Massive, hilly Madagascar—the fourth-largest island in the world—is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.
Slightly smaller than the state of Texas, Madagascar is located approximately 250 miles (402 kilometers) east of Mozambique, a country along the southeast coast of Africa. Madagascar is surrounded by the Indian Ocean on all sides except for its western border, which lies along the Mozambique Channel. In addition to Mozambique, its closet neighbors are the Comoros Islands and the islands of Réunion and Mauritius.
Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo, sits in the center of the island. Hills and mountains cover much of the middle of the island. At 9,435 feet (2,876 meters), Mount Maromokotro is the country’s highest mountain.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Most of the country’s population lives on the eastern half of the island, but many people also live in the central highlands, near the capital city of Antananarivo. Most Malagasy live in rural areas, where their daily life revolves around agriculture. A lot of them are farmers, producing rice, coffee, and other products.
Madagascar has a youthful population, with over 60 percent of its residents under the age of 25. Music is an important part of Malagasy culture. Villages often hold parties in which locals can dance or play music with things like the valiha, a guitar-like instrument considered to be the national instrument of Madagascar.
The island’s cuisine has been influenced by the countries surrounding it, with Southeast Asian and African ingredients found in most dishes. The most commonly served Malagasy meal is a base of rice, called vary, served with one other ingredient of the diner’s choice, called laoka. The laoka can be a vegetable or meat item, and is typically covered in sauce flavored with ginger, onion, garlic, and spices or herbs.
Almost 90 percent of the plants and animals living on Madagascar aren’t found anywhere else in the world. That’s because strong ocean currents have isolated the island from the African continent, so the species living there haven’t traveled beyond the island’s borders.
Lush rainforests, dry deserts, and grassy plains cover the island, with coral reef and mangrove forests stretching along its coastlines. Madagascar’s most famous animal species, lemurs, live only in Madagascar and can be found in almost every habitat on the island. Silky sifakas, a type of lemur and one of the rarest mammals on Earth, can be found in the rainforests, along with giant leaf-tailed geckos and nocturnal aye-ayes. Spider tortoises and Dumeril's boas live in the deserts, and Madagascan plovers can be spotted flying over the island’s central plains. Humpback whales and pygmy blue whales have been spotted along the island’s coasts.
The species thought to be most representative of the island (other than lemurs) is the baobab tree, the national tree of Madagascar. The thick, straight trunk of the tree swells into the shape of a bottle as it collects rainwater.
Deforestation and poaching, or the illegal killing of animals, threaten much of Madagascar’s habitat and wildlife. Many trees are harvested for firewood, and the loss of forest reduces where Madagascar’s animals can live. And since many of the island’s animals are so rare, they’re highly prized by poachers.
Madagascar is a semi-presidential republic. The public elects a president, who in turn appoints a prime minister to put together a cabinet to advise the president. Madagascar’s constitution, which was written in 1992, established independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The prime minister is in charge of the legislative and judicial branches, and creates and executes laws. The president formally represents Madagascar at ceremonies around the world.
Eighty percent of Madagascar’s economy is fueled by agricultural industries, including forestry and fishing. Among the island’s most frequently sold agricultural products are coffee, vanilla, and sugarcane.
Humans have lived in Madagascar only for about 1,300 years. The first settlers on the island are believed to have arrived from Indonesia in Southeast Asia. For centuries, many small kingdoms ruled different areas of the island.
France invaded the island in 1883. After more than a decade of resistance from the island’s kingdoms, the country officially declared Madagascar a French colony in 1896 and broke up the competing kingdoms.
After World War II, in 1947, locals fought for their independence from France in what became known as the Malagasy Uprising. In 1960, Madagascar finally became an independent nation.