Madagascar: Lemur land

Print edition : January 31, 2020

A tiny bamboo lemur at the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in eastern Madagascar. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A brown lemur mother and baby. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A brown lemur mother and baby. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The indri, which local people call babakoto. It is the largest lemur species on the island and the star attraction of the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The indri, which local people call babakoto. It is the largest lemur species on the island and the star attraction of the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The indri, which local people call babakoto. It is the largest lemur species on the island and the star attraction of the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A sifaka. Sifakas can be distinguished from indris by their long tails. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A collared sifaka. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A red-ruffed lemur in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A mouse lemur at the Kirindy reserve, a privately managed forest close to the city of Morondava on the west coast. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The fossa is the only predator on the island. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A fork-marked lemur at Kirindy. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Parson’s chameleon, part of the collection of exotic chameleons at the Peyrieras Reptile Reserve, which is west of Andasibe. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A panther chameleon, part of the collection of exotic chameleons at the Peyrieras Reptile Reserve, which is west of Andasibe. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A leaf-tailed gecko, indistinguishable from the tree trunk to which it seems stuck. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A colourful chameleon resident of the Peyrieras Reptile Reserve. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A panther chameleon. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A panther chameleon. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Another chameleon resident of Peyrieras. Madagascar has more than 150 species of chameleons, not to mention geckos, newts, garden lizards and related species. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Another chameleon resident of Peyrieras. Madagascar has more than 150 species of chameleons, not to mention geckos, newts, garden lizards and related species. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A tomato frog, also at the Peyrieras Reptile Reserve. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Madagascar leaf snake. The island has no venomous snakes. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Lemurs are found nowhere else but in Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands, but with their habitats shrinking as land is diverted for human needs, these fascinating primates are becoming a rare sight even in Madagascar’s national parks.

YOUR introduction to Madagascar’s unique and enchanting wildlife is the haunting and high-pitched call of the indri (Indri indri), the largest lemur on the island. One group begins a song that echoes through the forest for nearly 90 seconds; it is answered by another and yet another until all of them join in a chorus, the pitch rising to a mesmerising crescendo. Once you have heard the call of the indri, it stays with you forever; just like the soulful call of a swinging hoolock gibbon that I heard decades ago in the jungles of the Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. The calls are dissimilar but equally haunting. Not surprising perhaps, considering both are primates and probably share a gene inherited from a common ancestor several million years ago.

I am in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a dark and deep jungle in eastern Madagascar, east of the capital, Antananarivo, which local residents have shortened to Tana. We arrived at Tana’s Ivato International Airport in the afternoon and chose to drive directly to Andasibe, which our guide claimed was no more than 150 kilometres away. But distances have no meaning in Madagascar, where roads are such that even in a four-wheel drive you will be tossed about like pebbles in a rattle. Add to this the horrendous traffic snarls on Tana’s narrow and winding roads on a Friday afternoon and we reach the national park around midnight.

Next morning, as we sit down in the alfresco dining hall of our resort for a breakfast of baguettes and custard apple juice, we are greeted by the persistent calls of the indri, which local people call babakoto. Intriguingly, we cannot see them, though their calls sound near enough. Had a gurgling brook not separated us from the forest, we would have been tempted to venture into the jungle to locate the raucous indri.

Indris once used to roam all of Madagascar but are now confined to a couple of forests, Andasibe being one of them. Indris are diurnal and arboreal, preferring to inhabit the canopy and rarely coming down to the ground. Monogamous, they live in small family groups and communicate mostly through vocalisation, often to mark territory. Incidentally, indris are probably the original feminists, as indeed all lemur species are. Female indris control almost everything the small family group does; the female not only eats first but even decides how much food the male gets to eat!

After breakfast, we trudge to the national park and follow the indris’ calls, craning our necks to spot them. We locate them high up on the canopy: furry creatures that look like teddy bears hugging the tree trunks or swinging upside down. Their ears, neck and face are black and the body is silky white. Their saucer-like eyes regard us warily. As I set up my tripod to capture them in their natural habitat, they leap some 20 feet across to another tall branch, leaving me gaping at their disappearing forms. At about two to three feet in length, indris are the biggest of the surviving lemurs in Madagascar, which once hosted gorilla-sized lemurs. Indris weigh up to 10 kg and subsist on fruit, leaves and flowers.

Lemurs are found nowhere else but in Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands, both off the coast of Mozambique in Africa. However, new research seems to suggest that they probably originated in Africa. The American palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson believes that lemurs floated away on natural rafts of tangled vegetation that washed out of major African rivers flowing into the Indian Ocean. Eventually, the animals reached Madagascar where they evolved to their own rhythm distinct from the rest of the primates on the planet. Their habitats range from dry deciduous forests and spiny forests to rainforests, wetlands and mountains.

Madagascar, like the Indian subcontinent, was once part of the supercontinent of Gondwana but separated from it millions of years ago and ended up close to the African continent. Being confined to an island has its downside, especially when the human race is ever-expanding, not only in numbers but also in its needs and wants. With lemur habitats shrinking as land is diverted to provide fuel, timber and food to the growing Malagasy population, lemurs have become a rare sight even in national parks. Andasibe is one of the few national parks where they still roam free.

While the indri is Andasibe’s star attraction, the park has other fascinating lemur species too. Brown lemurs have now become accustomed to visitors and are happy to engage in virtuoso antics for furiously clicking cameras. One particular mother with a small baby regards us with as much curiosity as we do her. Her offspring is almost completely invisible, buried in the furry pit of the mother’s stomach; all we can see of it are two long fingernails clutching the mother’s stomach for security. This national park also hosts rufous mouse lemurs, greater dwarf lemurs and eastern woolly lemurs, all of which are nocturnal.

Ubiquitous are the sifakas, the other black-and-white variety of lemurs, frolicking on the branches of trees. They can be distinguished from the indri by their long tails. In the thick bamboo bushes, tiny bamboo lemurs pause their munching to regard us with soulful eyes. We spot an occasional diademed sifaka or a red-ruffed lemur among the thickets. There are many small creatures such as geckos and chameleons that are usually hidden from prying eyes. It takes an expert guide to spot them. We do spot a leaf-tailed gecko, indistinguishable from the tree trunk to which it seems stuck, and a chameleon and some endemic birds.

However, in Madagascar, the lemurs are surely the show stealers. Their big soulful eyes, slow movements, long digits and pointed faces, all of which go to making lemurs look like ghosts or spirits, have given rise to many beliefs and superstitions about them. Indigenous people believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in lemurs. The name lemur derives from the Latin word lemure, which means ghost or spirit although there is little evidence that this had anything to do with the beliefs of local people.

While lemurs look nothing like other primates, they share many common basal primate traits such as having divergent digits on hands and feet and nails instead of claws. More diverse than monkeys and apes found elsewhere, they formed diverse forms of locomotion and varying levels of social complexity and are uniquely adapted to the local climate, which is dry and harsh for the most part. Many lemur species became extinct after the arrival of humans, who needed land to grow food and hence cleared the forests, and the remaining 100-odd species and subspecies of lemurs are on the brink of extinction today. They have been classified as extremely endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The lemur species that have already become extinct are the ones that had much larger individuals, some weighing as much as 200 kg.

I was eager to feast my eyes on the aye-aye of Gerald Durrell fame, having been captivated by his description of this mythical creature in his book The Aye-Aye and I: “In the gloom it came along the branches towards me, its round, hypnotic eyes blazing, its spoon-like ears turning to and fro independently like radar dishes.... It was Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky come to life.... one of the most incredible creatures I had ever been privileged to meet.” The aye-aye is one of the smallest primate species, a weird and fascinating-looking creature that used to roam the jungles of Madagascar. Unfortunately, today, the aye-aye has disappeared from the forests of Madagascar and subsists only in Manana Island, a conservation area not on our itinerary on this trip. So I have to be content with other wildlife of which, of course, there is plenty.

Our next stop is the Peyrieras Reptile Reserve, which has a collection of exotic and colourful chameleons, albeit in a managed setting. The enclosures are alive with rainbow-hued chameleons, some chasing each other, others placidly snoozing and yet others agitated and displaying their resplendent colours, which are the brightest when the creature is stressed. A male Parson’s chameleon, the largest of its kind, regards us with baleful eyes even as its mate uses the opportunity to escape its amorous attentions. Striped panther chameleons are calm, unperturbed by clicking cameras.

Madagascar has more than 150 species of chameleons not to mention geckos, newts, garden lizards and their relatives. I spot a very large skink outside one of the enclosures, its smooth body glinting in the sun. The reserve also has frogs, bats and snakes. Chameleons not only change colour but have protruding eyes that are mobile, long tongues that extrude, prehensile tails that can be shed at will and colourful crests to frighten intruders. Some of them have serrated backs. Geckos have fused eyelids, vertical narrow pupils, flattened bodies and short necks. Geckos can lay eggs or give birth to live babies.

Madagascar has no venomous snakes. Our guide tells us that snakes migrated to this island long before they developed venom and remained so since they did not face any threat to their existence here.

A couple of days later, we find ourselves in the Kirindy reserve, a privately managed forest close to the city of Morondava on the west coast. Kirindy sprawls over a hundred kilometres, is dry and deciduous and hosts some unique and exotic wildlife, not to mention several baobabs (see “Tree of Life”, Frontline, January 17, 2020). This is the only forest where one can sight the endangered giant jumping rat and the elegant fossa, the only predator on this island. The resort where we stay has lovely thatch-and-bamboo huts, but both water and electricity are rationed to just a couple of hours a day.

Our guide informs us that it is extremely difficult to spot the fossa, which looks much like a cross-breed of a cat and a dog and sends terror waves among lemurs. In Kirindy, they have also attacked humans, prompting the reserve to put up cautionary boards warning us to keep a safe distance. This forest is reported to have more than a thousand fossa though sightings are rare.

In the morning, I hear a commotion outside my cottage and go to investigate. A fossa has been sighted, and already half a dozen lodgers have assembled, stalking the animal with their extended lenses. I join the gathering. The fossa has come to forage in the trash bins of the resort. Unfortunately, this is what tourism does to wildlife. An occasional chicken bone thrown into a bin is an irresistible invitation to a wild carnivore. Finding nothing in the bin, the fossa jumps out, stretches languidly, takes a few steps and settles under a tree. Cameras click furiously. Unimpressed, our fossa closes its eyes, boredom writ large on its face, much like a house cat.

The fossa is a member of the mongoose family although that classification is disputed. It has partially retractable claws and feeds mostly on lemurs although it also samples lizards and smaller prey. It hunts both during the day and at night and is a huge threat to the remaining lemur population.

Kirindy has a huge variety of other animals as well: Madame Berthe’s mouse lemurs, red-tailed sportive lemurs, pygmy mouse lemurs, grey mouse lemurs, fork-marked lemurs, Coquerel’s giant mouse lemurs, Verreaux’s sifakas, among others, most of which are nocturnal. So we go on a night safari, armed with powerful spotlights, and walk through the forest, crunching dry leaves underfoot and tripping on buttress roots. Mouse lemurs let out shrill cries and leap from trunk to trunk, clutching the bark with their sharp nails and blinking in the flashlight that we shine on them.

The next day, as I was lounging around the reception area of the forest, I spot blue flashes through the dense foliage. I move stealthily towards the target so as not to disturb it. It turns out to be the beautiful giant cuoa, a largish cousin of the cuckoo family sporting electric blue mascara around its big eyes. Cuoas are omnivores, and this forest is home to many of them. During our walks through this beautiful forest, we spot numerous other birds: Oriental white-eyes, paradise flycatchers, hoopoes, Madagascan fish eagle, Coquerel’s cuoas, rollers, cuckooshrikes, magpie-robins, sunbirds, crested drongos, vasa parrots and many others, some of them endemic to Madagascar. The giant elephant birds that used to roam this forest until recently are now extinct.

Madagascar’s unique ecosystem supports a variety of landscapes—lush rainforests, tropical dry forests, plateaus and deserts—each of which has sustained its own wildlife species.

But it is being destroyed by slash-and-burn cultivation, timber harvesting and the introduction of crops such as vanilla and coffee that cater to the export market. The country’s rich wildlife has attracted not only naturalists like Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough but a procession of scientists hoping to unlock the mysteries of evolution. While the human footprint on this island is relatively recent and the tourist inflow is limited by poor infrastructure, the island’s colonial history and the rapid pace at which the Malagasy people are adapting to modern life and its trappings do not augur well for the future of Madagascar’s singular and precious wildlife.

Sudha Mahalingam is the author of two books: The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy, published by Penguin, and a coffee-table book titled Mustang: Mystique of a Mountain Kingdom. She is currently the Raja Ramanna Chair Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

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