for National Geographic News
Last October Madagascar's Ibity Massif was engulfed in flames. The mountain is famous among botanists, because as many as 20 plant species found there grow nowhere else in the world.
Neither unique plants nor fire are unusual on Madagascar, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. An estimated 80 percent of the Madagascan flora is endemic. Fires, both natural and human-caused, have burned seasonally dry parts of the island with clockwork regularity for millennia.
But the blaze that scorched Ibity seven months ago was particularly badand now scientists are hoping that they can use surveys of the plant population before the fire to monitor how the mountain vegetation recovers from such a catastrophe, if at all. The fire, it is hoped, may have provided a rare opportunity to understand how burning may have contributed to the widespread destruction of Madagascar's once mighty forests and grasslandsand how plants may eventually make a comeback.
Most of Madagascar's fires are started by cowherds (to encourage the growth of tender shoots for their cattle), cattle rustlers (to hide their tracks), hunters (to flush out game), farmers (to clear the land of forest for agriculture)or even by sparring political groups (to demonstrate that their rivals do not have control of an area). One study determined that an average of 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) was burned each year between 1984 and 1996.
The relentless burning of Magadascar is controversial. Some experts believe that fires started by people are the root cause of the destruction of the great majority of the island's indigenous forests and grasslands. Others believe that much of the island's vegetation has adapted to the periodic fires, and that the erosion is attributable to a combination of many causes.
Every year a portion of Ibity Massif burns, usually the result of fires intentionally lighted to encourage new grass growth. The fires are generally lighted on old pasturelands on the lower slopes and farther out on the rolling grasslands of the high plateau.
"But the October 2003 fire was unusually extensive, in that practically the whole site was burnt," said Chris Birkinshaw, a biologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden who is stationed in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city.
The October fire coincided with a field trip to Madagascar by members of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. Stunned by the inferno, the committee awarded Birkinshaw emergency funding to study the fire's effect on Ibity's unique flora.
The fire is inseparable from the Madagascan agriculture and ranching economy. Birkinshaw said, however, that almost no research has been done to determine the effect of the frequent burning on Madagascar's native plants.
The sense among conservationists, he said, is that current rates of burning "are too frequent and impoverishing ecosystems." He hopes the current study will help reveal an answer to the question of how much fire is good for Madagascar's biodiversity.
According to preliminary results from the study, few mature plants died in the inferno and regrowth of species was rapid.
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