for National Geographic News
Thousands of plants and animals on the African island nation of Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world. Within this treasure trove of biodiversity, the crown jewel is a seven-year-old national park on a peninsula in the northeast corner.
"Certainly, it is a hot spot within a hot spot," said James MacKinnon, a conservation biologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society who serves as the technical advisor for Masoala National Park.
On average, about 20 research teams from all over the world trek to Masoala each year to study the lemurs, chameleons, frogs, butterflies, palms, fish, octopuses, and hundreds of other furry, scaly, and slimy creatures that choke its rain forests and ply its coastal waters.
Created in 1997, Masoala covers 840 square miles (2,175 square kilometers) including intact rain forest from sea level to 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), including three marine reserves home to vibrant coral reefs. The park is the largest such protected area on the island.
Conservationists and scientists laud the park as a last stronghold and refuge for many species facing increasing threats from logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and destructive fishing practices.
"In Madagascar virtually all the biodiversity is found in the forests, and once they go, everything goes," said Helen Crowley, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Madagascar program.
Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at Princeton University in New Jersey who was instrumental in the establishment of Masoala, said the park's protection allows a constant stream of new species discoveries and new records of rare species.
"When we study any [plant or animal] group, we find new species, find new records of species found in only a few places, find species that are considered rare elsewhere. That's what makes Masoala so special," she said.
A key discovery came four years before the park was officially established. In November of 1993 Russell Thorstrom of the Boise, Idaho-based Peregrine Fund rediscovered the serpent eagle while walking through the dense forests on the Masoala Peninsula.
The eagle, one of the rarest birds in the world, had not been seen in over 60 years and was thought to be extinct.
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