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Last chance to see the aye-aye?
By Mark Carwardine
Wildlife writer, photographer and presenter

Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)
Will the aye-aye survive the deforestation of Madagascar?

One of the many repercussions of Madagascar's coup, which took place in March 2009, has been a dramatic rise in criminal networks plundering the country's protected areas for precious hardwoods and wildlife.

I was filming in Madagascar, with Stephen Fry, just a few months before it happened.

We were on the third of six shoots for the BBC2 series Last Chance to See, for which we travelled around the world in search of a motley collection of endangered animals.

The idea was to retrace the steps I'd taken in the 1980s with Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and our mission in Madagascar was to look for a remarkable nocturnal lemur called the aye-aye.

It is the kind of weird and wonderful animal that a humorous science fiction writer might dream up on a really good day
Mark Carwardine

I've been to Madagascar several times since my first visit with Douglas, which was way back in 1985.

While it is among the poorest countries in the world, it has always struck me as a happy place. Call me a gullible westerner, but the Malagasy are certainly some of the friendliest people I have encountered anywhere.

But the recent breakdown in law and order, and the unwise withdrawal of foreign aid agencies, has wiped the smile from many faces.

From a wildlife point of view, in particular, it has resulted in huge numbers of lemurs, including several endangered species, being captured for the pet trade or butchered for sale to restaurants.

There's a huge amount at stake, because Madagascar is crucially important from a wildlife point of view.

When it decided to slip away from the ancient megacontinent of Gondwana, millions of years ago, it made a good tactical move.

The new island, roughly the size of France and escorted by a flotilla of isles and islets, travelled several hundred kilometres east before settling off the coast of southern Africa.

The wildlife castaways that went with it had the fourth-largest island all to themselves and evolved into some of the weirdest and most wonderful creatures imaginable.

And this is the point: virtually everything that lives there doesn't exist anywhere else.

Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry with brown lemurs
Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry entertain two brown lemurs within Andasibe National Park, near Mitsinjo.

Visiting this chip off the old Gondwana block is rather like landing on another planet.

The plants and animals are vaguely familiar, they resemble monkeys, hedgehogs and civets, for example, yet they are actually lemurs, tenrecs and fanalokas.

And, indeed, there is no better example of this uniqueness than the aye-aye itself.

It is the kind of weird and wonderful animal that a humorous science fiction writer might dream up on a really good day.

Stephen Fry described it as looking "as if someone has tried to turn a bat into a cat… and then stuck a few extra gadgets on it for good measure".

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But the good times came to an abrupt end when people showed up from distant nations skirting the Indian Ocean.

Elephant birds, false aardvarks, dwarf hippos, giant lemurs and many other Malagasy specialities quickly became extinct.

Nowadays, they live on only in scientists' notebooks, museums and Malagasy legend.

Madagascar is still stuffed full of wildlife goodies, but the destruction continues and what's left is disappearing fast.

In the two and a half decades since Douglas and I arrived to look for aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis), the country's human population has doubled from roughly 10 million to more than 20 million, and that means more and more pressure on its natural resources.

In particular, the forest that once clothed this mini continent like a protective coat has virtually gone.

Madagascar was already one of the world's highest conservation priorities.

But the recent troubles will impoverish it still further.

Without urgent action, it faces an ecological disaster that could wipe out some of the most wonderful animals and plants on earth.

Find out whether Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry found their aye-aye by watching episode three of Last Chance to See broadcast on BBC Two at 2000 BST, on 20 September 2009.



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