In the few days we'd spent in Madagascar's Tsingy de Bemaraha national park and reserve, it was the second or third time he'd said this. On an island famous for its biodiversity (90 percent of the species here are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth), the 600-square-mile protected area is an island unto itself, a kind of biofortress, rugged, largely unexplored, and made nearly impenetrable by the massive limestone formation—the tsingy—running through it.
The great block of Jurassic stone has dissolved into a labyrinth of knife-edged towers, slot canyons, and wet caves that ward off humans while harboring other animals and plants. New species are frequently described from the isolated habitats within—a previously unknown coffee plant in 1996, a minuscule lemur in 2000, a bat in 2005, a frog two years later. Even larger animals have been found relatively recently, including a long-legged lemur discovered in 1990 but named, somewhat whimsically, only in 2005 after British comedian and conservation advocate John Cleese.
Steven Goodman, a biologist with the Field Museum in Chicago who has lived and worked in Madagascar for 20 years, describes the region as "a refuge within paradise," a place where a kind of biology more familiar a century ago can still be practiced and where simply walking around might put you face-to-face with a creature never seen before.
"You can move between valleys and find different things," Goodman said. "The tsingy formations of Madagascar are one of the places on Earth that hold extraordinary biological treasures. You just have to go in and look around."
Going in is the hard part. In March, at the end of the rainy season, just before the leaves browned and fell and winter dried the forest's thin streams, photographer Stephen Alvarez and I traveled into the park. Rakotondravony had agreed to guide us. It was his fourth trip to the Tsingy de Bemaraha; he is one of a handful of scientists who have gone there more than once.
We arrived in the capital, Antananarivo, just after the president had been overthrown in a coup. Violent protests flared every few days. Near the main square, soldiers lazed in transport trucks smoking and sending text messages, while on the university campus, students rallied beneath white banners, only to be driven back brutally. Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, had nearly collapsed. We left the city wondering if we'd be stopped. But soon, in the countryside, signs of the coup receded, the weight of it felt only at police checkpoints, where men in sandals cradled old AK-47s and asked where we were going.