Madagascar’s tar sands may be its downfall

One of the largest islands in the world, Madagascar is home to thousands of species of plant and animal life, about 80% of which cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Now, its status as an ecological Noah’s Ark is again been threatened by its arch-enemy: humankind.

Madagascar-map“On the island of Madagascar there once lived an ostrich like creature that stood ten feet tall, weighed half a ton, and thumped across the landscape on a pair of elephantine legs… One thousand pounds of bone, flesh, feathers. This is no hypothetical monster, no implausible fantasy of Herodotus or Marco Polo… A millennium ago, Aepyornis maximus existed only on that single island; now it exists nowhere.” The Song of the Dodo. Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (1996) by David Quammen.

Ostrich (Struthio Camelus) and elephant bird (Aepyornis) with a man and hen in a rowUntil around 160 million years ago, Madagascar was attached to the African mainland as part of the super-continent of Gondwanaland (formed by what became Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, India, and Madagascar). As Gondwanaland broke apart, Madagascar set sail on its lithospheric plates.

The huge and immense tropical forests of Madagascar are considered an eldorado by scientists worldwide. With 40 different species, Madagascar has the highest chameleon biodiversity of the world. Dwarf chameleons, tomato frogs, giant rats and hedgehog-like tenrecs are other curious creatures inhabiting this exotic realm, while the country’s isolation helped it develop remarkable trees such as the six species of Baobab endemic to the island and its spiny forests.

Madagascar is world-famous for its lemurs. They are unique to the island and display a range of interesting behaviours from sashaying across the sand like a ballet dancer (the sifaka) to singing (the indri). According to David Quammen, the indri is Madagascar’s star-turn. It has “a sliding howl, eerie but beautiful, like a cross between the call of a humpback whale and a saxophone riff by Charlie Parker.”

Madagascar has a well-kept secret: the vast tar sands beneath two-thirds of its surface. Bitumen and heavy oil deposits in the arid Melaky region in the north-west contain an estimated 25 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Multinational petroleum companies are queuing up to frack the stuff and, if they get their way, it could become the largest tar sands project outside Alberta, Canada.

According to an article written by Kara Moses and published in the March 2014 issue of New Internationalist magazine:

“Melaky is one of the poorest regions in Madagascar. The people are cattle herders and subsistence farmers – the tar sands lie directly beneath their grazing land. More than 100,000 people in villages above the deposits could have their water and land poisoned by mining wastes. There is just one river in the region, which would be the source for the water needed for tar sands extraction – an estimated 10 barrels of water for each barrel of oil, double that used in Canada.”

Tsingy-forestClose to the oil fields are the tsingy forests: limestone pinnacles in Madagascar’s karst badlands. The word tsingy means “where one cannot walk barefoot”. It is an extraordinary world of forest canyons, humid caves and burning karst inhabited by fundamentally differing plants and animals who thrive in close proximity.

Much of this distinctive landscape is within the Tsingy de Bemahara Strict Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the northern area is less protected and transporting oil to the coast would mean carving a pipeline through or near the Beanka tsingy.

Once oil extraction is under way, what is described as “a remarkably diverse and unique forest” will inevitably be at risk in other ways. Rare hardwoods and hunting for bush meat will destroy the natural habitat, with the added risk of a pipeline malfunction or a crude oil spill in the area.

All in all there are grounds for giving the whole of Madagascar the status of an extraordinary world ecosystem and fighting to keep the oil pirates at bay. Without protection, it will not just be the elephant bird that ends up extinct.

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