Wildlife habitat in Madagascar is decreasing rapidly and alarmingly. 90% of native forest cover has now been lost, and lemurs – endemic to Madagascar – are now considered to be one of the most threatened mammal families on earth, with 17 of the 81 species critically endangered, 42 endangered, and 20 vulnerable.
One of the major factors in the human destruction of Madagascar’s wildlife habitats is the high and unsustainable rate of deforestation. Local people use the method of slash and burn, or ‘tavy’, to clear forest for growing crops such as rice, coffee and vanilla. This consists of felling large areas of forest, and then setting it alight to clear the undergrowth and leave the area free for planting. Without the protection of the trees, the topsoil in this area will, after two to three years, erode or be washed away, so that it is no longer possible to grow anything there – trees or crops. The farmers will then move on to a new area and start the process again, continuing the destructive cycle.
The slash and burn method not only destroys habitat when it is first used, but ensures that the habitat and that area’s wildlife will not be able to recover. When slash and burn was first being used, it was relatively sustainable. As cleared land took about twenty years to recover, farmers could move back to it and thereby not destroy an unnecessary amount of forest. However, due to the massive population growth in Madagascar, this twenty year wait is no longer possible, and farmers are moving back to vulnerable areas far too soon, destroying its chance of recovery and making slash and burn one of the most fatal threats to natural habitats in modern Madagascar. The growth of the population has also decreased the amount of forest in Madagascar because the sheer scale of crops – particularly rice – that need to be grown means that more and more of the forest is being replaced by paddy fields.