Environment

A journey to a unique island

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am

Madagascar. The mere name evokes a hothouse of strange creatures.

Wildlife on the island, off the east coast of Africa, has evolved in isolation for millions of years in a great experiment by Mother Nature.

You'll find baobab trees that grow like enormous upside-down carrots. You'll come across lemurs that look like cats crossed with squirrels and dogs. You'll learn that 90 per cent of plants and animals are like no other.

A team of 14 ecology students from the University of Hong Kong found out all that and more.

During a trip sponsored by TST mall K11, they also learned that the island's uniqueness is a mixed blessing.

Hungry-eyed poachers take advantage of the country's political instability and underdevelopment to strip forests of rosewood and smuggle rare animals out on the international black market.

'Madagascar's wealth in biodiversity is comparable to that of the Galapagos Islands in South America,' notes Billy Hau Chi-hang, the university's wildlife expert who led the trip. He called the 15-day visit a 'pilgrimage for nature lovers'.

Landscapes on the world's fourth largest island change drastically from north to south and west to east. The equator splits the island into two climate zones: three quarters of it is tropical, while its southern tip enjoys temperate climate. The mountainous central plateau blocks the monsoon from the Indian Ocean, leaving the island's west coast dry.

Since 1999 scientists have added at least 600 new species to the island's already long list. Just last month, researchers discovered a miniature chameleon - one of the world's tiniest lizards which fits on a fingertip. The island is home to nearly half the world's 100-plus known chameleon species as well as to 70-plus species of lemur.

The Hong Kong students spent their time observing and keeping track of animals in nine biodiversity hotspots in southern Madagascar.

They spotted a rare and critically endangered radiated tortoise, a golden bamboo lemur, and a flamboyant O'Shaughnessy's chameleon.

'I made a new discovery every step I took,' recalls student Leo Tong Chun-lok. 'You didn't have to look far. There were many animals just outside our campsites or by the roadside.'

Their adventure gave the aspiring ecologists some excellent chances at fieldwork.

'The students may need to help set up a new reserve in Hong Kong one day,' Hau, an ecology professor at the university, says. 'This trip was a rare opportunity for them to sharpen their skills in identifying animals, collecting population figures and assessing threats.'

Logging, mining and outdated farming methods all threaten Madagascar's wildlife.

Take the 'Avenue of the Baobabs'. Only a small cluster of towering baobabs trees - up to 800 years old and 30 metres tall - is what's left of a once thick forest.

The trees were cleared for farmland through a method called slash-and-burn. The practice robs animals of their habitat and often triggers out-of-control wildfires. In the long run, it degrades the soil.

'On the global scale, more carbon is released into the atmosphere while there are fewer trees to absorb the excess greenhouse gases, which adds to global warming,' student Ruby Chiu Wing-tung says.

The Avenue is now protected but is still vulnerable to encroaching rice paddies and cattle farms.

Most conservationists on the island are foreigners. Not many locals are involved in green initiatives. The hope for the unique island, Hau says, lies in poverty reduction and education.