Land of the lemurs: the race to save Madagascar’s sacred forests

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Once used as a burial site, this forest has inadvertently had its future safeguarded by respect for departed elders. Considered untouchable in local lore, this resting place for the dead has become a home for the living also: paradise flycatchers flit through shadows, warty chameleons spiral their tails around branches and ring-tailed lemurs caterwaul to departed souls.

In theory, Madagascar has a lot to lament. At the frontline of climate change, this island nation in the Indian Ocean has been battered by cyclones and suffered years of sustained drought, while certain areas teeter on the brink of famine. Life expectancy is one of the lowest in Africa (63 for men and 68 for women) and according to data from the World Bank around 80% of people live below the poverty line. Most roads are so potholed and broken you could be forgiven for thinking a meteor shower had recently rained down.

Yet for all its difficulties, challenges and problems, there’s nowhere else on the planet like Madagascar. Once part of supercontinent Gondwana, it began to split from Africa 180 million years ago, and from the Indian subcontinent 90 million years later. Eons of isolation has led to high levels of endemism; about 70% of an estimated 250,000 species exist only here.

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