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Ecotourism: How it Helps Lemurs and Madagascar

Crowned Lemur. Photo: Mathias Appel.

Responsible ecotourism is a powerful way to help ensure the survival of lemurs in Madagascar.

“Lemurs are the goose laying the golden eggs for Madagascar,” says Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Secretary General of GERP Madagascar. “Thousands of families depend on lemurs, because tourists will not come to see empty forests.”

As Madagascar is one of the financially poorest countries in the world, ecotourism can improve the country’s economy and help Madagascar’s people thrive without needing to rely on the forest for food. When responsible tourists visit lemurs in the wild, their money supports people living near the parks and provide an incentive for the country as a whole to protect lemurs and their habitat.

Tourism provides an economic alternative to the use of the forests.

Small villages dot rice field landscapes as you drive south from Antananarivo through the rolling hills of Madagascar’s Highlands. Photo by Lynne Venart.

One reason for the reduction in lemur habitat is slash and burn agriculture, locally called tavy. Tavy clears the land for cattle grazing and rice paddies, which are two very important sources of food and income in Madagascar. This type of agriculture has been used for centuries in Madagascar, and it is culturally significant to Malagasy people. With deep respect for their ancestors, it is considered part of their heritage. And, it isn’t inherently unsustainable. However, with Madagascar’s human population now at 27 million, slash and burn is no longer a sustainable farming method for this large of a human population.

However, with few other choices for food and income, we cannot expect people to choose animal welfare over their family’s survival. Conservation programs must give Malagasy people alternative ways to thrive that also support the environment.

This is where ecotourism comes in. Ecotourism can be worth millions of dollars per year to Madagascar’s economy. But Malagasy people, especially those surrounding the national parks and reserves, need to see and feel the economic benefits first hand.

Local guide associations and community-run reserves ensure communities guide decision-making and benefit economically from tourism.

Adrien, a founder of Anja Reserve, is a guide for this southwestern region of Madagascar.

Adrien, a founder of Anja Reserve, is a guide for this southwestern region of Madagascar. Photo: Lynne Venart.

Many Malagasy people are starting to see the benefits of tourism, and it is making a difference for wildlife. Guide associations train local guides to help tourists and researchers find animals in the forests.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Yearly income can be only about $200 USD per year. But guides can make $50 a day during the busy season. Others that benefit from ecotourism are hotel owners and staff, drivers, tour companies, and local artisans and crafts makers. Jobs in tourism are seasonal, but many people are able to make enough money in the busy seasons to support their families for the entire year.

Additionally, several community-run reserves — like Anja Reserve in the south and Antanatiembo Reserve in the north — have been created by local people to both protect the wildlife in their area and ensure their communities benefit from ecotourism in the area.

Why visit Madagascar?

For the intrepid traveler or ecotourist, Madagascar offers treasures more beautiful and exotic than anywhere else on Earth.

Diverse Landscapes

Madagascar has a tremendous amount of stunning and diverse landscapes, including tropical rainforests, deserts, spiny forests, mountains, waterfalls, swamps, lagoons, beautiful beaches, and rocky canyons. Some of the most unique and awe-inspiring landscapes include the forests of giant baobab trees and the foreboding tsingy rock formations.

And, Madagascar has miles of stunning coastal beaches, providing unprecedented views of the turquoise, crystal-clear Indian Ocean waters, abundant coral reefs, and picturesque white sand. The beaches are well known for great swimming, snorkeling, sailing, and surfing.

Views on the way to Marojejy National Park. Photo: Lynne Venart.

National Parks, Food, and Culture

Madagascar is also home to over twenty national parks, four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and many more wildlife reserves and protected areas. For foodies, Madagascar has a history of great seafood and traditional French cuisine. The cultural scene is a unique blend of African and Southeast Asian influences. Other national treasures include the world’s only pirate graveyard, and the chance to ride a train from the 1930’s that runs on rubber tires.

Unique Wildlife

And of course, there is the wildlife. As much as 80% of the animals of Madagascar are endemic to the island. Madagascar is the only place in the world to see tenrecs, fossas, and lemurs in the wild. 50% of the world’s chameleon species are found in Madagascar, and the county offers speactacular whale watching opportunities as well.

Ecotourism has helped protect the wildlife of other countries with high biodiversity, like Costa Rica. With so many plants, animals, and beautiful landscapes that can only be found on this one island, the time is now for visit Madagascar.