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Land of Lemurs and Other Strange Things

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats. 

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When I first came to Madagascar, I remember how I stared out the window of the WWF van with my mouth agape and whispered to my co-workers, “Wow, we’re in Africa.” At the time, my developing world perspective began and ended with rural Mexico. Three years later, I find myself a privileged global traveler who has spent enough time in both Africa and Asia to know that Madagascar is neither and exists only as a land unto itself.

Some 120 million years ago, the supercontinent of Gondwana broke apart, sending Madagascar and India to float off into the south Indian Ocean. Then, ~85 million years ago, India separated and headed northwards, leaving Madagascar alone, an evolutionary laboratory in the middle of the sea. As a result of its longtime isolation, Madagascar has developed into one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, with some 90% of its flora and 84% of its vertebrate fauna endemic—meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. Madagascar’s human diversity echoes its biological diversity—over twenty different ethnic groups inhabit different corners of the island, and the people themselves are a cornucopia of African and Asian descent. In what Jared Diamond calls “the single most astonishing fact of human geography,” Madagascar was first colonized by seafaring Indonesians ~2,000 years ago, and only afterwards, did subsequent African immigrations take place across the Mozambique Channel. That may sound like the overstatement of the century, but as Harvard development economist Matt Bonds (who is here in Ranomafana) concedes, “It is a very long boat ride.”

For those most interested in disease ecology, it is fascinating to note that Madagascar is home also to both African and Asian malaria—or more technically, the blood parasites, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, which most commonly cause the disease in each respective region. Continental Africans have developed a sort of resistance to P. vivax by lacking something called the ‘Duffy antigen,’ a gene which encodes the protein on the receptor by which P. vivax enters a human red blood cell (P. falciparum uses a different receptor). In the face of this resistance, P. vivax has largely vacated Africa, but it persists (along with P. falciparum) in Madagascar, where the human population is mixed Duffy-positive and Duffy-negative. Thus, even Malagasy diseases represent an astonishing fact of geography.

In more recent biogeographic history, Madagascar was a French colony, from 1896 to 1960. A coup d’état in 2009 established a transition government under the transition president, Andry Rajoelina, a 39-year-old ex-DJ. His DJ name was TGV, so now, when citizens lament that Madagascar needs a better public transportation system, those who have spent time in Paris just shrug and say, “We’ve already got the TGV.” Lucky for me, my high school French was drilled into my brain by a terrifying apparition who masqueraded under the title of “Madame,” so the francophone identity of the country does not trouble me much. In more rural areas, Malagasy people speak only—wait for it!—Malagasy, which is in the same many-lettered language group as Hawaiian. “Tonga soa” is “bienvenue” or “welcome”, but remember that Malagasy pronounce their “oh” as “ooo”.

That pronunciation is key to not sounding novice when you talk about Ranomafana (pronounced Rahn-ooo-ma-fahn-nuh), which means ‘hot water’ after the natural springs which first made the region famous. Ranomafana today is known more for its lemurs and less for its water, and I am privileged enough to be experiencing it in the company of Dr. Patricia Wright, who played a key role in the park’s establishment in 1991. Pat Wright came to Madagascar as a young primatologist in the mid-1980s in search of the Greater Bamboo Lemur, thought at the time to have recently gone extinct. In Ranomafana, Pat hit the jackpot, rediscovering the Greater Bamboo Lemur and stumbling upon the previously unknown Golden Bamboo Lemur while she was at it. There’s a great story about the postcard she sent to her advisor after that find, but I’ll leave that for her to tell in her memoirs…

Thirty years later, Ranomafana National Park is now home to Centre ValBio (CVB), a world-class research facility on the edge of the rainforest, an English-speaking haven of good food and clean water in a very wild country. CVB’s capacity-building has exploded in recent years with the addition of new high clearance disease laboratories, an elegant meeting hall and dorm room courtesy of the Jim and Robin Hernstein Foundation, and host of new technical devices—from the autoclave to the CT scanner. It’s a strange thing to find in one of the ten poorest countries in the world, but it enables the most incredible things to happen—from cutting edge research to local outreach in the form of Saturday school, conservation crafts, and health and hygiene meetings. More to follow about all that soon!

 

NEXT: Return to the Eighth Continent

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