Many conservationists agree that ecotourism is the number one thing that can 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.”
The local Malagasy people need to see that lemurs are more valuable alive than dead. Tourists will come to see lemurs in the wild. But much more work needs to be done to make it a viable economic alternative for local people, and a safe, affordable, and appealing destination for international tourists.
Providing an economic alternative to destroying lemur habitat
The biggest reason for the extreme destruction of lemur habitat over the last few centuries has been slash-and-burn agriculture, which clears the land for both cattle grazing and rice paddies, the two most important sources of income and sustenance for the locals. Not only does this tear down trees that lemurs call home and depend on for sources of food, but it also opens the delicate soil to much more rain than it can take, causing massive erosion that has further decimated the landscape. But it is hard to tell these people to stop these practices when it is their only source of income. When the only two options are feeding my family or protecting wildlife, you can imagine which choice will win; and you would probably make the same choice. The key then is to give the Malagasy people an alternative way to make money that doesn’t destroy the environment, but rather protects it.
This is where ecotourism comes in. Ecotourism can be worth millions of dollars per year to Madagascar’s economy. But local people in villages surrounding the national parks and reserves need to see and feel the economic results themselves to be persuaded.
Protection of lemurs through guide associations
Luckily, many local Malagasy are already starting to see results, and it is making a difference for wildlife. Not too many years ago, the indri, the largest living lemur, was hunted frequently for food. This went against cultural taboo that said the indri was the most sacred of all lemurs, and not to be hunted.
But the villagers needed to eat, they were too poor for regular food sources, and the indri provided more food than any other wild animal on the island. Today, these same people are protecting the indris.1 Recently, tourists wanting to see the indri in the wild, and scientists and filmmakers trying to study and film them, have been on the rise. The people of these villages know the forests better than anyone, so guide associations were formed to train local guides to help the foreigners find the indri and navigate the forests.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Per capita income in the villages is about $200 USD per year.2 But guides can make $50 a day during the busy season.3 Thanks in part to this significant rise in income, the hunters have now become the conservationists.
Creating the framework for ecotourism
Officials say tourism is now a real priority for Madagascar’s new government, which has drastically increased funding to promote the island as an ecotourism destination and attract up to two million annual visitors by 2020.4 But in order for this to work, the country needs better infrastructure, better roads, and a more reliable domestic airline to create more tourist routes through the country.
Why visit Madagascar?
For the intrepid traveler or ecotourism afficinado, Madagascar offers treasures more beautiful and exotic than anywhere else on Earth. Madagascar has an tremendous amount of stunning and diverse landscapes, including tropical rainforests, deserts, spiny forests, mountain peaks, waterfalls, swamps, lagoons, beautiful beaches, and rocky canyons. Some of the most unique and awe-inspiring landscapes include the forest of giant baobob trees and the foreboding Tsingy rock formations.
And about those beaches. Madagascar has miles upon 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, snorkelling and surfing. The island is also home to over twenty national parks, four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and many more wildlife reserves. 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.
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.
Educating the youth of Madagascar
Education fits into the ecotourism plan both domestically and internationally. Tourism will bring better infrastructure, jobs, and education to the people of Madagascar. Increased funds for education will allow schools to more effiectively teach students about their natural heritage, and inspire them to grow up to protect the environment.
The children of Madagascar hold the keys to its future. Children will be able to see their adult role models in jobs as ecotourism guides, and aspire and train to be a guide when they grow up. The more knowledgeable the guides are, the more in demand they can become.
Educating international tourists and scientists about Madagascar
Once tourism to Madagascar becomes more viable in the near future, education of people around the world will be paramount. Tourists will need to be educated on what Madagascar has to offer, so they will want to add it to their travel plans. Zoos that offer travel programs to zoo members and visitors can support conservation by adding Madagascar as one of their destinations and educating about the benefits to traveling there.
Researchers have become a large percentage of those who employ local guides when trekking Madagascar’s forests. The more often university professors around the globe teach students about lemurs and other Madagascan wildlife, the more researchers will want to travel there for studies.
Ecotourism has saved the wildlife of countries such as Costa Rica in recent times. With so many plants, animals, and beautiful landscapes than can only be found on this one island, the time is now for Madagascar’s wildlife to saved by tourism.
- Support Association Mitsinjo, which manages the Forest Station at Analamazoatra Special Reserve, a highlight for tourists visiting Madagascar who want to see the indri
- Support Association Tantelygasy, which has been developing ecotourism at their project site since 2012 and launched their latest program in 2014
- Support the Sainte Luce Reserve, which protects one of the last, and most intact, sections of coastal forest in southeastern Madagascar through enhancing and promoting ecotourism attractions at the reserve
- Look into visiting Madagascar yourself on your next vacation!