Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Begin at the beginning...

...and go on until you reach the end; then stop.”
So says the King in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and so shall I attempt to do in the months to come. There will be many times when it may appear that I cannot go on, many times when I cannot post updates due to the remoteness of our location and the challenges of communication, but such is the nature of the developing world. I will write all the time and post whenever the opportunity arises, and I will stop only come December 15 when I reach the end of my time on Malagasy soil.
And so, like the King, I choose to begin at the beginning, though in the case of Madagascar, this means I must take you back—a long, long time back—far before humans, or even most present-day life forms, existed...
Around 175 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangaea—in which all of the Earth’s landmasses were grouped together—began to break apart, forming two magnificent supercontinents, Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south, which was comprised of the continents of South America, Antarctica, Africa, and Australia, in addition to present-day India and New Zealand. The land that would one day give rise to Madagascar was bound in the center of this haphazard Gondwanan conglomeration, at the time nameless and indistinct.
During the mid-Jurassic period, around 167 million years ago, rifting in the Gondwanan landmass led to the separation of East Gondwana—Antarctica, Australia, India, and, yes, Madagascar—from Africa, and around 120 million years ago, India and Madagascar broke off together to form their own mini-subcontinent. Between 90 and 80 million years ago, the two land masses rifted, and India launched forth on a northern migration that would lead to its collision with the Laurasian landmass and the subsequent development of the Himalayas. But that is another story for another day.
For the past 80 million years, the island of Madagascar has been floating alone in the Indian Ocean, a self-contained evolutionary laboratory. 80 million years of isolation...Scientists really aren’t joking when they call Madagascar the eighth continent.
 At just under 230,000 square miles, Madagascar is slightly larger than the present-day nation of France, and yet as a result of its longstanding separation from all other landmasses, the island has developed a striking array of endemic species, those rare plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. As the world’s number one hotspot in plant biodiversity and endemicity, Madagascar is home to 13,000 species of flowering plants, of which nearly 90% are endemic. In terms of fauna, Madagascar hosts over 150,000 species of invertebrates, including some 300 species of butterfly (211 of which are endemic to the island). Madagascar is also home to some 365 endemic species of reptile and is famed for its 86 species of lemur, an ancient primate lineage that has long since died out in all other parts of the world.
As if in testament to its diversity, the human population of Madagascar is nearly as varied as its native flora and fauna. First colonized by seafaring southeasten Asian peoples around 2,000 years ago, Madagascar was subsequently populated by Arab and East African traders who crossed the Mozambique Channel and settled on the island’s western shore. In more recent history, both English and French colonialists have maintained footholds on the island since the early 1500s, and in 1896, the French annexed the island to their empire. In 1960, Madagascar was granted the independence—albeit politically unstable independence—that it still entertains today, though the French influence on Malagasy culture is still pronounced. In Antananarivo, the capital city, both French and official Malagasy are spoken widely, though countless Malagasy dialects exist as the inhabitants’only tongues in many of the islands’more remote areas. The people, themselves, are a rainbow mix of ethnicities—some Asian-looking, some Indonesian, some truly African.
But Madagascar is neither Asia nor Africa—it is, truly, a land unto itself.
It is this utter uniqueness that makes Madagascar a priority in environmental conservation efforts for WWF and for other organizations across the world.

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