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Donkin on Travel

1997, Madagascar


The canoe sliced through the rising swell, its motor struggling to cope with the waves until the prow bit into the gently shelving beach on the tiny island of Nosy Be off the north-west coast of Madagascar.

Stepping barefoot on to the sand, it felt like arriving in paradise. Fishermen cracked coconuts at the edge of the palm-fronded village. All it needed was Dorothy Lamour in a sarong to complete the illusion. She could not have sustained it for long. Madagascar's ecology is living on the edge, threatened by an economy in decline.

With its distinctive varieties of plants and animals, the world's fourth largest island could have made a fitting setting for the Garden of Eden. In many ways its fortunes are not dissimilar to those of Adam and Eve. It was a country that had it all and blew it.

Today it is paradise squandered, with 90 per cent of its tropical forest reduced by shifting agriculture to barren hills and scrubby vegetation. The small areas of natural forest that remain sparkle like heirlooms in a pawn shop. Recognition of these threats is drawing increasing numbers of naturalists to the island in the hope of saving the declining habitat before it is too late.

Josephine Andrews, a 34-year-old primate researcher from Dundee, Scotland, came to Nosy Be eight years ago to study the black lemur, one of the least documented of Madagascar's distinctive family of primates.

Now she has begun to broaden her research in an attempt to create a tourism and conservation-based blueprint for economic development on a micro scale. If it works it could provide lessons that may be duplicated in other third world communities where wildlife is threatened by human exploitation.

Andrews runs the Black Forest Lemur Project from Ampangorinina, the main village on Nosy Komba, an adjacent island. Ampangorinina is typical of the island communities. While its palm-tipped beaches are strikingly picturesque, it is grindingly poor with barefooted children in tattered clothes, rubbish-strewn pathways and little sanitation.

Customs and habits, as in much of Malagasy society, are heavily influenced by taboos or fadys. Certain trees are fenced off because it would be fady to touch them. Fish is eaten with care since to turn it over on the plate would sink a fishing boat somewhere at sea.

As Andrews leans back in her chair, describing her work, a male lemur is springing up and down on a palm leaf behind her head. "You can see they have adapted quite well to living near villages. But they are not always so welcome when they steal bananas or rummage among the rubbish," she says. The behaviour is tolerated because they lure tourists.

The government has plans to designate a 700-hectare patch of virgin rainforest on Nosy Be as a national park but Andrews is sceptical about its potential for visitors. Seeing any kind of wildlife on the forest trails is difficult. Is the average tourist going to be interested, she wonders, when they can visit the "Jungle Experience", a private attraction nearby? There they see lemurs (encouraged by the odd banana), chameleons (a captive population placed on trees before visitors arrive) and a boa constrictor (put back in its cage when they go home).

The real forest holds different surprises. Andrews leads us into a clearing. A large gap had been created in the canopy by the illegal felling of an ebony tree. "It is impossible to cultivate ebony artificially. This is 50 years' growth destroyed in an instant," she says.

The tree fellers are looking for the black heartwood. As they make their way through the forest they chop into other ebony trees to inspect the dark wood, thereby destroying many even when they are not hacked down.

Andrews believes that local people must be closely involved in tourism and conservation. The villages have little scope to extend their traditional subsistence agriculture. They need new forms of income. "We only want the national park if local people are going to benefit," says Amisy Achimo, the president of Marodoka village on the edge of the forest.

Through Achimo, Andrews has mobilised the Marodoka community to build a cultural and wildlife information centre funded by USAID, which runs the Peace Corps. The lemur research has become the nucleus for a number of community projects, attracting corporate support from J &BWhisky which has included the study in its "Care for the Rare" campaign that sponsors programmes dedicated to conserving some of the world's most endangered species.

Earthwatch, a charity dedicated to supporting scientific projects worldwide , has added the project to its network of programmes.

Eco-tourism cannot yet deliver the income that more fashionable destinations derive from the affluent . Yet it is significant, perhaps, that a company such as J & B Whisky is pursuing a marketing drive on the back of environmental conservation. Its research has highlighted conservation as an important concern of the younger market it is seeking to penetrate. The jet-set image of the Martini people is passe. The future looks green but can the Malagasys be convinced?

© Financial Times

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