Madagascar Goes Green

Ecotourism is helping put this island nation on the map and save its endangered species too

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Kevin Schafer / Getty

Many rare species, like the ring-tailed lemur, are found only in Madagascar.

You need the right eyes to see in the rain forests of Madagascar's Andasibe-Mantadia National Park--and being a suburban boy who now lives in Brooklyn, I don't have them. So I borrowed Marie Razafindrasolo's. She was my guide on a recent trip to Andasibe, where she pointed out a Parson's chameleon lying motionless on a branch and a panda-like indri dangling shyly from the top of a tree. Later Razafindrasolo took our group on a night walk through the fringes of the forest. She showed us golden Mantella frogs and leaf-tailed geckos and then, barely visible amid the trees, a pair of lemur eyes shining in the darkness, watching us. It was ecotourism at its best, travel that celebrates nature and contributes to its protection.

Few places on earth can match Madagascar as an ecotourism destination. Some 70% of Madagascar's animals are found only in this island nation, which is roughly the size of Texas. But Madagascar hasn't always been great at showcasing its biological richness--driving anywhere in this remote country will test your shocks and your spine--and its tourism industry remains small. That's beginning to change, though, as the government is in the middle of tripling the size of its national-park system, and local-guide networks are springing up around the country. These moves are coming at the right time, with green travel worldwide growing three times as fast as the entire industry.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, 100 sq. mi. (about 260 sq km) of protected forest in a nation that is now more than 90% deforested, is one of Madagascar's main draws. Local guides like Razafindrasolo lead walking tours through the old-growth forest, where energetic sifaka lemurs can be seen in the mornings dancing through the trees. This is one of the main reasons to go all the way to Madagascar--to see endangered species that exist nowhere else. The other reason is that your presence--or, more specifically, your wallet's presence--can help save the last remaining habitats of these animals by fighting local poverty.

Before I traveled to Madagascar, I was doubtful about the value of ecotourism. My trip from New York City alone created more than 11 tons of greenhouse gases and cost around $3,000. But the right kind of travel--in which sensitive areas are minimally affected and local people earn a fair wage--benefits the environment and the economy. That's my experience in Madagascar, where the government gives 50% of the revenue from parks--including entrance fees--to neighboring communities. Most important, the industry engenders a reverence for nature among visitors and locals alike. As Russell Mittermeier, president of the global green group Conservation International, says, "You have to see it to save it."

See photos of Madagascar's flora and fauna here.

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