My first two-month trip to Madagascar was SO impressive, it had to be followed up. More private trips to remote areas followed, I guided group tours, and finally I settled in Madagascar for years. Among other things, I worked for a wonderful lemur project.
I would like to take you to Madagascar in this blog. First for a journey through time, along the extraordinary evolution of lemurs. But above all, I will take you to many corners of the country to introduce you to some striking lemur species. Are you interested in traveling to Madagascar? In the text are links to some of our trips where you can see the respective lemur species, or go to our Madagascar website for a full listing of our inspiration trips. Before we hit the road, let’s get this straight:
Prosimians, lemurs or makis…what about them?
Those who think of lemurs often think first of the ring-tailed lemur. A cuddly, cute “kind of monkey” with a black and white striped woolly tail. But what exactly is a lemur, are lemurs monkeys, and is there a difference between lemurs and makis? To start with the latter: there is no difference. Lemur or maki both are possible. And no, lemurs are not monkeys, but prosimians.
An evolutionary fairy tale
Lemurs are found almost exclusively on Madagascar, and this is due to the large island’s isolated location. More than 140 million years ago, tectonic shifts led what is now Madagascar to break away from the African continent. Therefore, the development of all flora and fauna proceeded differently than elsewhere in the world; it became an evolutionary laboratory, or even an evolutionary fairy tale.
For a long time, Madagascar remained remarkably empty, while elsewhere in the world various animal species developed. So did the prosimians, a primitive primate species with small brains, and probably further evolved into “higher apes. The empty island eventually filled with animals that arrived there swimming, floating or flying. Supposedly, some sixty million years ago, groups of lemurs arrived on a floating raft of vegetation from the African continent. These were probably small lemurs, resembling today’s mouse lemurs. Feather light and fast, a nocturnal primeval lemur.
The first mini-lemurs spread unimpeded across the country with very diverse climate zones with both cold and heat, dry and humid regions, varied landscapes and vegetation: rain forests, grasslands, mountains, dry deciduous forests, tropical zones, karst formations, spiny forest…
In the struggle for territories and food, the prosimians elsewhere in the world had little chance against the larger and stronger apes with bigger brains; other species perished due to cooling climates. Only a few species of prosimians persisted, but not the lemurs, which are almost universally extinct. Except in Madagascar, where everything was different. Here there were few predators and no “higher apes” either. It was a veritable Garden of Eden for lemurs.
I make a huge leap in time, we land in the beginning of our era. Lemurs then live in all corners of Madagascar. In addition to all kinds of variants of those first mouse lemurs, there is a motley gallery of larger species, all descendants of these primordial mouse lemurs. They must have been hundreds of different species, small and large lemurs with coats of all shades and color combinations. Time had given them all their place on Red Island, and little by little the lemurs adapted to their habitat. They learned to survive on the available food resources; they developed special survival strategies. Night-active and diurnal lemurs, solitary animals and lemurs that prefer to stay together with the whole family, fruit eaters and omnivores, animals that live exclusively in trees and lemurs that can also thrive on the ground. The adaptations are as varied as the lemurs themselves.
Some of the creative adaptations
The indri, siren of the rainforest
With a maximum weight of about nine kilograms, the indri is the largest of all lemurs. Its build is entirely focused on jumping from tree to tree, its long hind legs are muscles that can catapult the animal from standstill. Indri’s can span as much as ten meters in this way, an amazing sight! You will not find them on the ground, where the indri is clumsy and fragile.
I first saw the indri in the rainforest of the Analazamaotra Reserve, part of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. An easily accessible park, it is a 4-5 hour drive from the capital Antananarivo. Some groups of indri are habituated here, meaning they are used to people in their territory. The guided hike began early in the morning, before the indri reverberate their territorial call through the forest. We found the group of indri, and stood motionless waiting just a few meters away. It was an exciting silence, which was suddenly broken when – very far away – the call of an indri sounded. Almost immediately our group of indri’s replied, it went through the marrow. Even if it only lasted a few minutes, this was an experience to give goosebumps: the call sounds like a combination of air alarm and whale song, and carries for miles. Too soon it was over, silence descended again over the forest. Enjoying the beautiful indri’s for a moment, they deftly jumped out of view, heading for their fresh breakfast of fruits and leaves.
Sifakas are also equipped with hind legs that are primarily for movement high above the ground, where they prefer to be. To cross open terrain, they did find a solution: side hopping and jumping, with front legs spread out to maintain balance.
Sifakas are spread over large parts of Madagascar. I saw them in several national parks and even beyond, but mostly in the trees. Until I traveled to the far south, to the Berenty Reserve. There, forest plots are intersected with wide trails, and sifakas cross here several times daily. My patience was rewarded, here I saw sifakas “dancing” like harlequins before they sought – hopla hopla – the safety of the trees again.
Life on a pincushion
The extreme south and southwest of Madagascar are areas of bizarre vegetation: spiny forest. The name says it all, all the plants and shrubs have very many, very sturdy spines. It is a challenge to traverse such an area on foot if there is not a sufficiently wide path. How ironic. In a country where there are no dangerous snakes or predators, the devil sometimes lurks in the vegetation. Here live several species of lemurs such as sifakas and weasel lemurs, who miraculously are not bothered at all by the sharp spines. The soles of their front and hind legs are equipped with pads that are tougher than the soles of mountain hiking boots. On the way from Morondava to Tuléar, along the rugged but beautiful west coast full of baobabs and spiny forest, I saw lemurs high in the trunk of one of those spiny plants. They jumped meters far, only to land with no problem with a thud on such a pincushion.
Weasel lemurs are nocturnal animals, they hide somewhere in that spiny forest during the day. It is magical to look for nightlemurs somewhere in a nature reserve during an evening walk, and catch them in the beam of a flashlight. Most night lemurs sleep during the day in a tree cavity or other safe place. Guides often know how to find them flawlessly. This red-tailed weasel lemur is unlucky, sleeping on a bed of nails.
The razor-sharp rocks of the tsingy
Where the spiny forest is challenging, the tsingy is downright relentless. They are heavily eroded karst formations, with razor sharp points. Madagascar has two major tsingy formations: the Tsingy of Ankarana and the Tsingy of Bemaraha. Both tsingys have been made partially accessible. I loved the adventure of hiking along clearly defined paths, wobbling suspension bridges, scrambling with the help of ropes, railings and wooden ladders, wandering through the labyrinth of deep gorges, and looking out over the landscape from platforms. Nothing in me considered leaving the trails, a misstep seemed very unhealthy. I followed my guide carefully. Therefore, I was waiting to see lemurs up close. This was an occasional occurrence, but more often I saw them at a great distance and through my binoculars, casually hopping over the pointed rocks and razor-sharp ledges.
A palatable diet full of cyanide
In the rainforest of Ranomafana, in southeastern Madagascar, my guide led me to the part of the forest where a lot of bamboo grows. There I saw the beautiful golden bamboo lemur, which was nibbling loudly on a young bamboo shoot. All species of bamboo lemur – including the gray half lemur – live primarily on a diet of bamboo, a plant that contains a high dose of cyanide. The amount of poison they ingest per day is enough to kill an adult human. The digestive system of this lemur is fully adapted to utilize the nutrients without dying. My guide told me that a researcher has spent months at Ranomafana studying how these animals can live on such a cyanide-rich diet. She spent most of her time under trees and bushes where the bamboo lemurs were eating, collecting their urine. In the lab, she determined that the urine contains both deoxidized cyanide, and toxic cyanide. I glanced up quickly to make sure I wasn’t risking a shower of cyanide.
The only place where the mongoose lemur can be found in Madagascar is the Ankarafantsika National Park in the west of the country. Yet this is not where I saw this lemur in the wild, which was on the island of Mohéli, one of the islands of the nearby Comoros archipelago. Outside Madagascar, it is the is the only country where lemurs live. Residents of Madagascar long ago introduced the animal to Comoros, where it effortlessly found a place in its new habitat. This was possible because the mongoose lemur is an extremely flexible animal. It prefers to eat fruits, but a meal of flowers and leaves is also fine. Furthermore, this omnivore likes beetles, larvae, fungi, dead wood and even the occasional bird. On top of that, the mongoose lemur can be active both during the day and at night. In the rainy season, they prefer to be out and about during the day, but in the hotter dry season, they primarily go foraging in the cooler nights. An easygoing guest, the perfect emigrant.
Aye-aye, the mysterious ghost animal
SO many trips to all kinds of natural areas in Madagascar, but it took a very long time before I was lucky enough to see the aye-aye. A nocturnal animal that lives solitary in a large territory, they are rare and very shy. A very remarkable appearance as a messy brush with piercing eyes, an omnivore that lives on fruit, nectar, honey, seeds, insects and eggs. And larvae, which live invisible to the eye under tree bark. Evolution provided the aye-aye with the necessary tools to capture the larvae. Large ears, to hear where the larvae are. Sharp front teeth, for removing large pieces of bark. A thick finger with a sturdy nail, to do the finer toddler work and to make a hole to the cavity where the larva sits. Finally, an extra-long, very thin middle finger with a sharp nail, to fish through that hole and fish the larva out of its burrow.
In the Palmarium Reserve – in eastern Madagascar – is an island where several aye-aye have been released. Not a 100% natural situation, the animals live closer together than they would prefer. To ensure that they all find enough food in this small territory, they are supplemented with food. Among other things, they are given fresh coconuts, which the aye-aye sees as an extremely tasty snack. Visitors may come to watch, in the evening when the aye-aye is awake. Arriving on the island, we were explained the rules of the game, all aimed at not disturbing the animals. In the faint glow of special lamps, I saw several coconuts attached in the forks of trees. Waiting in silence in near-darkness, listening to the sounds of the forest…that alone was an intense experience. After some time, an aye-aye emerged almost silently from the darkness, a second followed a little later. They each chose their own tree. With that long middle finger, the fondling began, the aye-aye’s snacking on the coconut until their mug glowed with moisture.
In conclusion: a particularly colorful family
Once there may have been hundreds of species of lemurs, now there are only about 111. Sort of, because more and more species are disappearing from view and may have disappeared from the face of the earth forever. On the other hand, new species continue to be discovered. Sad statistics show that the survival of 90% of all lemur species is under threat, and 30% are threatened with extinction. The cause: poaching, logging and forest fires. The latter mostly due to the tradition of tavy (slash-and-burn), in which forest plots are sacrificed to obtain more agricultural land.
The beautiful blue-eyed lemur is also in danger of extinction. Eye color ranges from blue-green to steel blue, they are – besides humans – the only primates with such blue eyes. The fur of males is black, while females are reddish to rusty brown. These colorful lemurs are found only on the Sahamalaza Peninsula, in northwestern Madagascar. I found it a great privilege to be involved for several years in a project to build an encampment for tourists in the – then just new – Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park. Simple accommodation (canvas safari tents with beds) and amenities, but since then adventurous travelers have undertaken the trek to the remote Ankarafa forest plot, where the blue-eyed lemur can be seen. My favorite approach route is by sea: dock by boat at a secluded beach, then walk an hour to the camp. My favorite season: mid-September to late October, because that’s when the young are born.
Seeing young lemurs up close is a feast for the eyes, a scene that always makes one cheerful. Moreover, the little ones are a symbol of hope; they are so incredibly welcome and desperately needed in the fight for the lemurs’ survival. Therefore, to conclude this trip through Madagascar, a few cozy family snapshots from the blue-eyed lemur’s nursery, in the forest of Ankarafa. Where the world can’t find you…