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Mad about Madagascar: mesmerized by a mini-continent. (Going Green).

Along the road in rural Madagascar, giant baobab baobab (bä`ōbăb', bā`ō–), gigantic tree of India and Africa, exceeded in trunk diameter only by the sequoia. The trunks of living baobabs are hollowed out for dwellings; rope and cloth are made from the bark and condiments  trees sit like vegetable elephants and malnourished mal·nour·ished
Affected by improper nutrition or an insufficient diet.
 children dance in hopes that travelers will toss them money. Our van, lurching over the rutted Malagasy National Highway, had long passed the last wooden shanty shanty, in music: see chantey.  when the front tire fell off and rolled away. Some of the passengers found this unsettling un·set·tle  
v. un·set·tled, un·set·tling, un·set·tles
1. To displace from a settled condition; disrupt.

2. To make uneasy; disturb.

, but others agreed it was only an average debacle, climbing out of the van to mill around termite mounds.

As if driving in "bush taxis" wasn't enough of a challenge on this Texas-sized, east African island, an electoral controversy early this year pretty much stopped travel completely. Flights rarely took off, roadblocks severed connections and fuel supplies slowed to a trickle. For a few confusing months, the country had two governments as Marc Ravalomanana, who claimed victory in the December election, jostled for power with corrupt despot Didier Ratsirika.

By August, Ratsirika had fled, the U.S. recognized the new government, and Madagascar again seemed safe for travel. A speedy recovery for the tourism industry will be crucial since Madagascar relies on its status as one of the world's most stunning ecotourism e·co·tour·ism  
Tourism involving travel to areas of natural or ecological interest, typically under the guidance of a naturalist, for the purpose of observing wildlife and learning about the environment.
 destinations to steady its teetering economy.

Unique Wildlife

Travelers accept Madagascar's discomforts because the country houses some of Earth's most unique wildlife. In the Spiny spiny

sharp spines protrude.

spiny amaranth

spiny anteater
see echidna.

spiny clotburr

spiny emex
see emex australis.
 Desert, the green tentacle-like branches of "octopus trees" soar 30 feet in the air, while in the mountains, a small insect called the giraffe-necked weevil weevil, common name for certain beetles of the snout beetle family (Curculionidae), small, usually dull-colored, hard-bodied insects. The mouthparts of snout beetles are modified into down-curved snouts, or beaks, adapted for boring into plants; the jaws are at the  has a neck like a cherry picker. But perhaps the strangest creature of all is the Aye Aye, which seems like a fusion of monkey, bat and woodpecker woodpecker, common name for members of the Picidae, a large family of climbing birds found in most parts of the world. Woodpeckers typically have sharp, chisellike bills for pecking holes in tree trunks, and long, barbed, extensible tongues with which they impale . Over 80 percent of species in Madagascar are found nowhere else, making the country, in the eyes of biologists, less an island than a mini-continent.

Madagascar became an island 150 to 165 million years ago, allowing new species to evolve widely. When humans first drifted to the island from Africa and Indonesia beginning about 1000 B.C., it was as if they followed the wake of a second Noah's Ark. They found lemurs the size of gorillas, hippos no bigger than pigs and enormous elephant birds. These animals disappeared long ago, and by the 21st century, 90 percent of the island's original forests had been destroyed. Yet environmental groups still list Madagascar among the world's top eight megadiversity nations--places given the highest priority for conservation. With more than 50 protected areas housing one-of-a-kind wildlife, the country has bet on tourism for environmental salvation.

The president of Conservation International, Russell Mittermeier, says it's a good wager. "Madagascar could become one of the world's premier ecotourism destinations over the next decade," he says. The new government has begun marketing ecotourism and rebuilding roads, but Roger Rakotomalala, owner of U.S.-Malagasy tour company Lemur 2000, asks customers to sign waivers before traveling to remote places like the famed Ranomafana National Park Ranomafana National Park is located in the southeastern part of Madagascar. It was established in 1991 with the purpose of conserving the unique biodiversity of the local ecosystem and reducing the human pressures on the protected area.  because he can't guarantee how soon they'll get there. The country needs to improve roads and hotels, he says, "But if the locals have a better life, I think it will open up immediately."

Spending Green

For travelers who can handle fluid plans and exposure to abject poverty, Madagascar offers the chance to spend tourist dollars where they will count. Foreigners can also volunteer with Earthwatch to help track lemurs or radio-collar Madagascar's lynx-like fossa fossa /fos·sa/ (fos´ah) pl. fos´sae   [L.] a trench or channel; in anatomy, a hollow or depressed area.

acetabular fossa  a nonarticular area in the floor of the acetabulum.

Flights to Madagascar start at about $1,500, and for a few thousand more, reputable outfits like Lemur 2000, Cortez Travel or Manaca offer all-inclusive packages with some green accommodation options. The tours are well suited to people who don't speak French, and lack the time or temerity te·mer·i·ty  
Foolhardy disregard of danger; recklessness.

[Middle English temerite, from Old French, from Latin temerit
 to negotiate a unique culture.

Typical rooms in Madagascar with common baths and no air conditioning can be had in exchange for the largest bill in the Malagasy currency, worth $5. First-class hotels are mostly confined to larger cities and touristy Nosy nos·y or nos·ey  
adj. nos·i·er, nos·i·est Informal
1. Given to prying into the affairs of others; snoopy. See Synonyms at curious.

2. Prying; inquisitive.
 Be in the north. Most food is French, and $5 secures fine multi-course tributes to Parisian sidewalk cafe fare.

Visitors who linger in Madagascar often come to view even ominous setbacks with a Malagasy nonchalance. When our van lost its wheel, some of the passengers photographed a snake. The driver meanwhile reattached the tire, and we trundled down the road, gingerly avoiding tortoises. CONTACT: Cortez Travel, (800)854-1029, www.cortez-usa. com, Earthwatch, (800)776-0188, www.; Lemur 2000, (415)6958880,; Manaca, (866) 362-6222,

JOSH HARKINSON, a former E intern, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Earth Action Network, Inc.
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Author:Harkinson, Josh
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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