Madagascar is a consequent island, famous for its huge variety of biotopes and very diverse climatic regions.
Being a long-time travel-lover and a nature-freak, the 22-Swiss-law-student I am felt inexorably attracted to this endlessly rich mini-continent, even more motivated to discover it in a different way than going the usual backpacker/visitor roads. I had the opportunity to get there and volunteer in the field, to experience the daily life of the Malagasy people – more precisely in this case the existence of the Antandroy, the people of the Great South – and live amongst them for two months, learning from them the secrets of the Spiny Forest.
Having landed on the Red Island on February 24 2008, we just had some time to learn a few words about WWF Madagascar, the country and the WWF Population, Health & Environment (PHE) project we were going to get involved in, and we found ourselves in the bush. Backpacks and jerry cans of water, this was the start of seven weeks full of curiosity and discoveries, and a project to go on with… There we were, in our village, in Ankirikiriky. As easy to spell as to write, especially since the Malagasy people hardly pronounce the vowel-ending of the words: say “Ankee-ree-kee-ree-k(ee)”.
To interact with locals, learn basic syllables of native dialects, adapt to the customs, respect the indigenous traditions, etc., have always been principles I use to consider as holy for a traveller, but in Ankirikirky they transformed into essential principles for integrating into the community. You don’t do what you want, don’t leave when you feel like it, don’t see different things or meet other people if you consider being bored. Instead, you listen very carefully to what is being said; to what you’re being especially told. Even more carefully to what isn’t said. Your concern needs to be expressed and proved to the community. You dress, try to talk and act the way the people do, enjoy their hospitality and observe their traditional rules. And by moving slowly and carefully through the village, you hope that tomorrow will bring you closer to the timeless wisdom cultivated amidst the thorny forests of Ankirikiriky.
Ankirikiriky is situated in the southern part of Madagascar about 80 km west of Fort-Dauphin, a busy developing mining town on the extreme south-east coast.
The area of the South is an incredibly rich ecosystem despite the heat and lack of water (with a yearly average of 24 C° [hot season: 30-32°C] and about 600mm rainfall) that make life harder, hotter and more complicated for the inhabitants than anywhere else in Madagascar. No wonder that it is one of the poorest regions of the island.
Nevertheless, with 85% of endemism (which means that 85% of the species are only and exclusively found in this part of the world and so characteristic to the region), the Spiny Forest is a rarity of its own. The soil is very dry (a lot of sand too), the vegetation – well, you’d have guessed it by the name – is mostly spiny (which is very useful for hanging your drying laundry! And – sometimes – very funny too but far less practical for bike rides…) and there are still many interesting animals to be met. You’ll first hear the cicadas, a constant noise that quickly becomes a scream in your ears as soon as you start exploring the surrounding bush. But we also had the chance to see quantity of snakes, spiders, many insects, and finally luckily met a few times the emblematic and charismatic Madagascar favourite: the lemur, in our forests represented by the Sifaka (Propitecus verauxis verauxis). The typical Spiny Forest landscape consists of dry bush where the variety of trees is almost endless. Many plants are pretty similar-looking, and it is difficult to remember their weird names and all the incredibly various medical and practical uses.
To go out and walk through this peculiar garden with the villagers in charge of the forest supervision – the “Policin’Ala” – was an amazing and enriching experience as they pointed out to us the diverse species of flora, the threatened and less threatened ones, protected or not, and their utility for the communities. We could also witness the terrible damage of deforestation and illegal logging, and even caught in the act a man illegally cutting Fantiolotse trees (Alluaudia procera), the most commonly used cacti specie for making boards and building houses. This tree used to be very wide spread, but as deforestation and logging are encouraged for building more houses, creating more farmable fields, producing more charcoal, the survival of the species are threatened. We realised then that one of the biggest difficulties in the protection of this forest is that, even short (1 to 3 m high) and producing no canopy-effect, it is very dense (it is a long and hard time to walk through it and not to lose your direction, especially in the dark – isn’t it Leon?!). That means you have to be very careful and vigilant if you want to watch and protect it against the “thieves”, the illegal loggers, and prevent environmental disasters. Hopefully, the system of the “Policin’Ala”, the local foresters, will contribute to make the communities aware and responsible of their role in managing their resources in a sustainable way and conserving biodiversity.