The new protected areas include three large tracts of forests and wetlands, as well as smaller areas set up to create wildlife corridors linking protected regions.
Among threatened species found in these areas are the giant jumping rat and the pygmy mouse lemur, one of the world's smallest primates. (Related: "Giant Jumping Rats' Numbers Get Big Bounce in Madagascar" [September 25, 2006].)
But many environmentalists have long viewed Madagascar as a conservation disaster. The island has suffered for decades from forest destruction, illegal wildlife trade, and other problems.
Historically, only a small portion of the country's area—about 3 percent—has been protected.
In 2003 the island's president, Marc Ravalomanana, pledged to triple the protected areas. His government set aside 2.5 million acres (a million hectares) of new protected areas in late 2005.
But overall, more than 90 percent of Madagascar's original forests have disappeared, largely due to so-called slash-and-burn agriculture.
The mighty jungles have been burned by farmers to clear land for planting crops and by cowherds to encourage the growth of tender shoots for cattle.
One study determined that an average of 1.5 million acres (600,000 hectares) were burned each year between 1984 and 1996.
"The biggest threat continues to be the poverty of the country," CI President Mittermeier said. "The tendency is still to go and do slash-and-burn agriculture and cut down pieces of forest for short-term plots."
"But you keep doing that ... and eventually there's nothing left."
The key to preserving Madagascar's remaining wilderness, Mittermeier said, is to develop community-based programs that aim to bolster economic benefits for the local people who live in and around the protected areas.
As part of that effort, his organization has worked to set up guide associations that train local people to work as eco-tourism guides.
Not all experts are convinced, however, that the parks will benefit local communities.
"Many farmers and herders around the island resent the way past parks have restricted their access to natural resources crucial to their livelihoods, [such as] land for farming and forage for grazing," said Christian Kull of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, author of Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar.
The rapid expansion of the park system may undermine efforts initiated in the mid-1990s to give more formal control over forests, lakes, and pastures to local community groups, he said.
"I worry that these new protected areas may become 'paper parks,' demarcated on maps but unenforceable and unpopular on the ground," Kull said.
But Mittermeier disagreed. He does not foresee a need for more rangers to protect the new parks, but instead expects local communities to be supportive of the effort once they see the economic benefits.
The annual cost of the park system is currently around five million U.S. dollars, which is covered by international donors. The figure may double as a result of the expansion, Mittermeier said.
Meanwhile, scientists working in Madagascar are discovering a slew of new species almost on a daily basis.
"When I first started working there almost ten years ago, there were about 30 species of lemurs recognized," said Mireya Mayor, a primatologist at State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"That total has since tripled, as we now recognize over 90 species." (Mayor has received funding from the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)
"Our recent discoveries in Madagascar," Mayor added, "demonstrate just how little we know about this unique island and the urgent need to protect the landscape that serves as home for these truly amazing animals."
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