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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 10:21 GMT
Milestone for 'land of the lemur'
By Adrian Pitches
BBC environment correspondent

Lac Kinkony (BBC)
Lac Kinkony: A "magical experience"
It has been called the eighth continent because of its unique wildlife which has evolved in isolation for 165 million years. But Madagascar's biodiversity - including 50 kinds of lemur - is under acute threat from slash-and-burn agriculture in what is one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The island has already lost at least 80% of its original forest cover, with over half this loss in the last 100 years.

Now, Madagascar has moved to protect its priceless wildlife (three-quarters of the estimated 200,000 plant and animal species are found nowhere else) and has identified the additional forests and wetlands that will more than treble the area of nature reserves from 1.7 million hectares to 6 million ha by 2008.

This will fulfil the pledge made by President Marc Ravalomanana at the World Parks Congress in Durban in September 2003.

A coalition of conservation groups has worked with the Malagasy government to make the Durban Vision a reality and one of the lead partners, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), has confirmed that the future network of protected areas has now been drawn up.

Ecotourist earnings

"We've identified all of the six million hectares of priority areas," said WWF's representative in Madagascar, Jean Paul Paddack.

Marc Rabendrasana (BBC)
The local people now know that they have a special bird living here because you have come to see it
Marc Rabendrasana, Birdlife
He said the plan was to increase Madagascar's total area of national parks to 2.4 million hectares from the present 1.7 million with the remainder of the six million ha made up of marine areas, wetlands, marshes and forest which will be given a formal conservation status.

The government is devolving ownership of public land to local communities so they can manage the forests and wetlands where they live. Slash-and-burn farming, "tavy" in Malagasy, has been banned. But besides the stick, the government is offering an attractive carrot - revenue from ecotourism.

The BBC News website made the first ecotourist visit to one of these soon-to-be protected areas in the remote north-west of Madagascar.

The Mahavavy Delta is a 2,500 sq km complex of lakes, rivers and marshes which is home to five threatened bird species, including the critically endangered Sakalava Rail (Amaurornis olivieri - a bird like the Moorhen) of which there are probably fewer than 200 left.

The largest lake in the region is Lac Kinkony. The people who live on its shores fish the lake with nets thrown from small pirogues (canoes) while the lake margins have been converted to paddy fields.

Rice is the staple diet of the Malagasy who are the world's greatest per capita consumers of rice, eating on average half a kg per day.

Rutland funds

Indeed, land clearance for rice production has removed most of Madagascar's forest. In the wetlands, reedbeds are also cleared for rice cultivation.

Birdlife International has made the Mahavavy Delta its key priority in Madagascar. The UK-based conservation group says that local people are determined to manage their wetlands sustainably, conserving their biodiversity. But they need help, which BirdLife is providing thanks to birdwatchers in Britain.

Sakalava Rail (Marc Rabenandrasana/BirdLife Madagascar Programme)
The Sakalava Rail (Image: Marc Rabenandrasana/BirdLife Madagascar Programme)
The British Birdwatching Fair is the biggest annual gathering of its kind. Almost 20,000 birdwatchers converge on Rutland Water in England's East Midlands for a weekend of events and to buy goods and services relating to their hobby.

The 160,000 proceeds of the 2003 Birdfair went to Birdlife's Saving Madagascar's Fragile Wetlands Appeal and that money is now being spent in Madagascar.

Birdlife staff have conducted fieldwork and started working with communities in the Mahavavy area.

Local support for conservation is very strong, as people are aware that current regulations are being flouted, particularly hunting and over-fishing.

The new ecotourism circuit from the regional capital of Mahajanga will demonstrate to the local people the long-term value of saving their wetlands and raise their profile nationally and internationally.

Canoe journey

The journey to Lac Kinkony from Mahajanga involves a ferry trip across the Betsiboka estuary, then a rough overland trip by bush taxi to the Mahavavy River.

Finally, it is a three-hour trip upriver by pirogue (the river has resident crocodiles) and then a further two hours across Lac Kinkony.

The huge reedbeds on the western shore are home to a dozen species of heron, jacanas, wildfowl - and the Sakalava Rail.

Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) (AP)
The island is famous for its lemurs
Birdwatchers will now flock to this remote corner of a remote island to see the mythical moorhen - and will pay local people to be boatmen, guides and cooks at a lakeside campsite.

It is a magical experience to paddle a pirogue as the sun sets over the lake and the Milky Way appears in the vast Southern Hemisphere sky.

Marc Rabendrasana, of Birdlife, told the BBC News website: "This lake is a special place and the local people now know that they have a special bird living here because you have come to see it."

The Malagasy government now hope that the bold move to treble the network of protected areas will boost the number of ecotourists beyond the 2004 target of 200,000 visitors and bring much-needed hard currency to a very poor country.

Country profile: Madagascar
09 Nov 04 |  Country profiles
Madagascar's fishy problem
25 Jul 03 |  Business
'Cannibal' dinosaur unearthed
02 Apr 03 |  Science/Nature
Smallest primates discovered in Madagascar
14 Nov 00 |  Science/Nature
Mammals 'sailed to Madagascar'
13 Feb 03 |  Africa

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