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The Eighth Continent:: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar Paperback – June 26, 2001
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It sounded as if the island was being set up for a demographic collapse similar to the one that affected Ireland in the 19th century, and the concern about preserving an island watershed resonated as well, since I, too, live on an island with a watershed that is deteriorating. But I did not rush out to help the Malagasy save themselves from themselves, nor even make any effort to learn more about their situation. They are, after all, as Neville Chamberlain said about the Czechs, a distant people of whom we know nothing.
Besides, at that time Peter Tyson had not published his excellent "The Eighth Continent," which while formally a report about conservation studies by westerners in Madagascar is practically a very long encyclopedia article about the island.
A magazine writer with a taste for hiking, Tyson made a number of visits to field research projects in the `90s, each lasting at least long enough to do some observation on his own. These reports are woven deftly into reports from earlier travelers concerning the anthropology, political history, natural history, economic activity etc. of the island over the past couple of hundred years. There is some material about earlier times, though sketchy, as the Malagasy did not write until Christian missionaries reduced their language to paper less than 200 years ago.
Since they were in contact by -- and partly descendants of -- Arabs, this illiteracy is surprising, but then, most things about Madagascar are surprising. It had the world's largest birds and all the lemurs.
One of the surprising things about this book is how little there is in it about lemurs, the charismatic animal group of the island today. It is a meaty volume nevertheless, as much for what it does not say as for what it does.
For example, in travels all over the island, Tyson never reports encountering a policeman, and virtually no representative of central government of any kind in the rural areas. The place is so poor as to be effectively ungoverned; even if the government had any interest, it has no resources.
Tyson finds the people attractive and kind, though wary, although their history is extremely violent, and given the lack of any order-making authority, appears to be very violent still.
A cover blurb from Discover magazine describes the book as "part field report, part travelogue," but this does not really capture its range. It does read like a travelogue of the better sort. I am mistrustful of travelogue writers, having found that all that I have checked up on are liars, but the only obvious error that I found in the whole book was a reference to the "heady scent of blossoming bougainvillea."
The first 90 percent of the volume is expositional in tone, but there is bite in the final pages, in which Tyson exposes the entire conservationist project -- with which he obviously has deep sympathy -- to a searching critique. This is fair-minded of him and so unexpected given the tone of most green literature of the past decade ("The Eighth Continent" just makes it into this dismal decade, having been published in 2000).
Tyson says some have called Madagascar an eighth continent because it is so big (as big as Texas, or, as we have recently learned to think of these things, as Afghanistan), and because of its long isolation it possesses (or once possessed) a true continent's worth of characteristic plants and animals. Nevertheless, it is still an island and still subject to the harsh constraints of island biogeography. Should the people of Texas or Afghanistan eat themselves out of house and home, they can retreat to Oklahoma or Iran. The Malagasy have no place to go.
I would recommend reading Mike Eveleigh's, Maverick in Madagascar, after this.