A CYCLONE has struck the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean off the south-east coast of Africa.

The death toll had reached 33 at the time The National went to press and, with 22 people officially classed as missing, that number is certain to rise.

Cyclone Ava struck the island at the weekend but the extent of the deaths, injuries and damage did not emerge until yesterday when reports came in from across the country, which is the world’s fourth largest island.

The population of 25 million is spread over 227,000 sq m, and poverty is endemic on the island so that communications are often difficult at the time of cyclones – the island is regularly hit by tropical storms during the period November to April each year.


THE picture that is emerging is one of chaos and destruction. The cyclone with torrential downpours and winds of up to 120mph hit the east side of Madagascar worst of all, with flooding and landslides leading to collapsed buildings – eight people from one family, including an 11-month-old baby, were confirmed as having been killed when their house was destroyed by a landslide while they were already holding a funeral vigil.

More than 24,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and 16 schools were closed due to damage. Roads were also badly affected – the main road into the capital Antananarivo collapsed – and communications were disrupted.

Officially recognised as one of the least developed countries in the world, Madagascar has only recently been recovering economically following a five-year political crisis, and with just three hospital beds per 10,000 people, health provision is elementary in many parts of the island – the Malagasy people, as inhabitants are called, often resort to traditional healing in the absence of modern facilities.

It is the second disaster on the island caused by a cylone within a year. In March last year, Cyclone Enawo struck Madagascar, killing at least 78 people. It also destroyed 30 per cent of the vanilla crop, and with Madagascar accounting for half of the world’s annual produce of vanilla, prices soared so that perfume, ice cream and shortbread prices all rose substantially.

The main vanilla-producing areas have not been hit this time, though some coffee plantations are reported to have been damaged – coffee is the island’s main export.


THE island was part of the Gondwana super-continent before it split from what is now India some 90 million years ago. As a result, a great many species have evolved on Madagascar that are found nowhere else on Earth, so that ecologists often call it the “eighth continent”.

Some 90 per cent of the island’s plant and animal species are “home grown” including lemurs, of which there are more than 100 species. More than 60 per cent of the world’s chameleon species are found on Madagascar. The island has a massive conservation problem – the vast majority of its lemur species are classed as nearing extinction while its remaining tropical rainforest may well disappear in the next decade.

Madagascar has a variety of areas of outstanding natural beauty, but it’s fair to say that since the arrival of humans on the island about 2,300 years ago, things have been going downhill for the local flora and fauna, with the elephant bird and various giant lemurs long since extinct.


MARCO Polo, no less, made the first recorded mention of Madagascar in written history. He confused the island with Mogadishu and mistranslated the name. It mattered little as the indigenous people had no single name for the island.

The Portuguese tried to conquer it in the 16th century but it was known mainly for its pirates and slave trade until the Merina tribe came to the ascendancy in the 18th century and under King Andrianampoinimerina (c1745-1810) and his sons, the island was united. The British recognised the Kingdom of Madagascar and missionaries were sent out so that the island’s ruling court was largely Christian by the 1880s when the French invaded and colonised the island – Malagasy and French remain the two official languages.

At one time in the 1930s, Hitler and his Nazis came up with a plan to deport Europe’s Jews to Madagascar but opted for the Final Solution instead.

After the Second World War, the Malagasy people agitated for independence from France which was eventually achieved in 1960.

Practically ever since then the country has seen regular political and economic upheavals and it is now into its Fourth Republic, with growing emphasis on democracy and human rights along with economic growth largely based on its vast natural resources of metals and precious stones.