Madagascar is made up of a highland plateau fringed by a lowland coastal strip, narrow (c.30 mi/50 km) in the east and considerably wider (c.60–125 mi/100–200 km) in the west. The plateau attains greater heights in the north, where Mt. Maromokotro (9,450 ft/2,880 m), the loftiest point in the country, is located, and in the center, where the Ankaratra Mts. reach c.8,670 ft (2,640 m). Once a mosaic of forest, brush, and grassland, the plateau is now largely deforested. A national park was established in 1997 to protect the island's lemurs, rare orchids, and other unique wild species, products of the island's 80-million-year isolation from the mainland. Some three fourths of the island's plant and animal species are found only on Madagascar. A series of lagoons along much of the east coast is connected in part by the Pangalanes Canal, which runs (c.400 mi/640 km) between Farafangana and Mahavelona and can accommodate small boats. The island has several rivers, including the Sofia, Betsiboka, Manambao, Mangoro, Tsiribihina, Mangoky, Mananara, and Onilahy. In addition to the capital, other cities include Antsirabe, Antsiranana, Fianarantsoa, Mahajanga, Toamasina, and Toliary.
The inhabitants of Madagascar fall into two main groups—those largely of Malayo-Indonesian descent and those principally of African descent. Of the roughly 18 ethnicities, the main Indonesian groups are the Merina, who live near Antananarivo, and the Bétsiléo, who live around Fianarantsoa. The principal African groups are the Betsimisáraka, who live near Toamasina; the Tsimihety, based in the N highlands; the Sakalawa and the Antandroy, who live in the west; and the Antaisaka, who live in the southeast. There are small numbers of French and South Asians. All the people speak Malagasy, a language of Indonesian origin; it, French, and English are official languages. Over 50% of the people follow traditional religious beliefs; about 40% are Christian (equally divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants), and 7% are Muslim.