The humid, tropical climate in most parts of the Western Indian Ocean Islands is conducive to forest growth. However, frequent cyclones can cause extensive damage to forest cover, and Mauritius and Madagascar are also prone to droughts. This limits the extent of closed canopy forest but encourages savannas and thorn forests. In total, about 20 per cent of the land area of the Western Indian Ocean Islands has forest or woodland cover, less than 2 per cent of the African total (FAO 2001a). Madagascar has the most forest cover, at 20 per cent forest and 12 per cent woodland. Mauritius and Seychelles each have about 7-8 per cent forest and significant woodland. Comoros, once heavily forested, now has only 4 per cent forest and 13 per cent woodland (FAO 2001a, UNEP 1999, UNDP 2000). Types of forest include lowland evergreen broadleaf rainforest, upper and lower montane forest, semievergreen moist forest, mangroves, and savanna.
The issue of greatest concern in this sub-region is the high rate of deforestation and its environmental consequences including soil erosion, desertification, and loss of ecosystem processes.
Baobab forest, Madagascar
The Western Indian Ocean Islands constitute one of the 25 internationally recognized biodiversity ‘hotspots’ (Mittermeier and others 2000) and have relatively large areas of original forest habitat intact. Species diversity and endemism are extremely high for all major plant and animal groups throughout the islands, but this is especially the case for the forests and woodlands. There are also whole genera and families that are endemic to the region. For example, more than 80 per cent of the 10 000–12 000 species of flowering plants in Madagascar are endemic, as are 91 per cent of the 300 reptile species. Twelve per cent of all living primate species are found in Madagascar, and all 33 species of lemur are endemic. Praslin Island (Seychelles) is home to the endemic Coco-de-Mer palm (Lodoicea maldivica), and some of the larger islands also have dry palm forests unique to the Seychelles. Mangroves are widespread around most of the islands of the sub-region.
Commercial timber production is limited in most of the islands, although many wood and non-wood products are used locally. Madagascar, the largest commercial producer, produces modest volumes of sawn timber and small quantities of wood-based panels and paper. In 1998, the export value of these products was US$8 million (FAO 2001a). Important non-wood forest products in the sub-region include medicinal plants, ornamental plants, fruits, honey, essential oils, meat, and animal fodder. Fuelwood is a vital resource for local communities, especially in the poorer nations of the sub-region. In Madagascar, for example, over 90 per cent of households depend on fuelwood and charcoal, driven by increasing poverty and price inflation. By contrast, only 8 per cent of people in the Seychelles depend on fuelwood even as a supplementary source of energy (FAO 2001a).