Madagascar is the fourth largest island on Earth, but it might as well be on a different planet. Once a French colony, the poverty-stricken country endured a bloody coup in 2009, and its leaders now maintain a tenuous peace. However, those willing to brave the political upheaval will experience firsthand one of the most unique places anywhere. Ever since Madagascar broke away from the African continent 165 million years ago, its plants and animals have evolved independently from those on the mainland. This separation has led to an astonishing level of endemism: About 90 percent of its flora and fauna are unique to the island [source: Draper].
Before the 2009 coup, thousands of ecotourists came to Madagascar to explore its peculiar beauty. One of the country's most famous curiosities is the baobab, a carrot-shaped tree with a thick trunk and high branches that can grow up to 80 feet (24 meters) tall [source: Draper]. Lemurs, which are only found on Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands, also populate the countryside. Unfortunately, the pressures of political instability and poverty have led to widespread poaching of Madagascar's wildlife and illicit harvesting of its trees. The country's colorful chameleons, furry lemurs and rich-colored rosewood are especially popular on the international black market. Conservationists hope that once a reliable government is established, it will again be strong enough to protect the national parks from poachers and loggers, and will restart ambitious conservation projects conceived before the 2009 coup.