist movements began in the 1920s. In 1947 the French suppressed a revolt by killing 80,000 people and exiling the rebel leaders. Madagascar eventually gained full independence in 1960.
Since gaining independence, Madagascar has undergone four major political periods—the post-colonial First Republic under President Philibert Tsiranana, the Soviet-style socialist republic under Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, and a democratic Third Republic governed by popularly elected presidents. The Fourth Republic is currently being administered by an un-elected government that seized power after an uprising in 2009. In 2011, representatives from most of Madagascar's major political parties signed a "Roadmap for Ending the Crisis in Madagascar," in an effort to end current political struggles and implement democratic elections once again.
Madagascar’s people sustain themselves much like they did during colonial times—with agriculture. Over 80% of the country’s labor force is dedicated to agricultural activities. Rice, cassava, beans, bananas, corn, sweet potatoes and taro are prime food crops. Main export crops include coffee, cloves, sugarcane and tobacco. Additionally, almost the entire supply of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar.
Madagascar remains on the world’s environmental stage, as the country’s flora and fauna are in desperate need of preservation. Since humans first arrived on the island, they have been exploiting the natural resources—including deforesting the landscape for farming, a practice which continues to this day and has resulted in the loss of 90% of the country’s original forests. Current efforts to preserve this incredible biosphere include the formation of national parks and the designation of certain areas as World Heritage Sites.
Photos: © Diego Suarez, Jonathan Rossouw, Paulina Grove, Giovanna Fasanelli