The main island is the fourth-largest in the world, and you could fit the UK inside it two-and-a-half times.
Madagascar is packed full of fascinating and unique wildlife, from its world-famous lemurs to less well-known species such as the tenrec. Although lemurs look a bit like apes (while some of them resemble cats!) and tenrecs are similar to hedgehogs, they are in fact not related at all.
Madagascar’s separation from the mainland means that completely unrelated animals have evolved to fill the same gaps in the ecosystem. This is just one of the many reasons why Madagascar is such a special place!
Madagascar has a population of just over 22 million people. It has two official language, Malagasy and French. French remains an official language across many African countries once under French rule.
In the Malagasy language, the island is known as Madagasikara, while its people are referred to as Malagasy. The name “Madagascar” was popularised by Europeans in the Medieval period. It is first recorded in the memoirs of the famous explorer Marco Polo, where it is spelt “Madageiscar”. Marco Polo actually landed at the port of Mogadishu in Somalia, which he mistook for Madagascar.
When a Portuguese explorer arrived in 1500, he named it “Sao Lourenco” after St Laurence, because it was on this saint’s day that he landed. But “Madagascar” was more frequently used on maps, and it gradually took over.
Until the late 1700s, Malagasy society was made up of a loose collection of tribes. Over time, the Merina people became dominant, and Merina kings ruled the island for much of the 1800s. At the end of the century, Madagascar became part of the French Empire. It remained under colonial rule until it gained independence in 1960.
90% of people in Madagascar live on less than $2 a day. Most people follow traditional beliefs or Christianity, or a combination of the two.
In prehistoric times, Madagascar was part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Around 135 million years ago, the breakup of Gondwana separated the landmass including modern-day Antarctica, India and Madagascar from Africa and South America. Madagascar separated from India about 88 million years ago.
People first came to Madagascar about 2350 years ago. They travelled on large “outrigger canoes” and came all the way from the Asian island of Borneo (the world’s third-largest island), journey of around 4,500 miles.
The Malagasy climate ranges from tropical along the coast, to temperate inland, and arid in the south-west, where it is almost like a desert. The year is divided into two seasons: the hot, rainy season from November to April, and a cooler, dry season from May to October. In the capital Antananarivo, July temperatures average 10 to 20 degrees, while in January, it is usually between 16 and 15 degrees.