But this 25-day trip is not for many of my clients, however they may claim to love Africa.
We were not the first to seek the unique treasures of this weird part of the world. Olivier Lavasseur (aka ‘The Buzzard’) and Edward Seegar (aka ‘Edward the Pirate England’) teamed up in the 1720s to bury a $1 billion dollar treasure here.
We’d seen up-close and personal the pointy nose black-and-white ruffed lemur. In fact, they jumped on our backs and ate out of our hands! But now we wanted to see them in the wild. This would be a challenge.
Virtually all tourists to Madagascar see lemurs in private reserves, as we did at “Lemur Island” in the east, or as many tourists do in Berenty in the south. These aren’t wild lemurs. They are as domesticated as circus animals. To see our pointy nose black-and-white was going to take some extraordinary effort.
I’m in Madagascar with very bad wifi. No photos possible today, but my account follows. Note that starting tomorrow we may be out of touch for a week!
There is nothing comparable to Madagascar in the wild. Isolation for millions of years has created an ecology unique to earth. It’s an absolutely essential trip for anyone who truly wants to understand the wilderness of our planet.
But Madagascar isn’t easy to do. Accommodations are poor. Urban areas are congested, impoverished and polluted. Roads are horrible. Especially important for tourism, its airlines are notoriously inadequate and unreliable. And to fully appreciate what it’s all about, considerable physical exertion is required.
So it’s an ideal destination for young, adventurous people deeply curious about our nature world. It’s not friendly to a 60+-year old veteran of African safaris. Yet almost all visitors to Madagascar are exactly that, older safari veterans. Why?
The two largest lemurs, the sifaka and indri, were among the hardest hit. In the forest of Analamazaotra where we trekked today, the rivers had quintipled in size for two days of rage, tearing down not only pedestrian bridges, but many trees on which the lemurs feed.
Normally benign towards one another, we saw them fighting today.
Panther chameleons are very likely among the most popular reptile pets in the world, particularly in America. They’re native to northern Madagascar where their habitat is seriously threatened, but there are so many pet panthers in the world and so many breeders the species was not considered threatened.
But this crafty little creature might have fooled scientists, after all!
It may not be a crafty little creature. It might be 11 different crafty little creatures! And one of them, say that blue one with turquoise stripes and beady orange eyes — yes, it, indeed, may be seriously threatened!
Field scientists from the University of Geneva, working on a hunch motivated by a curious practice of the commercial reptile breeding trade, are suggesting that there’s not a single panther chameleon with lots of different colors.
Rather, contends Prof Michel Milinkovitch, there are 11 separate species whose very rare hybridization always produces an infertile offspring.
For years chameleon breeders and commercial traders have known that chameleons of different colors ought not be mixed up:
“Due to the extreme color differences of the species, we use locale info to identify the wide variety of panthers. This helps in keeping locales pure when breeding and avoids unwanted crosses,” is one breeder’s subtle way of saying don’t mix and match. You won’t get any little creatures tapping around your breederie if you mix red with blue. “Unwanted crosses” probably have never happened in the pet store.
For years and years no one’s questioned this mystery even though it’s been well understood that color differentiation is geographical.
It seems to me that this could have been a high school science project, but it’s taken all this time before adult scientists finally decided to test the hypothesis that color differentiated species.
It does. Two drops of blood from each of 324 panther chameleons across the upper part of Madagascar revealed in DNA analysis 11 separate species of creatures.
“Each of the new chameleon species requires individual management, given that they each constitute a different part of the biodiversity of the whole,” Prof Milinkovitch chides scaly pet owners around the world, and he’s right of course.
His report goes on to suggest that the harvesting of panther chameleons from Madagascar, which the government currently caps at 2,000 annually, needs to be more minutely regulated, as certain of the species might be in more trouble than others.
On the one hand this is a marvelously wonderful story that expands even more our understanding of Madagascar’s incredible biodiversity.
On the other hand the government of Madagascar seems incapable of stopping the entire deforestation of its island nation and it just emerged from a long period of violent civil strife. Who’s going to care about these little guys, anyway?
Remember, every new paint that you add to the mix makes the color duller. Remember that curious grade school fact: mix all the colors together and what do you get? White, how boring!
Would you set aside a small swath of natural forest to protect this millipede? Or would you allow some important mining to proceed which could greatly enrich your local community?
How about seven? Let’s say you just discovered seven new species of life, cute little ping-pong sized millipedes that chirp, which existed on earth before the dinosaurs died out when Madagascar was a part of India.
And let’s say they all live in an area where the incredibly rich resource of titanium was just discovered, too. You know! That Star Wars metal that is stronger than steel but with only a fraction of the weight and doesn’t begin to melt until 1600 F.
Let’s say the bugs aren’t going to help any person except scientists trying to unweave the incredible biological history of Madagascar, and that the titanium will create enough wealth to send hundreds maybe thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of kids through college.
We don’t have “to say” it, it’s true. It’s another of Madagascar’s unending stories as scientists take greater and greater advantage of the country’s growing periods of peace and stability.
The first of this genera of weird literally prehistoric insects was discovered in 2009, but recently more thorough excavations of the area have found seven new and entirely separate species.
The separate species live in unique areas, from tiny swaths of forests to single humid caves surrounded by near desert. Fossils found near them are beginning to paint a picture of prehistoric Madagascar that is richer and more complicated than ever conceived before.
One of Madagascar’s most compelling mysteries is whether its current rich biodiversity which is so incredibly endemic evolved from before it split with India, or whether it evolved faster afterwards from vagrants that more or less washed ashore.
These millipedes are going a long way towards answering that question.
Rio Tinto, the mega mining multinational whose Madagascar division QIT Minerals has been given the license to mine the area, claims that exhaustive environmental studies will protect ten percent of the area so that once reclaimed by nature these species can repopulate.
But titanium mining is extremely severe. Basically giant shovels bigger than you can possibly ever imagine dig up wholesale parts of the earth and throw it on super conveyers that crush into into near dust then filter out the titanium, leaving a scorched earth with giant piles of lifeless dirt.
The value of the project is “in the billions” … of dollars.
“If you conserve the ‘wrong’ 10 percent, the endemic millipedes will be extinct. Irreplaceably. A forest can be replanted (hopefully), but the unique fauna which needed millions of years to evolve will be gone,” Thomas Wesener of the Alexander Koenig Zoological Research Museum in Bonn, Germany, told American Scholar.
Billions of dollars or millions of years?
Two scientific studies completed last month now confirm that the incredible rate of Madagascar deforestation is so severe now that the runoff erosion is “smothering local coral reefs.” This is the first time that the well reported rape of Madagascar’s biomass now extends into the oceans.
Westerners know Madagascar for its lemurs, and that is a perfect “mediator” species of the country’s serious political ailments. I coin this phrase, “mediator” species, because lemurs haven’t suffered nearly as much as a species as the vast majority of Madagascar’s reptiles, other animals, plants and birds.
I think this is because much of the Malagasy population is educated and its politicians are as cunning as they are violent, and they all know that if lemurs start to decline the way trees have, that much more attention would be focused on the country’s horrible politics.
Consider this: 98% of all of Madagascar’s land mammals are endemic like lemurs, found nowhere else. Add to this 92% of its reptiles, 68% of its 9000 plant species and two-fifths of its breeding bird population – all endemic. All seriously threatened.
Madagascar’s problem, like Afghanistan’s and Mali’s, is political. I would be the first to point out an economic or forest-human conflict, and much in the press and even the academic media suggests this.
It’s not true. The rape of Madagascar’s biomass has not produced any short-term economic benefit to its population, because the proceeds from the sale and destruction principally of its forests have been siphoned off by corrupt officials and foreign companies. It isn’t trickle down economics; it’s trickle away economics.
The little that remains of the country’s polity and corruptible government does everything in its power to protect lemurs. But little to protect anything else. I wrote earlier how global capitalism has now found numerous insidious ways to exploit the last of precious, endemic Madagascar.
And Madagascar’s Shakespearean if As-The-World-Turns incendiary politics never becomes quite violent enough to attract world attention, either, even though it is starting to destabilize the entire society and keep tourists away. Much of the political shenanigans, in fact, is comical. I wouldn’t be surprised if the warring opponents are in cahoots to reap rosewood profits.
It’s time the world attends to Madagascar, the same way it “attends to” Afghanistan and Mali. Mankind is as much the marvels of the planet as the marvels of human history.
I have personally seen the northern wheatear breeding in Alaska and foraging in Africa, and we’ve not known until now where the Alaskan birds migrated. That’s because there are wheatears in eastern northern Canada and even Greenland and Scotland.
Most bird migrations are determined in a pretty easy way. The bird is banded and then it’s found where it’s migrated to. And dozens and dozens of wheatears have been banded, but they’ve never been found.
That wasn’t actually unimaginable with regards to the wheatear. Unlike most species of bird, the wheatear breeds over a massive portion of the northern hemisphere and there are lots of them. So the odds of a banded bird being found were greatly reduced.
But technology to the rescue! The bird is so small, .8 ounce, that anything other than a light-weight leg band could not be used for tracking, until scientists recently concocted a really itty bitty geolocator hardly heavier than a band. And that’s where this data comes from.
There’s a real surprise, too. The birds in Alaska travel west to Africa. The birds in eastern Canada travel east. The route from Alaska to Africa is impressive: nearly 20,000 miles roundtrip! The eastern migration is half that, but it has to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the world’s most turbulent sea.
So either way around this you’ve got a remarkable little African bird! (Well, it’s also an Alaskan, Canadian, Greenlander, and British Isles bird, too.)
Note: the birds with the longest migration (approaching 50,000 miles) are the arctic tern and winged albatross.
The other fabulous African nature news this week was of still more treasures from Madagascar. We’d already found the world’s largest chamaeleon there. Parson’s chameleon is the size of most cats! Now this week scientists announced the discovery of the world’s smallest chameleon. It can fit on a matchhead!
What is really amazing about this, actually, is that these two creatures from Madagascar although definitely both chamaeleons in many common ways, are probably very different and likely have extremely different evolutionary paths.
Their point of last convergence could conceivably be at the dawn of reptiles, meaning more than 250 million years ago! The fact that they then physically changed so little except in terms of their size, likely has something to do with the special island-continent ecology of Madagascar. Island systems provide narrow paths for evolution, encouraging speciation but then subsequently constricting radical divergence.
On safari we usually find a chameleon or two and always some type of wheatear (there are several). Along with the new snakes and new primates and primate behaviors discovered recently in Tanzania, we’re learning that Africa has much more to reveal than we ever thought before!
Gibson guitars and an African dictator, a major conservation group, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and yes you guessed it, the T-Party, are banging out country and western lyrics headed for the Grammys. Dissonance par excellence.
I own (I think, my son took it about 10 years ago) a beautiful Gibson guitar which I played badly for years. Like most pseudo-musicians, my signature sound was volume. And despite repeated attempts to destroy the guitar, it remains in tact. Why? Because of its extraordinary craftsmanship and precious rainforest wood.
True musicians can hear the difference between a guitar they play using rosewood or ebony, and less rare versions of wood like binga.
According to Louisiana guitar maker, Mike Armand, “Different woods allow different tones.”
He says it’s all a matter of the way the wood handles humidity. Obviously wood from high humidity places like … well, say, Madagascar rainforests … handles humidity a lot better than wood grown in Canada.
Turn on your speakers and click here for the sound of a rosewood guitar. Billy D & The Hoodoos, a Portland group, are among many who claim they are worried now about traveling with their instruments over international boundaries.
As they should be. We can’t have it both ways, folks. (Although, read further down, it seems like everyone is trying to on this one.) If you believe that elephant ivory should be confiscated and traders across borders prosecuted, then the same should be true for Madagascar rosewood.
Rosewood (Leguminosae Fabaceae) and elephant (Loxodonta africana) are both found on Appendix I in the CITES treaty. Which means you cannot take those products across international borders.
CITES is that near perfectly functioning, marvelous world treaty that protects endangered species.
The reason is so simple it defies criminality. Wherever those things exist (elephants in Africa; rosewood in Madagascar) they are dying out, or will die out if not protected from commercial harvesting. So … leave it be.
The reason I want you to watch this video is because it was made in 2007 by a respectable conservation organization regarding their project to protect 10 million acres of Madagascar rainforest by 2010.
They failed. In fact, they failed miserably. About the same amount was logged, instead. They failed, because the Madagascar government was taken over by a hipster strongman who prior to siccing military on demonstrators was a young, popular Tana DJ who scratched vinyl with little regards for the tonality of sound. He has approached his current job in the same way.
Madagascar is, ergo, a mess. Mostly a decimated mess of scorched earth.
But it takes two to tango. Somebody’s got to buy the wood. Gibson knowingly violated the law. Why? For two reasons: (1) because rosewood makes such a pretty sound, and (2) they figured they could get away with it. So far they’re right on both counts.
Whether you believe in the whole morality of the CITES convention (as I do), certainly the issue of law is universally compelling. Right now, it’s against the law (worldwide) to buy Madagascar rosewood. And so, let it be. Or, change the law. Or, opt out of the treaty.
So although I have enough music still lingering somewhere deep inside and can definitely tell the difference between Pavarotti and Domingo, and probably even appreciate Billy D’s rosewood grace, if I’m a law abiding citizen, I’ll lobby Billy D not to take his rosewood guitar when he performs in Vancouver.
Gibson broke the law.
But… guess what. Gibson is not being prosecuted. U.S. Fish & Wildlife, which is responsible for preparing the prosecution for any violation of CITES, hasn’t acted on a judge’s instruction in the case, effectively putting the whole case on hold. It’s Fish & Wildlife’s move, and they don’t seem very anxious to do so.
And desperately in search of a political win, the T-Party has now “rallied” to Gibson’s side. I didn’t know Nashville extremists went further than murdering mothers-in-law.
Gibson is not being prosecuted.
Music is a dangerous stage on which to fight politics. But when CITES was adopted by the U.S. under the Reagan administration, Fish & Wildlife actually steamed off ivory keys from priceless pianos sent in or out of the country. Pianists have come to accept this.
Gibson has pursued raw materials with the same abandon as many of its pea-brained singers. Not just Madagascar rosewood, but also Fiji ebony. Both places are run by dictators intent on little more than making a buck for their families, who care not diddly squat about their fragile island ecologies which are ready to disappear.
Both appreciate Gibson’s business. It would make a very good country and western lyric.
After Fish & Wildlife revealed the investigation was taking place of Gibson’s interests in Madagascar, Gibson terminated its relationship with the Fiji devils. But it intends to fight the ban on Madagascar rosewood.
How? On what basis?
Well one successful strategy has been to buy out an otherwise established conservation organization. Yeah, that seems to be working. The Rainforest Alliance has certified Gibson as producing “sustainable products.” This is nonsense. CITES knows better than the Rainforest Alliance, but guess what? Guess who recently gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Rainforest Alliance? Not Hank Williams.
And then another strategy that seems to be working: Get T-Party-ers to scream veiled obscenities at Obama and be covered by FOX. And that fight seems to be working, too. Obama, as the old country and western tune opines, might just be that sheep in wolf’s clothing.