The protection of endangered species is a noble and worthwhile goal, but in parts of the world where scratching out a living is the best many individuals can manage, preserving flora and fauna often takes a back seat.
In Madagascar thousands have flocked to the African island nation’s newest national park hoping to strike it rich on a recently discovered seam of sapphires.
The 941,000 acres of virgin rain forest of the Ankeniheny-Zahamena corridor, set aside to protect nation’s famed lemurs and dozens of other rare species, officially became a protected area late last year.
Then in April, sapphires were found, according to Agence France-Presse.
“We had an invasion of illegal miners in this park, which is our most recent protected area,” said Angelo Francois Randriambeloson of Madagascar’s ministry of environment.
The park has 2,043 identified species of plants; 85 percent are found nowhere else in the world. In addition, there are 15 species of lemurs, 30 other mammals, 89 types of birds and 129 kinds of amphibians. And that’s just what’s been discovered so far, according to the wire service.
But now a half-mile stretch of river valley has been turned into a veritable quagmire as thousands of Madagascar’s desperately poor have thrown up hovels composed to branches and plastic sheets, which are battered by near-daily rains.
The country is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 81 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.
It’s not surprising then that sapphires present an irresistible lure of quick riches. Some have said they didn’t have to dig more than 10 feet to find large stones, Agence France-Presse reported.
About the only thing preventing an ecological disaster is the fact that reaching the area is difficult.
The impromptu mine is two days of hard walking from the small town of Didy, the closest place reachable by bush taxi. Even getting to Didi is tough. It’s 200 miles from the capital of Antananarivo and less than a third of the distance is on paved roads.
Authorities have sent police to discourage people from mining, with little effect so far.
Madagascar is one of the world’s biggest sapphire producers, selling most to Sri Lanka and Thailand for cutting and polishing.
(A pair of lemurs rest in the shade of one of Madagascar’s public parks. Photo credit: Agence France-Presse.)