The Landmarks of Madagascar

by Ethan Shaw
From coast to interior highlands, Madagascar's natural landmarks are highly varied.

From coast to interior highlands, Madagascar's natural landmarks are highly varied.

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Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, lies off the eastern coast of Africa, set between the Mozambique Channel and the open Indian Ocean. Long isolated from other landmasses, the country is famous for a rich assortment of endemic species, including the charismatic primates called lemurs and recently extinct giant flightless birds. But strong variations in geology and climate ensure its physical landmarks are equally intriguing for resident and visitor alike.


Away from its coastal plains, Madagascar features significant uplifts. The highest point in the country is 9,446-foot Maromokotro, a summit on the Tsaratanana Massif that dominates the north end of the island. Southward rise the central highlands, one of Madagascar's chief geographic regions. This rolling plateau is studded with scattered volcanic massifs and granite formations and dissected here and there by rivers like the Mangoro and Maningory and their tributaries. Its eastern front manifests as a series of steep escarpments while to the west the highlands grade more gently toward the coastal plain. Elevations are typically in the vicinity of 2,600 to 5,900 feet although particular summits rise higher, such as the 8,744-foot volcanic massif called Ankaratra.


Several large lakes also function as important landmarks in Madagascar. Biggest of all is 25-mile-long Lake Alaotra, occupying part of a rift valley in the central highlands and hemmed in by the escarpments of Grand Angavo to the west and Mangoro-Alaotra to the east. The lake lies about 110 miles northeast of Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo, and today is a center for rice production. Set at 2,496 feet above sea level, Alaotra is fed by the Sasomanga, Sahabe, Sahamaloto and Anony Rivers and drained at its northeastern end by the Maningory. Some of Magascar's volcanoes contain crater lakes, such as Lake Itasy in its eponymous volcanic field in the highlands.


Madagascar's highly distinct climate regions result in a striking mix of native ecosystems, which, despite being heavily altered by humankind, still function as natural landmarks in their own way. Shreds of rainforest persist along the severe escarpments, buttressing the narrow eastern coastal plain; here, northeastern trade winds spill large amounts of precipitation as they slough up toward the interior highlands. By contrast, southern Madagascar, which only receives about 16 inches of annual rainfall, supports an exceptionally unique spiny forest: The World Wildlife Fund reports that 95 percent of the vegetation here is found nowhere else in the world. North of the spiny forest is succulent woodland that includes some of Madagascar's famous, enormous baobabs. Along some 620 miles of the lightly populated, sheltered west coast of Madagascar, extensive mangrove swamps thrive, concealing such rare species as dugong and Nile crocodiles.


Despite extreme environmental issues, such as deforestation, Madagascar's natural landscapes remain destinations for ecotourists. Rich coral reefs and coastal forests are on display at the Mananara Nord National Park and Biosphere Reserve along Antongil Bay in northeastern Madagascar. Berenty Private Reserve near the island's southern tip showcases the spiny forest while the Analamazaotra Andasibe Special Reserve in the east has lemur-rich rain forest.

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