Charting Change in Madagascar

-NY Times article from September 26, 2014

“A Glance at Madagascar.”

That was the title of the pamphlet that Hilary Bradt, a British guidebook publisher and tour operator, wrote about the island nation in 1984. And what an ambitious task she took on: to glance at a country that split from mainland Africa, then India, tens of millions of years ago and evolved in relative isolation. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 92 percent of its mammals exist nowhere else on Earth.

In the decades since, Ms. Bradt has traveled extensively to Madagascar, so you could call the Bradt Travel Guides’ 11th edition book about the country, published this month, more a deep examination than a glance. Recently Ms. Bradt took time to talk about Madagascar and how it has changed. Following are edited excerpts.

Q. What fascinated you about Madagascar on your first trip, in 1976?

A. Just the otherness of it. I was living in Cape Town at the time, and we had spent already six months traveling in southern and East Africa. And here the people looked completely different, the landscape and wildlife totally different. I loved the way the wildlife is small. Because it’s been separate from Africa for so long, none of the big animals made it over here. Mammals had only just started evolving, so no big cats, nothing fierce and frightening. You could walk anywhere, whereas in most game parks in Africa you had to keep in your vehicle. You could pick anything up — not that wildlife is for picking up, but it’s approachable.

Like what, for example?

There are no venomous snakes. And the chameleons are utterly wonderful. Of course, the big attraction for most tourists is lemurs. You’re not supposed to touch them, but they sometimes touch you, and they’re very gentle.

What has changed in the years since?

A lot. Deforestation gets a lot of publicity, quite rightly. I remember taking a train from the capital to the coast and almost being able to pick the flowers from the window — the rain forest was towering over the railway. Now it’s almost all cleared, almost all savanna, and that’s bad news, not least of all because it’s the lemurs’ habitat.

It’s a two-pronged cause, deforestation. First, poverty, forest clearance to grow food. When I first started going, the population was 11 million, and now it’s doubled. Second, illegal logging. During the political coup in 2009, loggers came after the very valuable rosewood, and that coincided with the rise in Chinese wealth where Madagascar rosewood became very sought after. It’s difficult to know what can be done about that because there’s a lot of corruption. The slash-and-burn clearing is probably more damaging, but when it’s because of poverty it’s harder to feel outraged about it than when it’s because of greed.

Has the growth in tourism affected the land?

It’s actually had a positive effect because it’s tourists who have been the spearhead for creating any new reserves. Any national park will immediately start making money because you pay a high entry charge, and the local communities benefit, in schools or guiding work or small hotels. It’s still a very poor country, but there is a far bigger middle class now, and I think it’s largely because of tourism. And animals are better protected. When I first went, you would see people hunting lemurs, and now they know there’s more value in a live lemur.

What’s your favorite reserve?

A nice example of how tourism really can help is Anja Community Reserve, in the south. The local community knew there were ring-toed lemurs in these mountains, and thought, right, why don’t we make our own little reserve and make some money showing them to tourists? And they do it very well. It’s lovely knowing all of the money is going directly to the local community.

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