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Cyclones Decimate Madagascar Species

Madagascar cyclones fell trees, kill rare animals

Planet Ark -- Reuters March 20, 2000

ANTANANARIVO - The cyclones that ripped through Madagascar recently almost certainly tore down areas of endangered forest and killed some of the island's rare animals and birds, wildlife experts say.

Jean-Paul Paddack, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Madagascar, said cyclones Eline and Gloria packed winds of above 200 kph (130 mph) and would have blown down sections of Madagascar's rich rainforests.

"I think the biggest impact is probably on forest cover, just the sheer force of wind blowing away trees. I suspect some species were caught in that and died, no doubt," Paddack told Reuters. He said the species caught in the cyclones included birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

"They would have been knocked down from trees and washed away in rivers or affected by trees falling," Paddack said.

Madagascar, which lies off the eastern coast of Africa, is home to thousands of species of animals found nowhere else on earth. They include most of the world's lemurs - monkey-like mammals with huge eyes - as well as hundreds of rare and unique species of birds, chameleons and brightly-coloured frogs.

Environmental workers say they received reports of dead lemurs floating in the flood waters of northeastern Madagascar when the cyclones ripped through in late February and earlier this month.

Paddack said the biggest impact of the cyclones had been on the human population with an estimated 150 people killed and key subsistence crops washed away. But it has not yet been possible to accurately measure the damage to the environment in the remote, almost inaccessible, interior of the island.

Madagascar has thousands of endemic species of plants and trees but its rich biodiversity has been under assault for decades as forest-clearing, slash-and-burn agriculture and mining for rare minerals has decimated the forests.

An estimated 80 percent of the island's original forest cover has disappeared and it continues to lose up to 200,000 hectares every year.

Environmentalists say the destruction of the forests is itself making the country more vulnerable because the resulting soil erosion creates a growing danger of flooding and mudslides whenever heavy rains roll in from the Pacific Ocean.

"The tremendous amount of forest clearing in the last years and decades, the last century, has meant that when cyclones come through, erosion will be accelerated, washing away roads and causing tremendous levels or sedimentation in rivers and other areas. On rice fields, for example," Paddack said.

United Nations officials say the latest cyclones have devastated rice production in some areas and that about 200,000 people will need food assistance in coming months.

The U.N. World Food Programme is concentrating its relief efforts in eastern regions, using helicopters to drop emergency supplies to remote villages cut off by mudslides and high waters.