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Madagascar: the place to visit if you care about conservation

Madagascar is a biologist’s dream. Its separation from Africa 135 million years ago and India 88 million years later created an unparalleled experiment in biodiversity. Its isolation for this vast length of time means that species have been able to evolve with unique blueprints found nowhere else on the planet.

Madagascar was home to the largest bird ever to have lived, lemurs the size of gorillas and three species of pygmy hippos. Although these spectacular creatures are now extinct due to man arriving on the island less than 2,000 years ago, there are still plenty of living species to excite scientists.

Madagascar has the smallest species of reptile in the world, 107 species of lemur (20 per cent of the world’s primates), mysterious Tenrecs that resemble an otter-hedgehog hybrid and Baobab trees that look like they are straight from a fairytale book. In fact five per cent of the world’s biodiversity can be found on Madagascar – not bad considering it’s only 0.4 per cent of the world’s land mass!

However, scientists are worried. The forests are being cut down at a terrifying rate and now less than 10 per cent remain. Without the forests, wildlife will have nowhere to live and will join the Elephant Bird in history books. So now scientists have to turn their attention to marketing; the wonder of the flora and fauna of this island needs to be communicated outside of their community to the local people, ecotourists and the international community at large.

Lemurs are the most iconic group of animals on Madagascar and are found nowhere else on earth (apart from small populations that were introduced to the nearby Comoros Islands). The largest living lemur species is the Indri (weighing nine kilograms) with an enchanting call that will give you goose- bumps whenever you hear it.

The smallest lemur is the nocturnal Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (weighing 30 grams) which is actually the smallest species of primate in the world and very difficult to spot.

Between these are many weird, wonderful and ridiculously cute species that will mesmerise you whilst exploring the 1,000 mile long island.

The award for the weirdest looking lemur goes to the Aye-Aye. It’s the world’s largest nocturnal primate and looks like a real life gremlin. With its wiry fur, buck teeth, bat-like ears and elongated fingers (the middle one used to probe rotten wood for grubs), it’s no wonder that local people used to regard the Aye-Aye as an omen of evil.

Watching an Aye-Aye feeding under the light of your head torch is one of the most alien sights you’ll see on earth.

For me, the cutest lemur species is the Gray Bamboo Lemur. With their huge eyes, fluffy coat and comically expressions, the words ‘I want one’ are never far from mind. However, their appeal is actually detrimental to their success as about 28,000 lemurs are kept illegally as pets in Madagascar. Like all primates, lemurs are social animals and being kept alone in a house with humans is usually a recipe for disaster.

The Verreaux’s sifaka, otherwise known as the dancing sifaka, may be the most wonderful species. When they are on the ground, they travel on two-feet like a human but with the grace of a professional ballerina. If you’re able to film this movement in slow-motion the beauty of their passage is exacerbated even further.

Although Madagascar will draw many for the delights of its enchanting lemurs, there is plenty more that the island offers for both the brave and faint-hearted. As someone who loves reptiles, Madagascar’s brightly coloured chameleons, non-venomous snakes and rare tortoises will constantly delight. Furthermore, no trip to Madagascar is complete without a trip to the Avenue of the Baobabs. These ancient trees are best viewed at sunrise or sunset, casting spectacular silhouettes against the burning red skies. The island has nearly 5,000 kilometres of beaches which rival the beauty of those found on the nearby islands of Reunion and Mauritius.  The diving is world-class and not crowded. Finally, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness the only large carnivore on the island – the Fossa. This animal looks like a big cat, but in fact, it’s most closely related to a mongoose.

I’ve travelled to over 60 countries in my 30 years on earth but none have impacted me quite like Madagascar. I’ve become spellbound by its distinction but I’m afraid for its future. 30,000 hectares of forest are being cut down each year and, if this rate continues, there will be no forest left in 25 years.

Ecotourism is a viable way to make the forests worth more to the local people than turning it into agricultural land. If the Malagasy people can make a good living from guiding tourists through the forests and showing off the besotting animals they host, they are far more likely to protect them for many more generations.

The key here is that, if you want to save the lemurs, you need to go to visit them. And if that option is financially unobtainable, then you can donate to make a difference. Primatologists from all over the planet have come together to create the Lemur Action Plan – a scientific paper on how to save all 107 species. Only $7million is needed to ensure their future, if we can persuade 7 million people to donate $1, then we’ve done it!

Conservation Vacations: Protecting Endangered Animals

‘Ecotourism’ isn’t a particularly sexy term – shabby huts, cold showers and middle-aged couples in sandals is what normally springs to mind. However, I’ve dedicated the whole of 2015 to encouraging more ecotourists (or ecoadventurers, as I’m trying to rebrand us) because wildlife-watching can be a world away from sitting in a hide with binoculars and I believe it’s the best tool we have to protect endangered animals.

My mission for 2015 is to write about and photograph 12 wildlife hotspots in the 12 months of this year. So far I have shared the water with an anaconda, rock climbed with marmosets, snorkelled with manatees and turtles, set camera traps for tigers, swam with whale sharks, cuddled a sea lion, got a little too close to a Komodo dragon, watched a baby gorilla feeding, and stroked a grey whale. p1180717

The aim is to inspire one million holidaymakers to do more with their precious time off work – and I promise that these destinations hold more riches than sunbathing in a 5-star, all-inclusive resort.

In fact, this was the very sentiment that David Attenborough recently suggested to Barak Obama as the single best way to solve all of the planet’s biggest environmental problems. No film, photo, poem or book can recreate the sensation of being with wild animals. We are reminded that we too are just animals and that commonality is what binds us. There is no conservation tool more powerful than a person who has bathed in this feeling.

From a less emotional angle, the hard earned cash that you spend on your wildlife holiday makes these animals worth more alive than dead. Ecotourism can also provide employment for local people and adds a real value to areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Yes, travelling itself has consequences for our planet, but people have and will always travel. My aim is to simply re-imagine the pleasures that you can experience from a trip – less about eating, drinking and sunbathing – and more about exploring, learning and observing. I guarantee that if you try an ecoadventure, you’ll have something more meaningful to say when you’re asked ‘How was your holiday?’

This article was originally published on Virgin.com