You need the right eyes to see in the rain forests of Madagascar's Andasibe-Mantadia National Park--and being a suburban boy who now lives in Brooklyn, I don't have them. So I borrowed Marie Razafindrasolo's. She was my guide on a recent trip to Andasibe, where she pointed out a Parson's chameleon lying motionless on a branch and a panda-like indri dangling shyly from the top of a tree. Later Razafindrasolo took our group on a night walk through the fringes of the forest. She showed us golden Mantella frogs and leaf-tailed geckos and then, barely visible amid the trees, a pair of lemur eyes shining in the darkness, watching us. It was ecotourism at its best, travel that celebrates nature and contributes to its protection.
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Few places on earth can match Madagascar as an ecotourism destination. Some 70% of Madagascar's animals are found only in this island nation, which is roughly the size of Texas. But Madagascar hasn't always been great at showcasing its biological richness--driving anywhere in this remote country will test your shocks and your spine--and its tourism industry remains small. That's beginning to change, though, as the government is in the middle of tripling the size of its national-park system, and local-guide networks are springing up around the country. These moves are coming at the right time, with green travel worldwide growing three times as fast as the entire industry.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, 100 sq. mi. (about 260 sq km) of protected forest in a nation that is now more than 90% deforested, is one of Madagascar's main draws. Local guides like Razafindrasolo lead walking tours through the old-growth forest, where energetic sifaka lemurs can be seen in the mornings dancing through the trees. This is one of the main reasons to go all the way to Madagascar--to see endangered species that exist nowhere else. The other reason is that your presence--or, more specifically, your wallet's presence--can help save the last remaining habitats of these animals by fighting local poverty.
Before I traveled to Madagascar, I was doubtful about the value of ecotourism. My trip from New York City alone created more than 11 tons of greenhouse gases and cost around $3,000. But the right kind of travel--in which sensitive areas are minimally affected and local people earn a fair wage--benefits the environment and the economy. That's my experience in Madagascar, where the government gives 50% of the revenue from parks--including entrance fees--to neighboring communities. Most important, the industry engenders a reverence for nature among visitors and locals alike. As Russell Mittermeier, president of the global green group Conservation International, says, "You have to see it to save it."