With its extraordinary, yet highly threatened biodiversity, the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar is a global conservation priority. The country encompasses habitats ranging from tropical rainforests to deciduous dry forests, spiny deserts, reefs, islands, sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and estuaries. These ecosystems places a stunning array of wildlife species, many of which are found nowhere else. Unfortunately, poverty and unsustainable resource use are leading to large-scale forest clearing, which in turn leads to the depletion of Madagascar’s biodiversity capital; only a small fraction of the original forest remains, and many charismatic species have become extinct, including the magnificent elephant bird. Until recently, the Malagasy rural population, one of the poorest in the world, had limited land tenure rights, little access to information and minimal support for alternative livelihoods, which has had devastating consequences for both the country’s natural environment and its standard of living.
Once part of the larger Gondwanalad, the island of Madagascar separated from mainland Africa between 100 and 200 million years ago, creating a time capsule of life in the process. Today the island provides sanctuary for plants and animals that have long since disappeared from other parts of the world and continued to evolve uniquely. Four out of five species of plants and animals found there are unique, or endemic, to Madagascar. Among the best-known species are the lemurs, a primitive group of primates.
- Lemurs, with fox-like faces and opposable thumbs, evolved some 50 to 60 million years ago and were once widespread around the globe. Small numbers of lemurs arrived on the island of Madagascar soon after that, possibly by rafting across the ocean on floating vegetation. Lemurs prospered and evolved to present-day species on Madagascar and its satellite islands. Elsewhere in the world, lemurs were supplanted by the later evolution of more advanced primates – the monkeys.
- There are 93 lemur species in Madagascar currently identified, including the red-ruffed lemur, black-and-white ruffed lemur, indri (the largest), mouse lemurs (the smallest), and silky sifaka (known for its rattling calls to warn of aerial predators).
- Madagascar provides habitat for 283 bird species (more than 100 are endemic), 12,000 vascular plant species (of which more than 90 percent are endemic), more than 300 amphibian species (about 99 percent of which are endemic), 346 reptiles species (of which 90 percent are endemic), and 30 bat species (18 are endemic).
- Fishes found in the Malagasy region’s crater lakes are considered “living fossils” because they belong to the most primitive of catfish, herrings, cichlids, killies, silversides, and their allied species.
- More than half of Madagascar’s floral biodiversity can be found in the Greater Makira/Masoala/Antongil Bay (MaMaBay) landscape, in the northeastern region of the country. Masoala National Park harbors the critically endangered Madagascar serpent eagle, which was until fairly recently believed to be extinct. The forests of MaMabay also abound with chameleons and geckos, as well as several species of butterflies and fish that have only recently been discovered.
The majority of Madagascar’s terrestrial biodiversity is found in its low altitude forests, the same forests that support the livelihoods for a large percentage of the country's population. Forests provide wood, non-timber forest products, and water for the rice-growing rural population, yet only around 15 percent of the land surface remains forested, largely as a result of expanding slash-and-burn agriculture, grazing, and uncontrolled wildfires. Illicit logging of precious hardwoods, mining, and the hunting of lemurs, bats, birds, and the island's main predator the fossa, also pose serious threats to the ecological integrity of this important landscape. Collection of species for the illegal pet trade has also had a major impact on populations, of tortoises and chameleons in particular. The survival of Madagascar’s numerous endemic freshwater fishes is compromised by environmental degradation, overexploitation, and invasive exotic species.
WCS works throughout Madagascar to ensure the conservation of the island's unique floral and faunal diversity. A key focus of WCS’s work is the MaMaBay landscape that includes more than 10 percent of the country’s remaining rainforests, as well as the largest calving and breeding ground for humpback whales in the Indian Ocean. WCS helps train park managers and educate local communities about protecting forests and marine ecosystems. In the wildlife-rich Makira forest, WCS has pioneered a program to sell the forest’s carbon credits, on behalf of the government of Madagascar, to help raise funds to protect the forest, support the economic wellbeing of local communities, and help fight global climate change. In the Spiny Desert of southern Madagascar, WCS is working in key areas to conserve the radiated tortoise and its habitat. WCS has also participated in a program launched in 1993 to collect live specimens of five threatened endemic fish, with the goal of establishing secure managed populations as insurance against their global extinction.
The Conservation Cotton Initiative (CCI) promotes the development of
organic, eco-friendly cotton farming around high biodiversity areas.
The program helps to enhance incomes and economic development, improve
resource management, and protect wildlife.
In collaboration with the government of Madagascar, WCS’s Makira REDD+ Project will help finance the long-term conservation of one of Madagascar’s most pristine remaining rainforests, home to rare and threatened biodiversity. It will also help enhance the economic wellbeing of neighboring communities.
At Madagascar!, zoogoers see the island nation through the eyes of a conservationist. The Bronx Zoo strives to inspire a connection to Madagascar’s imperiled wild creatures while there is still time to save them.
From the Newsroom
WCS is proud to partner with the government of Madagascar on an innovative project to help preserve Makira Natural Park.
A study by WCS and partners presents a novel approach for establishing new large-scale protected areas in Madagascar’s waters.
To be precise, 5,707 romantics named a Madagascar hissing cockroach on behalf of their loved ones for Valentine's Day, raising a collective $57,070 to save wildlife and wild places around the world.
Rampant poaching and a growing pet trade direct Madagascar's beautiful radiated tortoises toward extinction.
WCS applauds the inclusion of forestry provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which paves the way to comprehensive climate change policy.