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The best books on Madagascar

recommended by Alison Richard

The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present by Alison Richard

The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present
by Alison Richard


With its range of unique wildlife, Madagascar has been likened to a floating evolutionary laboratory. To Yale biological anthropologist Alison Richard, it's simply a magical place. Here, she recommends five books on the island she has visited for the past five decades and explains why she wrote her own book, The Sloth Lemur's Song.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present by Alison Richard

The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present
by Alison Richard


We’re talking about books about Madagascar. A lot of the books you’ve chosen focus on the natural or the anthropological history, rather than the political history or novels or poetry. Is that because there’s not that much available in English?

There is very little poetry I have come across in English. There is a lot of poetry in the Malagasy language — the Malagasy cherish language and metaphor — but I just assumed the books needed to be in English. In terms of fiction, I have come across two remarkable novellas. One is Ghost of Chance by William Burroughs, published in 1991, which is a fantasy about pirates and extinct giant lemurs. Interspersed with Jackson Pollock-style black-and-white illustrations, Burroughs’ tale is bizarre and enchanting in a dark sort of way. The other was written by H.G. Wells in the 1890s. AEpyornis Island is about Madagascar’s last giant elephant bird and its eventual death by human hands. It was serialized in an American magazine called Pearson’s as well as being published as a novella and is still in print. Then, of course, Marco Polo wrote about Madagascar long ago, but he never went there and his account was largely debunked within the next 200 years.  Also on my mind is Robert Drury’s account (co-authored with Daniel Defoe) of his experiences as a shipwrecked sailor held captive in southern Madagascar for several decades in the early 18th century. It too is still in print, called The Journal of Robert Drury.

Why Burroughs and Wells lit upon Madagascar, I do not know. Perhaps the aura of magic about the place attracted them…. Who knows. Anyway, I decided not to include them on my list – but you’ve just given me a chance to mention them and a few others, so that’s good!

What about you? You’ve been going to Madagascar for five decades: what was it that made it so fascinating to you? Was it the cuteness of the lemurs?

No! There are three answers and they’re all true. The first is that as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I spent the summer of 1968 in Panama, studying monkeys in the rainforest. I was terrified. I hated it. It rained all the time, I couldn’t see the animals, and there were poisonous snakes everywhere. When I came back to Cambridge in the autumn, the late, great primatologist Alison Jolly was teaching a course on primate behavior and she asked what I’d been doing. I said, ‘I was in a jungle studying monkeys, I’ll never do that again. It was awful.’ And she said, ‘Come to Madagascar, there are no poisonous snakes and there are dry forests full of animals where it doesn’t rain.’ So I did. I’m not intrepid, and Madagascar is a good place if you’re not intrepid.

The second is that during one of her lectures, Alison showed us slides of the southern spiny forest. It was silvery and magical, and I was completely hooked just looking at them. I’ve worked in different kinds of forests in Madagascar, but the spiny forests of the south always pull me back to them.

The third answer is that Madagascar has been isolated as an island for 88 million years and, as Alison wrote (we’ll come to that book), it is as if time has flowed to the present by a different channel. The way animals behave breaks the ‘rules’ in various ways – evidently they haven’t read the right textbooks and don’t know how they should behave.  Studying rule breakers is a good way of understanding the rules. That, in an academic sense, is what set me to watching lemurs. Let me give you an example. In most lemur species, females are as big as and socially dominant to males, whereas in most non-human primates — monkeys and apes — males are bigger than and socially dominant to females. (I leave it to you to decide where our own primate species fits in). In the sifaka, a lemur species I’ve studied for many years, a male will roll up his tail, hunch over, bare his teeth in a fearful grin, and chatter softly when glared at by a female. Why?

So that’s how I got to Madagascar.

Did you train as a biologist?

No, I trained as a biological anthropologist, though I think of myself as an anthropologist, not just the biological variety. I read ‘Arch and Anth’ at Cambridge; that was my undergraduate degree.

I love the pictures in your book of you with your family in Madagascar. You basically fell in love with it?

I fell in love with Madagascar almost at once, yes. Then I met my husband, an archaeologist, and he began working there too. Madagascar was part of our lives together until he died, with family and friends there. It’s like another home to me.

Let’s go through the books you’re recommending. The first one on the list is Wildlife of Madagascar. It seems to me that Madagascar is a place to visit for the wildlife alone, and I’d probably include this book just for the picture on the front. Why did you pick it?

I chose this book because there are many field guides, but they tend to be quite specialized — on lemurs, birds or reptiles, and so on. This one is not exhaustive, but it’s all the plants and animals you’re likely to see and it’s very well done. In fact, to my knowledge it’s the only guidebook that includes such a wide array of plants and critters, with accurate information about them and where to see them, along with truly stunning photographs. I’ve not met the authors, but I do know that the first author, Ken Behrens, lives in Madagascar and is a professional photographer.  He kindly let me use some of his photos in my book and, through that, I discovered that he’s married to Rojo, our elder daughter’s best Malagasy friend when they were both four years old and we spent a whole year in Madagascar — what a wonderfully small world it is sometimes…

Can you tell us a bit more about why the wildlife of Madagascar is so special? Not everyone necessarily knows that lemurs come only from Madagascar: could you give a bit of an introduction to those of us who aren’t so well informed?

Madagascar has been an island 400 kilometers or so off the east coast of Africa for around 88 million years. Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid hit Earth and wiped out about 75% of land animals, including virtually everything in Madagascar. So you have an empty island that’s difficult to get to – reaching its shores involved flying, floating or swimming in the sea, or voyaging on a raft of vegetation. The result is that a lot of animals, land animals in particular, never got there. For example, only four of the 26 kinds of land mammals (warm-blooded, furry animals) living in the world today made it – primates, insectivores, carnivores and rodents – and the genetic evidence suggests that in each case it only happened once, far in the past. Imagine a hungry, wet and bewildered family of lemur ancestors struggling up the beach one day or night, 55 million years ago…

“Around 95% of the plants and animals on the island are found nowhere else in the world”

Madagascar became home for these intrepid voyagers, and they evolved in isolation for millions of years. And because Madagascar is big – like a continent – as well as isolated, a lot of diversification was possible, and natural selection gave rise to a wide array of species with distinctive ways of doing things. Thinking about grasslands and East Africa, you picture grazing zebras and wildebeest and other ungulates. But none of these reached Madagascar as far as we know. Instead, there were herds of giant tortoises, flightless birds three meters high, and giant lemurs lumbering around – all of them extinct today, sadly. Madagascar almost certainly had a grassland community but it was uniquely different — nature improvised with what was to hand, as it were. Around 95% of the plants and animals on the island are found nowhere else in the world, in fact. It has been called a floating evolutionary laboratory, but I tend simply to think of it as a magical place.

And is it incredibly beautiful, the landscape?

I’m biased, obviously, but yes, it is stunningly beautiful. It’s not some Nirvana, though. There are many places where the landscape is devastating to behold, a reflection of the massive environmental challenges that face the island today.

Let’s go on to the next book on your list which is by David Graeber: Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery and Madagascar. Tell me why chose it.

I wanted to give people a sense of Madagascar’s human diversity and history, not just its wildlife. I chose two books by anthropologists who lived in very different places on the island, including this one by David Graeber.

David died recently, too young. In an interview a few years back, he said that Lost People was his favorite among the several books he wrote. It’s mine too. Written like a detective story, he recounts conversations with people in a community in the Central Highlands, where he lived for 18 months, as he tries to figure out what is happening. He can’t understand why there are such tensions in the village, and the book is his journey to understanding that they arose out of history – a history of slaves and slave ownership. He writes about the culturally separate spheres that people occupied historically, and how these shifted through time and produced the tensions that he encounters in the present. The book offers considerable insight into the last century-and-a-half, as well as the present.  I found it very moving, and couldn’t put it down. It reads almost like a novel.

All I know about the history is that Madagascar became a French colony at the end of the 19th century. Where does slavery fit in?

Madagascar was caught up in the early Arab slave trade, way back in the 14th century. Then the Portuguese upped the ante, and the French and the British after that. By the late 18th century, Madagascar’s main exports were rice and slaves. This is not something that anybody much likes to talk about. Madagascar was also a hub: slaves from Africa were shipped through the island to other west Indian Ocean islands, which became colonial centers of sugar cane production. When France declared Madagascar a colony in 1896, the new colonial administration abolished the slave trade immediately – and established a system of indentured labor instead.

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Going forward 100 years to the village where Graeber lived, the source of tension was in the present, but the tension’s roots were buried in the past. Thefts were frequent in the village around the time when he arrived. The thief hadn’t been caught. Hoping to rid themselves of the problem by other means, the community — descendants of former slave owners, many of them quite poor today, and the descendants of former slaves, many now prosperous — agreed to hold a shared ritual. This was something they’d not done together before. The day afterwards, a massive hailstorm destroyed all the crops planted by the villagers. Everyone said it was because they had tried to mix rituals. It was a traumatizing disaster for the community, and David walked into the middle of it: history, separation, ritual that went badly wrong, and largely unspoken family memories all played a part. It’s a remarkable book.

So would you recommend that book rather than a political history about the Merina kingdom or how Madagascar was ruled prior to French colonialism?

Madagascar’s history is vast, and I think there’s enough about the last two centuries on my list. The edited volume by Ivan Scales, which we’ll talk about in a minute, includes a chapter by my husband, Robert Dewar, about the history of human settlement (though that history keeps changing, as new discoveries are made), and a chapter by Scales himself focuses on the history of the last two centuries.

There are other histories of Madagascar, to be sure. One that stands out for me is A History of Madagascar by Mervyn Brown. He was the UK ambassador to Madagascar from 1967-70. Alone among the diplomatic corps, he spoke fluent Malagasy, knew a lot about Madagascar, and was a great pianist and music maker – all reasons for the respect and affection for him there at the time. (I met him once, just after I arrived in 1970, and heard a lot about him). His book was everything you’re asking for: quite political but also going way back, and it was on my initial list. I’d read it many years ago and reading it again before finalizing my list, it now struck me as very out-of-date:  the Malagasy people ‘arrived and exterminated all the big animals’, for example.  I decided I couldn’t include a book with this simple story of blame, and I took it off.

Thinking about this list has been really interesting, and I’m glad you’re questioning my choices. I wrote my own book because there simply isn’t one that pulls the threads together with up-to-date evidence about the past, and that’s what I set out to do – partly.

Also, wasn’t part of the reason you wrote your book to challenge the standard narrative?

Yes! I wanted to challenge the narrative of a timeless, forested paradise destroyed by the arrival of the Malagasy people. The first evidence of people on the island is 10,000 years old, and the first indication of decline among the great big, charismatic animals that have gone extinct comes a little over 1,000 years ago. So, for the best part of 9000 years, people and creatures seem to have got along together well. It isn’t the fact of people, it’s what they do: and that’s grounds for hope, right there. There are many reasons to despair about the state of our world, including Madagascar, and we need all the grounds for hope we can find.

Madagascar was not entirely forested either. That’s another flawed piece of the prevailing wisdom. Growing evidence — much of it recent, thanks to research by botanists from Kew Botanic Gardens and the University of Antananarivo — indicates that there were grasslands millions of years before people arrived. Madagascar may have been a ‘paradise’, but not an entirely forested one.

Madagascar has always been a place of change, in fact. Deep in the past, it was buried in the heart of Gondwana and not an island at all.  For millions of years it lay far south of its present location —S over the South Pole even, for a while. Sixty-eight million years ago, it was a land of dinosaurs, giant predatory frogs and vegetarian crocodiles. Like every place on Earth, Madagascar is a real, changing place, not some frozen paradise of our imagination. And that’s what my book tries to convey.

Shall we talk about Sarah Osterhoudt’s book next as you’ve already mentioned it? This is Vanilla Landscapes: Meaning, Memory, and the Cultivation of Place in Madagascar. Is vanilla another thing that Madagascar is famous for?

I really wanted my list to give a sense of people living today. Like David Graeber, Sarah Osterhoudt does this beautifully, through dialogue with people. Like him, she has a very anthropological way of writing and I like that. And yes, along with its unique plants and animals, Madagascar is indeed famous for vanilla. If you buy fancy ice cream it often says it’s made with ‘Madagascan vanilla.’ This book came out of Sarah’s PhD, which she did at Yale. In the interests of full disclosure, I was on her PhD committee.

Sarah lived in Imorona, a village close to the northeast coast of Madagascar, in a community where both women and men were vanilla farmers. Her book is written as a fugue, as she says, alternating between chapters focused on what the landscape and vanilla cultivation mean for people living there and chapters about her own research.  Her interest was in the community and their complicated agroforestry system, where many kinds of crops are grown — including vanilla — in a standing forest.

“Madagascar is a good place if you’re not intrepid”

The book is brilliantly written, and thought-provoking. It takes you deep into the practice of vanilla farming, why these forested landscapes are so valued by families, and how they resonate in Malagasy culture. Vanilla farmers live quite well. Imorona is a ‘successful’ place and, again, not some isolated paradise: for centuries, people have been trading — exporting produce (especially vanilla) and bringing new crops and ideas into their community.

At one point during her time in Imorona, the farmers were writing a handbook about vanilla cultivation for other farmers. When Sarah told them that vanilla was actually brought to Madagascar from Mexico a few centuries ago, they first exclaimed’ ‘No, that can’t be true!’ — vanilla is too deeply embedded in the landscape, their culture and way of life for that to seem possible. In the end, they were convinced and revised the handbook. There was still no mention of Mexico, but they swapped French words associated with vanilla production for Malagasy words. One small glimpse of life in Imorona among many, all intensely interesting…

Is it quite an optimistic book?

Oh yes. There’s a chapter called “Happy Landscapes.” I told Sarah it should be the title of her whole book because it is about a place that works. There is a chapter in my book about ‘success stories’, and Imorona is one of them.

As I wrote, I became very aware that the prevailing narrative about Madagascar is itself a story – an old and enduring one: the story of paradise lost. We’re a storytelling species, and the first and last chapters of my book are meditations on the power of stories.  Sarah has a wonderful chapter about how history is promulgated in Imorona. It happens in two ways. There’s the ‘historien.’ He has a formal education. He sits people down from time to time on chairs in rows, and they drink orange soda and listen respectfully. He speaks of dates, administrations, and chairmen of committees and so on and so forth. Then there is the teller of tantara. At these sessions, people sit on a mat on the floor in a hut, a bottle of rum is passed around and imbibed with enthusiasm, his account of the past is not chronological but thematically organized, and everyone joins in. He has little or no formal education but is a riveting speaker who understands different kinds of meaning. Both these people are highly respected by the community, and both are listened to. People understand that there’s more than one way of understanding and giving meaning to the world around us. Sarah’s book delves into these issues. It’s very readable and really interesting.

Let’s move on to A World Like Our Own: Man and Nature in Madagascar, which is by Alison Jolly, who you mentioned before taught you at Cambridge.

Yes, she was the person who showed those slides of the silvery forest when I was an undergraduate, and she was a wonderful mentor to me. Sadly, she died in 2014.

Alison wrote several books about Madagascar. Written in 1980, A World Like Our Own is a time capsule and inevitably out of date in some respects. The reason I chose it is that Alison takes the reader all over the island, she writes beautifully, and she introduces you, in lyrical prose, to people and wildlife and environmental problems. She mulls about how, if we’re going to find solutions, they must work for people living in the countryside and not just for the international conservation community. Alison was ahead of her time, writing and thinking about things that way 50 years ago. (I heard her speak at conference a full decade earlier). Her main themes in the book are conservation and environmental challenges today, but she is mindful of deep history as well. I loved this book 40 years ago, and I still do.

So we’re at the last book you’ve chosen on Madagascar, which is the volume edited by Ivan Scales: Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar.

It’s formidable. The first part of the book is deep history and context. I’d single out McConnell and Kull’s chapter, which starts with the claim made by Henri Perrier de la Bâthie in 1921 that 90% of Madagascar’s original forest had already disappeared. A few years ago, Defra convened a workshop to discuss possible environmental initiatives in Madagascar. At the start of a breakout session, one of the ‘experts’ in my group said earnestly, ‘it’s really important to take this seriously because 90% of Madagascar’s original forests have disappeared.’ To which I replied, ‘Well, that’s really good news. That figure was published a century ago, which means no forest has been destroyed in the last 100 years!’ In other publications, Perrier de la Bâthie’s figure went as low as 70%. The point is, it was made up, a rhetorical number — there was, and remains, no way of knowing — yet 90% gets repeated at a Defra workshop more than a century later.  After tracing citations of the 90% figure through serious academic publications over recent decades and dispatching it, McConnell and Kull go on to explain the complexity and difficulty of developing reliable estimates of forest cover and measuring forest change, even with state-of-the-art technology.

Other chapters in Scales’ volume examine environmental policy changes of the last 50 years, what is happening today, the different ways in which people think about environmental challenges, and the many factors often involved. One example comes from a chapter by Scales himself, which I use in my book. When you’re out in the countryside in Madagascar, you often see people with axes, chopping away at trees. In the southwest, huge swaths of dry forest disappeared between about 1990 and 2000. Why did that happen? It turns out there were many hands on the axe.

A well-intentioned EU directive offered tax breaks and tariff reductions for developing countries that wanted to expand their economies and export markets. Réunion decided to build its pig husbandry industry. The pigs needed to be fed, and there wasn’t enough space to grow food for them in Réunion. The Malagasy government seized the opportunity and built silos to store maize in the southwest, and the word went out: ‘you can get a good price for maize.’ Small-scale farmers cleared forest and planted vast areas with maize, for export to Réunion to feed the pigs. But then the Réunion government realized it was cheaper to buy maize from Brazilian agribusinesses and Madagascar’s export market collapsed. The maize now goes to feed the poultry industry in the capital of Madagascar. Meanwhile, great tracts of dry forest in the southwest have disappeared. The usual explanation is that poverty and the need to put food on the table are the primary drivers of forest clearance in rural areas. Not so in this instance (and many others): a seemingly benign EU policy directive was the main driver of this environmental nightmare.

The general thrust of chapters in Scales’ book is that environmental policies and laws are quite strong, but that too often the policies are not carried through or the laws enforced. The reason it’s an important and interesting book in my view is that it explores, explains and also debates the complexities that underlie what is happening. I do wish Scales had come up with a better title, because it sounds dull – but it isn’t. At all!

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

April 27, 2022

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Alison Richard

Alison Richard

Alison Richard is Crosby Professor of the Human Environment emerita and senior research scientist at Yale University. She has immersed herself in research and conservation projects in Madagascar since the 1970s and is widely known for her work on the evolution of complex social systems among primates. She was the first full-time female Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and Provost of Yale from 1994 to 2002.

Alison Richard

Alison Richard

Alison Richard is Crosby Professor of the Human Environment emerita and senior research scientist at Yale University. She has immersed herself in research and conservation projects in Madagascar since the 1970s and is widely known for her work on the evolution of complex social systems among primates. She was the first full-time female Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and Provost of Yale from 1994 to 2002.