17 amazing facts about Madagascar
1. It’s the world’s fourth largest island
Madagascar is big. It’s 226,917 square miles to be precise, making it the fourth largest island on the planet (and bigger than Spain, Thailand, Sweden and Germany). The UK is a rather puny 93,410 square miles in comparison. Which is the world’s largest island? Take the quiz below to find out.
2. With a big population
There are 26.2 million Malagasies, making it a more populous country than Australia, Sri Lanka, The Netherlands, Romania and Greece.
3. But it wasn’t even discovered until 500AD
Madagascar was only colonised by human settlers relatively recently – perhaps as late as 500AD – some 300,000 years after the first appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa.
4. It had a mad queen
Fans of the Flashman series of novels may well have heard of Ranavalona. She thwarted European efforts to gain sway over Madagascar during her 33-year rule, but also focused her energies on brutally eradicating Christians, neighbouring kingdoms and political rivals. So widespread were the purges, and the use of slave labour to construct a vast palace and public works, that the island’s population fell from five million to 2.5 million between 1833 and 1839. One way Ranavalona maintained order was the tangena ordeal, by which the accused was poisoned, and then forced to eat three pieces of chicken skin. Death, or the failure to regurgitate all three pieces, indicated guilt. Others opponents were simply thrown into vast ravines.
The remains of her palace, the Rova of Antananarivo, can still be seen in the capital.
5. It’s paradise for wildlife lovers
According to Conservation International, just 17 countries are considered “megadiverse”. Each possesses a vast number of different species – many found nowhere else. And Madagascar, thanks largely to being undisturbed by humans for so very long, is one. Among its resident animals are more than half the world’s chameleons and dozens of species of lemur.
Unlike the film Madagascar, however, you won’t see any tigers, giraffes or hippo.
6. And birders
“Confined to one of the world’s most astonishing habitats, the long-tailed ground roller is unique and considered by birdwatchers to be one of the world’s most elusive species,” says Ed Hutchings. “The coastal town of Toliara, in south-west Madagascar, is surrounded by lagoons, mudflats, freshwater marshes and, most importantly, thickets of the bizarre Didierea madagascariensis. These huge octopus trees sprout from the sandy soil, giving an unearthly feel to the place.”
7. Some of its critters are just plain weird
There’s the giraffe-necked weevil, whose appendage helps it roll leaves into tubes for its eggs; the aye-aye lemur, whose long middle finger helps it find grubs hiding inside trees; and the Malagasy giant rat, which can leap three feet into the air.
8. Gerald Durrell was a fan
The naturalist’s last wildlife expedition was to Madagascar, a trip he recollects in his book The Aye-Aye and I. The tour operator Reef & Rainforest offers a 13-night tour roughly tracing his footsteps and taking in some of the remotest, wildest regions of the island. The tour promises “an almost guaranteed chance” to observe the elusive and nocturnal aye-aye in the wild.
9. It has a few World Heritage Sites
They are the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, a 500-year-old burial site, the rainforests of the Atsinanana, which are home to many rare species of primate and lemur, and the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, a labyrinth of limestone that covers a sizeable chunk of the island’s western half. It is utterly impassable, a maze of crooked canyons, caves, tunnels and spires, and relatively unexplored. The unique geology also means there are endemic species that have evolved to embrace life among the karst skyscrapers.
10. They consume quite a lot of marijuana
Almost one in 10 Malagasies smoke weed, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – that’s a higher percentage than do so in The Netherlands. The countries ahead of it include France, Australia, the US and – top of the tree – Iceland.
12. But remains one of the world’s unhappiest places
The World Happiness Report (which aims to “redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of government efforts”), ranks Finland as the cheeriest place on Earth, out of 156 countries, followed by Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Madagascar is the 14th least happy country, it says. As one of the poorest places in the world, with a per capita GDP of $1,554 (putting it 179th out of 187 nations), and an average life expectancy of just 65.5 (in the UK, it’s 81.2), it’s not surprising.
13. Despite the poverty, luxury tourism has arrived
An über-luxury lodge was recently unveiled on Nosy Ankao, the largest of five islands off the north-eastern coast of Madagascar. Miavana (accessible only by helicopter) is a centre for “blue safaris”, with the chance to spot turtles, whales and dolphins on the agenda, along with scuba diving and fishing. There’s also a top notch spa. Start saving up, though – doubles cost from £3,220 a night.