A cruel irony hangs over Madagascar, a massive island about 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. In this wonderland of biodiversity and bucket-list destination for travelers, the very thing that has defined it—isolation—could be its undoing.
Two Coquerel’s sifakas, an endangered lemur species, cling to trees in the Palmarium Reserve on Madagascar, where nearly all international flights have been grounded since late March.
Nearly the size of Texas, and split off from the African mainland some 180 million years ago, this Indian Ocean island is a world apart. It’s the only place on the planet to find lemurs in the wild, and 90 percent of its plants and animals are endemic.
In the capital city of Antananarivo on April 27, a police officer watches a man sweep the street, his penalty for not wearing a face mask in public.
In mid-March, Patricia Wright was in Madagascar, where the renowned primatologist travels six times a year, to oversee the transfer of a dozen greater bamboo lemurs from a rice field into the rain forest. Village farmers had grown agitated over the critically endangered creature eating their crop.
“It was a rescue operation,” says Wright, who runs the state-of-the-art Centre ValBio research station on the edge of Ranomafana National Park, a protected lemur habitat on the eastern coast of Madagascar that she helped establish in 1991.
Just before the expedition launched, the coronavirus hit. Flights in and out of Madagascar came to a grinding halt, and the Malagasy government restricted travel between cities. Wright caught the final flight off the island on March 20—the day Madagascar confirmed its first three COVID-19 cases—and has spent the ensuing weeks across the globe in New York, where she is a professor at Long Island’s Stony Brook University.
Empty recliners dot Ifaty beach on Madagascar, where tourism had been on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic.
“We sent a message to the village to be sure they understood why we couldn’t come,” she says. “They said they would continue not to hunt [the lemurs] and wait for us to come. But when can we go? Everything’s locked down.” The scenario underscores the challenges facing Madagascar’s biodiversity in the time of COVID-19.
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