From: Reuters
Published March 10, 2008 08:07 AM

Madagascar slows destruction of forests

By Ed Harris

PORT LOUIS (Reuters) - The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar has reduced the destruction of its protected forests eight-fold as it tries to preserve its unique wildlife and earn more from tourists, conservation officials say.

Home to hundreds of species from chameleons and lemurs to magnificent baobab trees, the world's fourth largest island aims to keep 6 million hectares (15 million acres), or about 10 percent of its surface area, as nature reserves.

Satellite images show deforestation has fallen in those areas to 0.1 percent per year of existing forest from 0.8 percent in the 1990s, conservation groups and the government say.

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"We need to do a lot. But the important thing is that the trend is in the right direction, which is not the case for every country in the world," James MacKinnon, who works for Conservation International in Madagascar, told Reuters.

Deforestation across Madagascar has come down to 0.5 percent, MacKinnon added. The main causes of forest destruction in Madagascar are clearing trees for farms and burning wood to make charcoal.

Since President Marc Ravalomanana vowed to ramp up environmental protection in 2003, a combination of tree-planting, community involvement and the extension of reserves have all contributed to less deforestation.

More than 90 percent of the mammals which inhabit Madagascar are found nowhere else while all but one of its 217 species of amphibians are endemic.

"We have a unique biodiversity. Eighty percent of our species are endemic. Our neighboring countries like Mauritius, the Seychelles or even Reunion cannot compete with us in this respect," the environment and tourism minister, Harison Edmond Randriarimanana said.

"We are going to sell this to tourists."

Conservationist MacKinnon said protection of the forests would also help to combat climate change.

Scientists say deforestation in the tropics causes about 20 percent of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions and preserving what is left of them is crucial because they soak up enormous amounts of the gas responsible for the bulk of global warming.

"We think deforestation has been too neglected in the climate change debate," MacKinnon said.

Madagascar's forests are small by comparison with those of Brazil or Indonesia, but have almost as much variety in their animals and plants.

"In terms of biodiversity, Madagascar is up there with both of those countries," MacKinnon said.

Madagascar broke away from the rest of Africa around 160 million years ago, leaving its flora and fauna to evolve in isolation.

(Additional reporting by Alain Iloniaina; Editing by Alastair Sharp)

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