Monday, January 26, 2009

Madagascar (Part One)

I'd pretty much forgotten about this - I wrote it a while back as a college assignment. (My tutor didn't think much of my sense of humour and gave me a C. Miserable bitch.) It runs to a little over 2500 words, so I'll post bits over the next week or so. I have yet to sell it in anywhere...

The island of Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. On a map it looks, in the words of writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell, “like a badly presented omelette.” About the size of France, it’s the fourth largest island in the world – Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo are the top three – and is home to over 200,000 species, 80 per cent of them unique to Madagascar, and many of them in danger of extinction.

Whether we like to admit it or not, there are some species whose endangered status comes as no surprise. These are the creatures which somehow managed to find a quiet, secluded spot to hide while natural selection went blundering past. Through a combination of a fortunate location and a lack of competition from animals which are just, well, better at being animals, they have managed to survive, and in some cases even to prosper until fairly recently in evolutionary terms.

Until around 160 million years ago, Madagascar was attached to the African mainland – part of the super-continent Gondwanaland, which also contained Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica and India. As the continent broke up, Madagascar began to move away from Africa. The first lemur-like primates surfaced on the mainland about 60 million years ago and crossed to Madagascar soon after.

By the time monkeys appeared as the bright, confident, competitive new kids on the block, a mere 17–23 million years ago, the island was far enough east to be isolated and its wildlife safe from their attentions.

Madagascar’s diverse and teeming fauna flourished until the arrival of man, thought to be as recently as 2,000 years ago. Early settlers followed the same pattern as everywhere else on the planet by killing everything slow or stupid enough to be caught, big enough to look dangerous, or small enough to fit in a cooking pot. Viewing wildlife as lumps of protein rather than creatures worth preserving is an attitude still prevalent in some parts of the island today.

Although the island has an enlightened approach to animal conservation in theory – it has, for example, been illegal to kill lemurs or keep them as pets since 1964, and there are a number of protected national parks – the authorities continue to struggle with the difficulties of policing such a huge area.

Another problem is that Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries. Not long ago the island’s economy was fragile enough to have been sent into a tailspin by Coca Cola changing to a recipe containing less vanilla - a major Madagascan export - only for the economy to recover on the introduction of vanilla-rich Coke Classic.

The average Malagasy has an income of less than $300 per annum, and only 30 per cent of the island’s population of around 19 million lives in cities. The rest are dependent on agriculture, often at subsistence level, and are competing for resources with some of the planet’s most endangered species.

It’s all too easy, then, to imagine a scenario where a Malagasy farmer might be peacefully making his way home through the forest at dusk, his mind elsewhere, when a huge rat erupts from the vegetation of the forest floor like one of the more sophisticated types of landmine and hangs in the air in front of him, defying gravity just long enough for him to raise his shotgun and give it both barrels.

The Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat (Hypogeomys antimena)
The size of a domestic rabbit, the giant jumping rat has developed the ability to leap a metre into the air. While entertaining, this is unconvincing as a survival measure, as all even a dim-witted predator has to do is to stand still and wait for the rat to come down again. The ability to leap into the air and then immediately hurtle a kilometre sideways, or twenty minutes into the future, would obviously be better, although no doubt both those techniques would have their drawbacks.

Perhaps the rat relies on the predator feeling so embarrassed at missing its prey that it just keeps going, blushing and hoping none of its friends have seen it. Or, just maybe, the rat has heard that its major nemesis, the puma-like fossa, is also endangered, and thinks that it may be able to stay in the air long enough for the fossa to become extinct. It’s a bit unlikely, but who knows what a rat thinks?

Although the rats’ spring-loaded hindquarters are an interesting development, a better evolutionary tack would have been the ability to produce more offspring. Jumping rats are commendably but fatally restrained in their sexual practices – they are monogamous – and a litter usually consists of only one or two young, many of whom are lost to predators, both the indigenous fossa and introduced species like cats and dogs.

In fact the rat is at risk not from being used as target practice by nervous Malagasy peasants, but, inevitably, from the loss of its habitat to farming – the slash and burn approach to agriculture is still rife in Madagascar and impacts almost all the fauna on the island, herbivore and carnivore alike.

Coming next - the fossa.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sounds like...

Even though I left Belfast in 1973, I still have quite a strong Northern Irish accent. I didn’t realise how strong until a few months back. I was in a pizza restaurant in London with a bunch of Soo’s pals and their partners. (In a rare attack of culture we’d been to The Globe Theatre to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was reasonably funny by Shakespearian standards. Which is not that funny, actually.)

Anyway, as all of us are middle-aged or worse, it didn’t take long for the conversation to come around to health, good and bad. Someone asked me about the medication I take to control my blood pressure. “Atenolol,” I said, “and amlodipine.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” they said, “Do you take anything for it?”

“Yes,” I said, “Atenolol and amlodipine.”

“But do you take anything for it?”

“For what?”

“For the pain.”

“What pain?”

“You said you were in a lot of pain.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

And so on. For about five minutes. Eventually one of us (I can’t remember which one) realised what the rest of you probably figured out a while back – in a noisy pizza place my accent makes the word “amlodipine” sound as if I’m complaining about searing agony.

How we laughed. And how empty our lives must be, to find hilarity in such meagre things.