Exploring Madagascar’s deep past and uncertain future

In an interview, anthropologist Alison Richard discusses the rich history of Madagascar, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, and the threats it faces.
Bookcover for The Sloth Lemur’s Song and photo of Alison Richard

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in the late 1960s, anthropologist Dame Alison Richard spent a miserable summer in Panama trying to study monkeys. It rained constantly and poisonous snakes were easier to spot than the primates.

Then one of her professors suggested that for her next research trip she try Madagascar. The island, the world’s fourth largest, is devoid of poisonous snakes and teemed with lemurs ripe for study. Richard became enchanted with the country, for the scientific questions raised by its remarkable biodiversity and for the broad fascination of its landscapes and people. While she studied the ecology and social organization of lemurs, her husband, the late archaeologist Robert Dewar, investigated early human settlement on the island.

Over more than 50 years, Richard, a former Yale provost and past director of the Yale Peabody Museum, developed strong connections to Madagascar and the Malagasy people. In her latest book, “The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present” (University of Chicago Press), Richard guides readers on a journey from the island’s ancient origins as a landlocked region of Gondwana to its emergence as a biodiversity hotspot today, when the survival of its unique and beguiling plant and animal life is under threat.

Richard, the Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor Emerita of the Human Environment in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to Yale News about Madagascar’s long history and the prospects for its rich biodiversity. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

What inspired you to write this new book?

Alison Richard: Madagascar has woven its way into my life. Today, if the U.K. and the U.S. both feel like home, so does Madagascar! Lemurs, and conservation work with colleagues and communities in the island’s southwest, have always been central interests for me. But my late husband, Bob, broadened my horizons to encompass the past as well as the present.

More particularly, over the years I became increasingly interested in the evolution of Madagascar’s extraordinary biodiversity. Ninety-five percent of its plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. The long journey through space and time that brought Madagascar to the present captivated me, and I set out to explore it in a book. In the past, I’ve mostly written for academic colleagues, whose interest I could count on. But this time my goal was to write in a way that would interest a general audience. Figuring out how to do that (or so I hope!) turned into a long journey in itself.  

A sifaka lemur
A sifaka lemur. (© stock.adobe.com)

You mention in the opening chapter that your fascination with Madagascar is a blend of scientific interest and unscientific enchantment. What enchants you about the country?

Richard: Part of my enchantment is with Madagascar’s history. It is a history of dramatic change reaching deep into the past. Long ago, Madagascar was an inconsequential wedge of land in the middle of Gondwana; for millions of years, it was home to a most extraordinary collection of animals, from dinosaurs and vegetarian crocodiles to giant predatory frogs. But by the time all these creatures were wiped out after an asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago, Madagascar was an island. How did the ancestors of the animals we know today get there?

Coming up to the present, when you travel across the landscapes of Madagascar, you don’t have to go very far off the road to find a magical world. It’s a wonderment of life. Not just animal life, plant life too: fat baobabs, spine-covered trees reaching skywards, palm-studded grasslands, orchid-bedecked rainforest… Madagascar’s magic tends to come in small packages. No giraffes. No elephants or lions. Think lemurs, chameleons, and tenrecs. Biologically fascinating, Madagascar is often also very beautiful.

How did the animals get there?

Richard: If you had wings, like birds and bats, you could fly there. Until 23 million years ago or so, currents flowed across the Indian Ocean to the coast of Africa and then bounced back to Madagascar. Animals could swim to there from Africa in principle (if they could swim), but it’s a long way across the Mozambique Channel, about 400 kilometers. Most land animals arrived there by crossing the channel on great mats of vegetation coming out of the mouth of the Zambezi River.

That seems improbable but, as the great, late paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson noted, even when an event is very unlikely, it will happen if you wait long enough. And in the case of Madagascar, it did. But only occasionally: the ancestors of species living today were relatively few, and many kinds of animals never got there or died after making landfall. The handful that did survive the rigors of the journey diversified in idiosyncratic ways across the island’s varied landscapes. All this helps to explain the uniqueness of Madagascar’s fauna today.

You write that Madagascar was once home to hippos and other large animals. What happened to them?

Richard: Going back 10,000 years, we know that some very big animals — massive flightless birds, hippos, giant lemurs, giant tortoises — were flourishing. Around this time we also see the first faint traces of a possible human presence in the form of chop marks on a few bones, likely made by people wielding stone tools. But it’s not until the seventh century C.E. that clues to a decline in the megafauna first appear. By the 16th century, all the largest-bodied species were extinct. A combination of habitat changes driven by people or by regional climate fluctuations and, to some degree, hunting was responsible. The evidence of hunting is actually extremely limited. If you look in the rubbish pits of early human settlement sites, you don’t find great piles of leftover bones after megafaunal meals. However, if a species is large bodied with a low population density and low reproductive rates, as these surely were, it doesn’t take much hunting or environmental stress to bring about disaster.

You dispel the colonial narrative of Madagascar. What is that narrative?

Richard: A story took root in the early years of the 20th century that Madagascar was a forested paradise until people arrived a few thousand years ago and began wantonly burning and cutting it down. Indeed, the whole island was “originally” covered by forest, with 90% of it disappearing after the arrival of people. It was a very convenient story, easy to grasp and with clear villains, and it justified colonial expropriation of the island’s natural assets.

The story has many problems, not least that until the advent of aerial photography and satellite images there was no way of knowing the extent of forest cover. There is clear evidence that Madagascar had ancient grasslands. Some of this evidence has been known for decades, and some is more recent, but all of it undermines the colonists’ tale. Yet it endures. That bogus 90% figure is still all-too-commonly cited by journalists and academics, vividly illustrating the power of a good story — and that we are a species of storytellers.

Like many places, Madagascar is under severe environmental threat. What hope is there for preserving it? 

Richard: Contrary to the usual headlines, there is a deep culture of environmental stewardship in Madagascar in my experience. But the challenges are many: people are poor and need fields to grow crops and put food on the table; commercial agriculture drives land clearance, too; charcoal production consumes forests and woodlands; and international trafficking in wildlife and precious woods is widespread. On the positive side, a multitude of organizations and individuals, from very local to national and international, collaborate to find ways for people and wildlife to flourish together. 

In the southwest where we have worked together for decades, my colleagues from the University of Antananarivo and I value the plant and animal life primarily for scientific and environmental reasons. The people who live there value the forest as a source of medicine, food, wood, a place to hide cattle from rustlers, and a sacred place where their ancestors are buried. We have come to understand and embrace one another’s reasons, and a strong partnership based on a shared purpose has evolved.

The question is whether this partnership can move fast enough and far enough to fend off catastrophe. The future can seem bleak, as it can do in the world at large. But to give up trying is to make a decision. And I am unwilling to do that.

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