• Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world (after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo), measuring 587,040 square kilometres – more than twice the size of Texas and nearly two-and-a-half times the size of the UK.

At the last official estimate in 2011, Madagascar’s population was just under 21 million, giving the island a population density (35 per square kilometre) comparable to that of the USA.

The country’s official languages are Malagasy and French, though English is increasingly important.

Traditional religious beliefs are still widely upheld and adherents often combine them with membership of one of the country’s churches. There are some 4 million Roman Catholics, and 3.5 million members of the FJKM (the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar). Muslims, who form around 5–7 percent of the population, are less likely to adhere to older beliefs.

Madagascar’s independence was returned to it, from France, on June 26, 1960. After years of chaotic dictatorship, the country now has a presidential, multi-party democracy. The president is elected by popular vote and selects a prime minister to form a government. Politics tends to be personality- rather than issue-led.

Madagascar’s natural heritage is increasingly recognized as a global scientific resource. Dozens of new species are discovered every year: more then 100 species of lemurs are now recognized (from the ape-sized indri to the smallest mouse lemur) and nearly 80 species of chameleons (from specimens the size of a small paper clip to giants as big as your arm) are endemic to the island. Many more species are likely to be discovered in the years ahead – environmental destruction permitting.

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