5. The Spiney Forest of Southwest Madagascar

After retracing the rough four-hour drive from Berenty back to Fort Dauphin, we took an hour flight to the southwest coastal town of Tulear. The spiny forest and its unique birds awaited us near the coastal village of Ifaty, another hour north by bus. Both towns are located on the eastern shore of Madagascar about 500 miles across the Mozambique Channel from Africa. Ifaty is a dusty fishing village that caters to tourists who want to lie in the sun and snorkel on the reefs. We stayed at one of those nice resorts right on the beach, but had little time for the leisure life.


The Sacred Spiny Forests

Our destination that day was the spiny forest, which is a vast desert forest that stretches around southwestern Madagascar. This unique area is also known as spiny thickets that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports “receives only 12 to 24 inches of rain per year, yet is one of the most biologically significant places on Earth.” The vegetation has adapted to the extremely dry weather and poor soil with plants producing small leathery leaves that preserve moisture and spines to discourage grazing animals.

Indigenous communities in the spiny forest revere their sacred forests and had kept them largely intact until recent times. Traditional practices included taboos on cutting trees in designated areas. For eons, the people lived off the land using tavy, the slash and burn agriculture. Land not designated as taboo was available to anyone who needed to use it and there was no need for cash.

As the population grew, eventually the free land could no longer support the needs of the people. They needed money to buy what they could not grow. The only way for people who live in the spiny forest to generate cash is to sell charcoal. Where the needs of the people have put pressure on sacred lands, reserves, and parks, the communities have had to relax customary taboos, which threatens the remaining trees and all the wildlife that have sought refuge on the remaining sacred land.

In the 1960s, several international conservation organizations came together to work with Madagascar’s government to address the pressure on natural resources. They surveyed what protected areas still existed in the spiny forest and the rest of the country. By the time we visited in 2004, conservationists were working with the communities to preserve the forest’s habitats and wildlife.

On our first morning of birding in the spiny forest, I was eager to explore another brand new habitat. I dressed in my lightest gear, long shirtsleeves and pants, a broad-brimmed hat, and sunblock. We ate early and headed out to our first birding spot before the heat increased, knowing it would be ferocious.


Sacrificing the Environment for Charcoal

Our small bus turned onto a road that ended in a cluster of mud and wattle houses. Several men jumped up from under the eaves of the nearest house led by a Rastafarian-looking fellow. “Don’t worry,” Mark assured us. ”Mosa isn’t as fierce as he appears.”

Mosa greeted Mark with a big smile, a firm handshake, and a manly hug, and then introduced the six guides with him. We shook hands all around, then broke into two groups; one for the avid birders and one for the generalists and those interested in photos and plant life as well as birds. I joined the birdy group.

As we followed our local guide, Tov, into the scrub, two other guides disappeared ahead of us, trotting along the sandy paths that vehicles had carved into the dry bush. We passed a shallow pit strewn with tiny bits of charcoal. These pits looked like the charcoal pits I saw in Tanzania in the 1960s when I taught school during my Peace Corps work. I never knew the exact details of making charcoal, but I recognized the pits.

When I asked Tov about the pit, he gave a deep sigh. “Yes, villagers chopped down one of the few remaining hardwood trees to make charcoal..” Then he explained the process. “They bury the wood, cover it with the sandy soil, and set it afire. When they do that, smoke billows out from the mound of wood and soil. It doesn’t burn all the way like in a cooking fire, but just enough to leave charcoal. Then they put the charcoal in a large bag, as tall as me, and sell each bag for one dollar.”

We had driven past the piles of bags sitting by the side of the road that morning. “If they can get a cart,” added Tov, “they will take them to the market in Ifaty.”

Most of the few remaining trees that we could see were isolated baobabs scattered amidst the scrub. In the arid environment these trees store water in their fat swollen trunks. They can grow up to 36 feet in diameter and are topped with absurdly tiny tops. Six species of baobabs grow in Madagascar, while only one species populates all of Africa. The baobab trees I saw in Tanzania and Kenya were not what we were seeing in Madagascar.

Baobob Tree

Baobabs are not good for making charcoal, so perhaps this is why some were still standing. Baobab leaves have a medicinal use, the fruit is edible, and the tough seeds of the fuzzy fruit yield cooking oil. When the inevitable droughts descend on the spiny desert, starving people will eat the baobab’s leaves and shoots, as well as the meager pulp around the seeds. In the worst drought, trees are chopped down to let the thirsty cattle chew on the pulpy interior.

As we continued down the soft sand road, Tov pointed out the endemic plants called euphorbias that are full of spines and tiny leaves. The octopus plant, didiera, reminded me of ocotillos in the southwest deserts of the United States.

Houses of Ifaty

The tall clumps of branches can grow 45-feet tall and have long,vicious spines. The small leathery leaves conserve water and were found on similar plants that seemed bare from a distance. Later, Mark told us that the Tandroy who live in the area use the thin pieces of hard wood from these plants for fences and the walls to their houses.

The widely spaced bushes and trees gave little shade as we walked, and as the sun rose the heat seared us through our clothing. Walking in the deep sand was hard work and I veered to the edges of the narrowing road, trying to find solid ground. It seemed the plants had the same idea and I got stabbed several times when I ventured too close to their territory.


In Pursuit of a Splendid Bird

We strolled through the gray-green bushes identifying common birds and plants until we heard a whistle and a shout in the distance. “Follow me, he has found one,” Tov whispered as he waved for us to follow.

Found what? I wondered. Something good I hope—from the way he’s running, it sure looks like it!

For ten minutes, we mushed through the soft sand, legs aching and wilting in the heat. Finally, we caught up to Tov. He signaled us to stop, wait, and be quiet. He pointed to the path ahead. Still panting, we heard tiny crisp cracks from the brush on the right side of the path. The two guides who had run ahead of us slowly walked in our direction through the bare grey stalks. We peered into the brush, tense with anticipation. “Look, look,” Tov whispered, pointing in front of the other guides.

A slender, leggy, blue-gray bird with a rusty breast and the size of a chicken picked its way through the thorny branches. He stopped at the edge of the brush and then stepped on to the open pathway.

Tov whispered again, “Olive-capped Coua.” (Pronounced “koo-a.”)

Coua Watching

We focused our binoculars and marveled at every detail. Like all couas, this bird had a large and striking bright blue, featherless eye patch. The rusty cap on this particular bird’s head identified it as the Olive-capped Coua, one of many strange anomalies I discovered in the bird-naming world. Whether the cap was rusty or olive colored, the bird was gorgeous. It leisurely walked across the path, stepped into the brush on the far side, and disappeared. We lowered our binoculars, exhaled, and smiled.


Shells for Sale

During our afternoon rest time when birds are quiet, I wandered along the beach in shaded areas protected against the fierce sun. A group of women crouched just past the beach property line and displayed their offerings on portable tables; bright clam shells, shiny brown cowries the size of my fist, and patterned cone shells that had to have been taken off the reef when the animal was alive. As a scuba diver, I understand the temptation to take live shells. They have stunning patterns and are clean and shiny because the animal inside covers the shell with its flesh when it is relaxed and feeding. However, I worry when I see these pristine shells for sale, knowing how the removal and trade in such shells can upset the ecosystem. The reef along the coast is lengthy and only a few people are harvesting the shells, so I thought, The Madagascar shell populations are sustainable—for now.

Shell Sellers near Ifaty

When I saw the enterprising women displaying their shells, hoping to make a day’s wages, I decided to be optimistic and give them the benefit of the doubt. I told myself, One positive way to think about the shell trade is that it brings in cash, which might buy food, and perhaps spare the remaining trees in the forests—a tough choice.

Then I considered the other side of the situation: Maybe I shouldn’t buy anything. It may also be a bad precedent to encourage the shell trade.

Wanting to support the local economy and protect the local environment as well, I wondered, How will the reef populations be sustained as tourist trade increases? What will it be? People or trees? Or reefs?

I didn’t have a clear answer for myself on the beach that day and I still don’t know the answer more than a decade later. In the end, I did not buy any shells.

In the late afternoon, only David and I chose to go out birding again. The merciless sun proved the point about the wisdom of birding early. We knew the chances of seeing something were slim, but you never know. The others chose to read, or sit under an umbrella on the beach, or nap. None of those options appealed to me, but for a few moments as I struggled through the soft sand feeling my hot shirt ruffling on my sweaty skin, I knew what ever we saw, I would remember the experience forever.