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It is hard to underestimate how unique Madagascar’s wildlife is: an incredible 615 species have been discovered on the island since 1999. To preserve this precious natural heritage, the country has developed an extensive network of protected areas, each of them special for different reasons.

Parc National de la Montagne d'Ambre
Situated just an hour’s drive from the scorched plains around Diego Suarez in northern Madagascar, it is hard to believe that it rains every day here. And yet, Parc National de la Montagne d’Ambre is the region’s water tower. Its catchment area provides enough water for the city of Diego Suarez (population of 100,000) and the cultivation of 70,000 hectares of rice paddies. The cool, humid micro-climate also supports a thriving wildlife population, including the diminutive Brookesia chameleon which is about two centimetres long.

Réserve Marine de Nosy Tanikely
The island of Nosy Tanikely, a tiny outcrop, looks like an afterthought in the splendid blue expanse of the sea -- and it hardly gets a second glance once you have donned your goggles. The surrounding waters are full of multicoloured coral and fish, squidgy sea cucumbers, dangerous-looking sea urchins, and most captivating of all, sea turtles, with Green and Hawksbill turtles regularly nesting on the island’s shores.

Réserve Forestière de Kirindy
This reserve in south-western Madagascar is one of the few to offer night walks. Guides will take you to the heart of the forest to experience the “other nature” that wakes up after dusk: insects, rodents, nocturnal lemurs and birds come out in a cacophony of rustles, screeches and cracks. It is spooky and unforgettable.

Parc National de Marojejy
Scaling the Marojejy Massif is an arduous endeavour: the slopes are muddy, the paths strewn with roots and it can be cold. But when you catch a glimpse of the mist-shrouded summits through the canopy, spot the rare Silky sifaka (an all-white lemur) or fall asleep to the sounds of the forest, you will know that every minute spent in this biodiversity hotspot made the effort worthwhile.

Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha
It is remarkable what the combined forces of water and wind can achieve: Madagascar’s Tsingy, a series of serrated limestone pinnacles, looks like the earth has been ripped open. Even more remarkable was the idea of a French mountaineer to design the fantastic via ferrata (a route equipped with fixed cables, rope bridges and ladders) that scales the Tsingy, bridging ravines and ducking into crevasses among the surreal scenery.

Parc National de Masoala and the Makira Forest
The Masoala Peninsula is a primeval kind of place, where rainforest and sea meet on the beach, sun and rain clash in spectacular rainbows and cyclones occasionally unleash their might. Wildlife exists in such numbers that they are still being counted; happily, neighbouring Makira Forest is set to become Madagascar’s newest national park and further protect the peninsula’s unique biodiversity.

Parc National d'Andringitra
Walking through the Namoly Valley with its majestic mountain backdrop and sweeping views, it is hard to understand why there are so few visitors here. Perhaps it is the remoteness of the park or the many kilometres of trails. Either way, anyone with a taste for epic wilderness and outstanding hiking will feel right at home in Andringitra.

Parc National d'Andasibe
Madagascar’s biggest lemur, the Indri, is unlike any other. It is not just its size and spectacular leap, but its distinctive wail too. For your chance to hear (and see) it, head to Parc National d’Andasibe in the rainforest of eastern Madagascar.

Réserve Naturelle Stricte de Lokobe
Nosy Be is known for its languid beaches and glorious sunsets. What is less-known, however, is that it is home to a stunning natural reserve, accessible only by dug-out canoe. This remoteness is what makes Lokobe so alluring. The wildlife is second to none , with pythons, black lemurs, owls, fabulous plants and brightly-coloured frogs -- but you will have to earn it.

Parc National de l'Isalo
It would not be a stretch to compare Isalo with the Grand Canyon: there may be differences in fauna (coyotte v lemur) and flora (cactus v pachypodium), but few other places in the world have such epic scenic beauty. Most blissful of all are the plentiful natural pools in which to soak after a long trek.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Top 10 protected areas in Madagascar’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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