People and Caves in Madagascar

By Hobbs, Joseph J. | Focus, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

People and Caves in Madagascar


Hobbs, Joseph J., Focus


Of remote Madagascar, the wider world holds two principal landscape impressions. One is a land utterly denuded of vegetation by human activity, a parable of reckless and irreversible destruction. The other is a tropical paradise of lush forest and unparalleled high rates of endemism in both flora and fauna.

Both impressions reflect realities. On the one hand, the island is a lesson in how badly humans can misuse resources in a short time. People have been there less than 2000 years, and have been largely responsible for the removal of some 85% of the original forest cover. On the other hand, in that remaining forest cover (including the dry spiny forest of the island's southeast) the fauna and flora are truly rich, and an excursion to any of the country's protected areas is likely to reward the visitor with breathtaking encounters with lemurs, chameleons and other species found nowhere else on earth.

But there is another dimension of Madagascar little known to the world outside, and even to most Malagasy people: the underground landscape of caves and associated karst features (as shown on the map, "Karst Regions of Madagascar"). Karst refers to the characteristic surface and subterranean landscape that develops in limestone, including sinkholes, caverns, sinking streams and other features. Many of the island's caves are home to unique wildlife, and also have considerable significance in the cultural histories, economies and belief systems of local peoples. Thanks to the generosity of the McColl Family FOCUS Fellowship, and with additional support from the University of Missouri-Columbia Department of Deography and the National Speleological Society, I was able to visit Madagascar in April and May 2000 to do research on the relationships between people and caves on this extraordinary island. Other logistical and research support was provided by Field Museum of Natural History biologist Steve Goodman, the World Wildlife Fund, I'Association Nationale pour la Oestion des A ires Protegees (ANGAP) and l'Academie Malgache.

Most of the country's roughly 35,000 square kilometers of karst terrain occur in an interrupted band down the west coast. Due to the island's poor transportation infrastructure, some of the cave areas are extremely difficult to visit, even in the best of circumstances. I arrived in Madagascar less than a month after the conclusion of a succession of three deadly cyclones (part of the same weather pattern that caused devastating floods in Mozambique). By then there had been sufficient drying out and road repairs that by using domestic air transport, four wheel drive vehicles and my own feet I was able to reach two significant karst regions, the Narinda (northeast of Majunga, on the island's northwest coast) and the Ankarana (south of Madagascar's northernmost city, Diego Suarez; see maps, "Narinda Karst Region and Environs," and "Ankarana Karst Sites and Environs"). The Narinda peninsula is dominated by Tertiary limestones molded into gently tolling hills, with a scattered distribution of caves. Up on the surf ace is a savanna vegetation, with palms and pandanus the dominant trees. The Ankarana's crown jewel is a Jurassic limestone massif about 26 kilometers long and 7 wide, honeycombed with caverns, sinkholes and canyons formed by faulting and the collapse of ancient cave passages. Surrounding the massif is an intact belt of dry tropical forest. The massif's surface is an other-worldly landscape of nearly razor-sharp eroded karst known locally as tsingy-tsingy, too hot and dry to support anything but xerophytic vegetation. Down in the steep canyons and sinkholes are patches and ribbons of "sunken forest" where wildlife abounds.

Accompanying me as French and Malagasy interpreter was Patty Vavizara, a woman of the Sakilava culture that prevails in both of these karst regions. As soon as we reached our first cave, Anjohikely in the Narinda region, we began interviews with local residents about their perceptions and uses of the underground resources. …

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