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Jewels of nature under threat.

Two lemurs sit huddled together against the rain in the upper branches of a Ramy tree, the white-bearded male calling out to other members of their group.

Twenty metres below on the forest floor, a ring-tailed mongoose scampers across a narrow path and a snake slithers into dense bushes where a Calumma chameleon, found nowhere else on earth, clings to a trembling leaf.

The songs of dozens of birds drift across the rainforest, dominated by the cries of a crested drongo, known locally as the king of birds.

Montagne d'Ambre (Amber Mountain) is one of Madagascar's many natural jewels, a lush pocket in the dry north of this vast Indian Ocean island.

Naturalists describe Madagascar as a 'Garden of Eden', a place of astounding beauty which, over a period of 150 million years, evolved a unique array of animal and plant species.

But humans, who arrived about 2,000 years ago, have over the last century destroyed much of that natural wealth.

Slash-and-burn agriculture, mining and an almost insatiable demand for charcoal have seen as much as 80 per cent of Madagascar's original forest chopped and burned down.

Fewer than 14 million hectares (35 million acres) of forest are left and they are being swallowed up at a rate of between 150,000 and 200,000 hectares (370,700-494,200 acres) a year.

Across huge swathes of territory, even in remote areas, one mountain range after another has been stripped of forest for firewood or to make way for terraced rice fields.

It is an environmental disaster repeated in countries across the world but is particularly galling in Madagascar because more than 80 per cent of its tens of thousands of animal and plant species are unique to the island.

'These are found nowhere else. When a species disappears from here, it disappears forever. We lose a body of scientific knowledge that will never be recovered,' said Jean Paul Paddack, the World Wide Fund for Nature's Madagascar representative.

Madagascar, which lies about 250 miles off the east coast of southern Africa, broke off and floated away from the huge continent known as Gondwanaland some 150 million years ago.

Completely isolated from the rest of the world and uninhabited by humans, its unique environment allowed the evolution of strange and wonderful animals like the lemur, an acrobatic primate with a placid temperament and big round eyes that make it look permanently surprised.

Among its unique animals still surviving are 35 species of lemur, dozens of species of vividly-coloured frogs and chameleons and the small but powerful fosa, the lemurs' only predator and pound-for-pound one of the world's most efficient killers.

Many species, however, have already been lost. They include as many as 17 lemur species - some of them as large as gorillas - as well as giant tortoises and the so-called elephant bird which was related to the ostrich and, standing 10 ft tall, weighed up to a tonne.

After decades of unchecked destruction, Madagascar's government decided in the early 1990s to take steps to protect its forests and has won heavy financing from donor nations and environmental groups.

The effort has been successful in protecting many of the more precious, or endangered, ecosystems on the island but the chopping and burning continues elsewhere and ecologists say it often feels as if they are fighting a losing battle.

When sapphires were found in 1996 in Ankarana, a protected area just south of Montagne d'Ambre, tens of thousands of poor Madagascans descended on the area in search of overnight riches and quickly began to clear the forests.

'It is very difficult to stop hordes of thousands going in at a time. The huge numbers were daunting and the government's capacity to respond was not well organised,' Paddack says.

Policing efforts have also failed to stop the illegal smuggling of endangered species to Europe and Asia, especially frogs, chameleons and lizards.

'This is big business and some key people involved in the trade appear to be well-placed politically. They are immune to arrest and prosecution,' said one government official.

It is not just animals that are being lost. Madagascar has more than 10,000 species of plants and trees, about 80 per cent of them local and many used in traditional medicine. As the West looks more closely at herbal medicines for possible cures for everything from cancer to allergies, experts say Madagascar is an invaluable medicine chest.

'This is the land of medicinal plants. We don't know what we are losing,' said Albert Rakoto-Ratsimamanga, the country's most prominent scientist.

The sap of the Ramy tree - whose fruit is eaten by lemurs - is dried and powdered to cure headaches and raise low body temperature. The bark, sap, leaves, roots and fruit of others are used to treat hundreds of ailments and diseases including malaria, leprosy and syphilis.

Rakoto-Ratsimamanga runs a research institute in the capital Antananarivo.

Five hundred medicinal plants are being cultivated in the institute's garden as a reservoir of raw material for the experiments. It is part of a programme aimed at educating ordinary residents that imported and expensive medicines might not be the best treatment available.
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Title Annotation:Travel
Author:Murray, Kieran
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 20, 2000
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