FORT-DAUPHIN, Madagascar — With the world going crazy, I tried running away from the news. It didn’t work.
I’ve been doing an eco-survey of Madagascar, the island nation off the east coast of Africa that contains the highest percentage of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth — all of them now endangered to one degree or another. My tour guide is Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International and one of the world’s leading primatologists. We saw something the other day that even Mittermeier, who’s been coming here for 30 years, hadn’t seen before.
We were trekking through the Berenty Reserve, one of the last remaining slices of Madagascar’s southern spiny desert — an ecosystem characterized by tall, thin, cactus-like plants exclusive to Madagascar. This forest is home to Sifaka lemurs: white, fluffy primates, with very long hind limbs that enable them to bound from tree to tree like forest kangaroos. How these lemurs are able to leap from one sharply spiked vertical tree to another without impaling themselves is a mystery.
After walking through the forest for hours, spotting a lemur here and there, we came upon a particularly dense grove and looked up. There, about 30 feet off the forest floor, were nine Sifaka lemurs huddling together for warmth in two groups — four on one limb, five on another — staring directly down at us. They looked as if they were drawn there by a Disney artist: too cute, too white, too fluffy to be other than the products of a toy factory. “I’ve seen two or three huddled together,” said Mittermeier later that night, “but I’ve never seen a whole group like that. I could have taken a whole chip full of pictures. I didn’t want to leave.”
None of us did. But it wasn’t just because we’d never seen such a thing before. It was because we knew we may never see such a thing again — that no one would, particularly our kids. Why? Just look at the trends: Madagascar has already lost more than 90 percent of its natural vegetation through deforestation, most of it over the last century, particularly the past few decades, said Mittermeier. “What remains is heavily fragmented and insufficiently protected, despite the fact that Madagascar has an essential national network of parks and reserves.”
And that brings me to the question: What is news?
NEWS MEDIA FALL SHORT
I’ve visited and written a lot about Ukraine and the Middle East lately. The tragic events happening there are real news, worthy of world attention. But where we in the news media fall down is in covering the big trends — trends that on any given day don’t amount to much but over time could be vastly more significant than we can now imagine.
Too bad we’ll never see this news story: “The U.N. Security Council met today in emergency session to discuss the fact that Madagascar, one the world’s most biodiversity-rich nations, lost another percentage of its plant and animal species.” Or this: “Secretary of State John Kerry today broke off his vacation and rushed to Madagascar to try to negotiate a cease-fire between the loggers, poachers, miners and farmers threatening to devour the last fragments of Madagascar’s unique forests and the tiny group of dedicated local environmentalists trying to protect them.”
Because that won’t happen, we have to think about how this one-of-a-kind natural world can be protected with the limited resources here. We know the answer in theory — a well-managed national system of parks and reserves is vital because, given the current trends, anything outside such protected zones would be devoured by development and population growth. For Madagascar, this is particularly vital because, without its forests, neither its amazing plants nor animals will survive — which are a joy unto themselves and also attract critical tourist income for this incredibly poor country — and the people won’t survive, either. These forests maintain the clean and sustainable water supplies and soils that Madagascar’s exploding population requires.
“We have to preserve this natural environment,” Hery Rajaonarimampianina, Madagascar’s president, told me in an interview. “One of my major policies is to develop eco-tourism. This can bring a lot of jobs. The problem is the poverty of the people that lead them to destroy the environment. That is very sad.”
PARALLELS TO MIDEAST
Madagascar’s ecological challenge parallels the Middle East’s political challenge. The struggle here is all about preserving Madagascar’s natural diversity so its people will have the resilience, tools and options to ensure a decent future. A diverse system in nature is much more resilient and adaptable to change. Monocultures are enormously susceptible to disease. They can be wiped out by a single pest or weather event in a way that a poly-culture cannot.
In the Middle East today, though, the last remnants of poly-cultural nation states and communities are being wiped out. Christians are fleeing the Arab-Muslim world. Islamist jihadists in Syria and Iraq are beheading those who won’t convert to their puritanical Islam. Jews and Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis keep forcing each other into tighter and tighter ghettos. So a human rain forest once rich with ethnic and religious diversity is becoming a collection of disconnected monocultures, enormously susceptible to disease — diseased ideas.