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Discovering Madagascar, the eighth continent

Article by Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah

Posted: June 13, 2022

Madagascar is sometimes called the eighth continent but it could almost be its own planet. From the landscapes to the local culture and of course the wildlife, it’s an incredibly unique island nation. 

It might be most famous for its lemurs, but Madagascar teems with plenty of other wonders. Avenues of baobabs cut striking silhouettes against the sky in the west, spiny forests proliferate the desert-like landscapes of the south, tropical rainforests unfurl onto white sand beaches in the north, and in the middle of it all, the capital city of Antananarivo sits as a hub of culture layered with centuries of influences from all corners of the Indian Ocean. 

There is nowhere else in the world quite like it. Choosing conservation volunteering in Madagascar is an opportunity to experience life on this Indian Ocean island. 


A diverse mix of people

Original photo: by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash


Madagascar is unlike anywhere in Africa or Asia – but with influences from both, it feels somewhere in between. Although the island is close to the coast of Africa, the Malagasy people originally came from Indonesia and Borneo. They were followed by waves of migrants from East Africa, India, and China, each group adding to the eclectic mix of cultures. Today, there are around 20 different ethnic groups in Madagascar.

Most people speak Malagasy, and French is widely spoken, a remnant of French colonisation; Madagascar was a French overseas territory from 1896 until it gained independence again in 1960. 

A large part of the population depends on subsistence farming for survival. According to the World Bank, 81% of people live below the poverty line. 

A student teaching internship is an effective way of contributing to local communities, assisting with raising English proficiency for children and adults. If you’re interested in being immersed in Malagasy culture and giving back at the same time, one of these teaching internships might suit you. 


Culture and customs


Original photo: “Taxi brousse – Madagascar_MG_1182″  by fveronesi1 licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0


Many of the customs and traditions in Madagascar reflect the diverse origins of its people. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet locals when catching taxi-brousse (bush taxis), enjoying village stays,  when taking part in festivals, or when volunteering with GVI. Getting involved in local life is a great opportunity to learn more about the unique traditions of Malagasy people. 

Malagasy people still have strong spiritual beliefs and taboos called fady. These rules, passed down from ancestors, influence many aspects of daily life in Madagascar – they can apply to people, places, or even animals and plants. For example, it can be fady to cut down a forest or take fish from a particular lake, but it can also mean no funerals or farming can take place on a Tuesday. 

Many Malagasy people continue to observe traditional customs, such as the funerary tradition famadihana, also known as ‘the turning of the bones’. During this ceremony, the bodies of ancestors are removed from family crypts and rewrapped in fresh cloth before being placed back in the tomb. 


Epic landscapes


Original photo: by Ban Yido on Unsplash


Madagascar has more than 40 national parks and reserves, and each one is tinged with the surreal. From the sandstone formations and palm-fringed oases of Isalo National Park, to the dense green of the Andasibe rainforest where the eerie call of the Indri lemur echoes around mist-shrouded hills, and the tsingy rock pinnacles rising in jagged fingers in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Madagascar seems to encompass every landscape imaginable. 

Even outside of the wild, untouched corners of Madagascar, the landscapes and scenery are stunning. In Antananarivo, pastel-coloured houses crowd cobbled streets on hills overlooking lush rice fields. Outside of the city, in the highlands, emerald rice terraces are lined by dykes of red earth, and multicoloured Hauts Plateaux houses add daubs of colour to the bare, rolling hills.

Sadly, the diversity of Madagascar is under threat. Already more than 90% of the island has been deforested to make space for livestock and rice fields, as well as vanilla and illegal marijuana plantations. This mass deforestation has caused landslides, flooding, and extinction for many species, including lemurs. 

Conservation work is urgently needed to protect Madagascar’s remaining intact habitats and the creatures that live there. If you’re interested in conservation volunteering, GVI’s volunteer programs are one way to take action to protect Madagascar’s biodiversity. 

When you choose conservation volunteering or a student teaching internship with GVI in Madagascar, you’ll be based on the island of Nosy Be in the northwest. Nosy Be is fantastically tropical, surrounded by long stretches of white sand, lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and located next to Lokobe National Park, where old-growth rainforest shelters endangered and critically endangered lemurs. 


Wonderful, wild wildlife


Original photo: by Amy Reed on Unsplash


Madagascar is famous for its biodiversity, and rightly so; 5% of all known plant and animal species in the world are found only on this one island. Chameleons, frogs, lemurs, mongooses, fossa, turtles – incredibly rare and endangered wildlife hop, crawl, swing, fly and swim in all of the diverse habitats found on the island. 

The ring-tailed lemur is the most iconic of the creatures calling Madagascar home, but there are more than 100 lemur species across the island. Nearly all are threatened with extinction. 

Habitat loss, climate change, and population pressure threaten many of the thousands of endemic creatures in Madagascar. Critically endangered species include the Silky Sifaka, which means “angel of the forest” and refers to its white fur. This lemur is one of the rarest mammals on the planet. 

Without urgent conservation action, Madagascar’s incredible biodiversity might be lost. This gives each trip to this magnificent island a sense of gravity, but also a deep purpose. Opportunities such as conservation volunteering programs and student teaching internship programs can play a role in making travel a force for good.

Discover Madagascar and give back at the same time when you choose conservation volunteering or student teaching internship programs with GVI. Get in touch with our friendly team today to find out more. 


We understand that you may have questions about how COVID-19 will affect your travel plans. Visit our FAQs page which explains our latest safety protocols in response to COVID-19. 

Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.

By Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure and sustainable travel. She has been writing about travel for more than five years and her work has appeared in print and digital publications including National Geographic Travel, Conde Nast Travel, Business Insider, Atlas Obscura and more. You can see more of her work at petrinadarrah.com.
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