How do you see tourism helping conservation in Madagascar?
Despite being a relatively unknown destination, tourism is a hugely valuable part of Madagascar’s economy. Not only does it provide jobs and bring in foreign money, much of which goes towards conservation projects, but promoting ecotourism as an attractive income source gives the Malagasy a significant incentive to protect their own environment. It is critical that the will comes from within if the effects are to be sustainable; imposing solutions from outside is only ever a temporary sticking plaster. Ecotourism is one such sustainable sector of the Malagasy economy, just so long as the flora and fauna remains.
What do you consider the main threats to its fauna and flora to be?
The key problem is habitat loss, in one way or another. A large proportion of Madagascar’s natural forest has been destroyed since man first colonised the island just a couple of millennia ago, and it continues to dwindle for many reasons. The rapidly growing population often has little choice but to cut trees for firewood and convert land for agriculture. The loss of forest cover leads to soil degradation and erosion, which in turn silts up rivers, which ultimately can even devastate coral reefs. Vast swathes of the already-degraded parts of Madagascar go up in flames each year, as illegal bushfires are deliberately set in an attempt to scrape a little more nourishment from a virtually barren landscape.
But the solution is not straightforward. In recent years, there has been a welcome shift in the conservation movement, from simply setting aside portions of natural habitat to a recognition that protection of the environment is not possible without working with communities to establish new sustainable livelihoods, adopt more efficient agricultural methods and implement family planning measures to curb population growth.
What are your favourite places to visit there?
This is a question I am asked a lot, and it is a tough one to answer because there are so many contenders, each with their own very good reasons. For richness of wildlife, the rainforests are unbeatable, and perhaps my favourite spot of all is the small uninhabited island of Nosy Mangabe in the northeast. Not only does the rainforest there have diverse and plentiful wildlife, with a network of relatively easy trails from which wildlife viewing is effortless, but there is a picturesque sandy beach on an idyllic bay where turtles, dolphins and whales may be seen. On the nearby mainland is Madagascar’s largest and most impressive tract of rainforest, which includes Masoala and Marojejy national parks.
No visit to Madagascar would be complete if you were to visit only rainforest sites, though. The western dry forests host a whole different set of remarkable flora and fauna, and in the deep south is a unique habitat variously known as spiny bush, spiny forest or spiny desert. It’s an arid environment with some of the most curious botanical wonders you could ever encounter. A particular gem is the little-known Tsimanampetsotsa National Park. Here, some of the most striking spiny forest vegetation in Madagascar surrounds a salt lake, which is an important wetland habitat for flamingos and other birds. There are bizarre stunted baobab trees, pachypodium ‘bottle’ trees, caves with blind fish, bat roosts, and some very cheeky mongooses of a species that is locally endemic.
Any advice for keen photographers wanting to go there?
It all depends on the kind of photography you are into, but one of the biggest challenges for photographers in Madagascar is coping with extremes of light. Out in the open, in the middle of the day, the sun can be extremely intense, casting very harsh shadows. On the other hand, if your main interest is wildlife then you are likely to spend a lot of time in the rainforest, where light levels are typically lower than you’d think. Night walks are very rewarding in most Malagasy forests, but of course involve even more difficult light conditions for the photographer.
My best advice is to practice before you go. Take your camera to shaded places and test it to see how far you can push the ISO settings and shutter speed while still obtaining a decent image. Performance in low light is one area where expensive cameras often perform considerably better than simpler models. If you decide to use flashes, then those that are not mounted on the camera will produce far better results in most circumstances.
Also give some thought to how much gear it is practical to carry over potentially difficult terrain, while keeping your hands free to take photos. Most photographers find that a tripod is more trouble than its worth, for example, especially if you are in a group with some non-photographers who won’t want to be continually held up.
And don’t forget the frequent showers that give the rainforest its name – you’ll need to make sure you can protect your equipment from this, as well as from seawater and sand if you are on the coast. All things considered, for reasons of portability and protecting your camera from a hostile environment, you may decide good zoom lenses are preferable to carrying a host of primes.
You founded the Madagascar Library and travel to Madagascar as often as you can, but you have also been to other interesting countries, so why the steadfast dedication to Madagascar?
It’s true, Madagascar is very much in my blood now. I guess I differ from most tour leaders and travel writers in that, if circumstances were to make it impossible for them to write about or lead tours to their preferred country, then they would look for an alternative destination to cover. The difference, I think, is that these colleagues are travel writers and tour leaders first and foremost; on the other hand, I am Madagascar specialist first, and a tour leader and travel writer second. That’s to say, if I couldn’t continue writing books on or taking tours to Madagascar, then I would look for some other way to be involved with the country.
It’s a beautiful and incredible island, and there are still plenty of places I haven’t been and things I haven’t seen. I think it will be a good while yet before I begin to tire of Madagascar, and until such time I look forward to going on sharing my passion with others.