Madagascar is the most unique place I’ve ever been. Geographically, biologically, culturallyit is so isolated and truly seems to operate in a vacuum. This African island was once blanketed almost entirely by forest, and it’s home to countless endemic species. Now, due primarily to necessity and a subsistence population, it has been largely deforested, and its fragile biodiversity clings to life in critical protected islands of forests that dot the island entirely too sparsely. In between those islands, some of the most industrious people in the world rise at dawn and work until dusk, harvesting clay for bricks, hauling granite boulders down mountains, growing rice, or in Madagascar’s wild, wild west, hoping to strike it rich in an instant by finding an elusive ruby.

Driving to Isalo in Madagascar

Driving west from Ranomafana to Isalo is an odyssey itself. Along the way, the views could be mistaken for the cloud forests of Costa Rica, the central Asian steppe in Mongolia, the outback in Australia or the desert canyonlands of the U.S. Southwest. A perfectly timed stop at Anja Community Reserve, though, reminds you that you are, indeed, in another world altogether. Against a backdrop of a granite massif, ring-tailed lemurs prance in the trees and chameleons dance across the branches. Continuing westward, a vast landscape of savanna looks like a more likely home to elephants and antelope than a former forest, home to sifakas and geckos. Now, these grasslands are home to zebu (the Madagascar version of a cow) herders, protecting their animals vigilantly as the zebu are more valuable than a house in this part of the world.

Zebu cows in Madagascar

Between two islands of protected lands, Isalo National Park and Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, a new and truly incredible site has begun popping up: temporary shanty towns full of migrants-turned-miners in search of valuable rubies. Where a ruby is found, the hoards will flock. Literal towns are set up while the surrounding land is dug up and will then disappear after a number of months if no other rubies are found. The lure of instant wealth via the discovery of rubies has drawn people from all over the country to the area and transformed the desert population. It truly is the Wild West.

Hubbard's sportive lemur in Madagascar

Flanking the ruby mining zone sit two fragile and precious islands of biodiversity. These two national parks are home to numerous endemic bird species, majestic desert oases and rare wildlife such as the Hubbard’s sportive lemur, found only on Zombitse-Vohibasia. The short drive between the two areas provides a serious reminder of how critical it is to protect these areas. It’s a potent display of how much of the island has been transformed by human activity and a clear showcase of what can easily and quickly be lost in the absence of conservation efforts by groups such as World Wildlife Fund, and the prospect of economic vitality provided by responsible tourism.

Desert oasis in Madagascar

While it was truly wild to witness all of this, I left Madagascar feeling hopeful. While we may never know what exactly the world has lost in certain places on the island, it is easy for people to experience what the world still has in the precious biodiversity of these amazing places. Ecotourism in Madagascar is growing and becoming more accessible. Its impact is noticeable as well, and I believe that these areas are poised to remain protected with our help.

This guest post was written by Nat Hab Adventure Specialist Jordy Oleson.