02 Dec Looking for Lemurs in Madagascar
Alongside our Expedition Leader, we tramped through the humid forest, looking down to avoid roots across the trail and looking up periodically in hopes of a flash of black and white in the trees. Our small group was listening, too, for a sound we had never heard before: the wailing call of the indri.
Before I started researching my trip to Madagascar, I had never heard of an indri. Nor had I heard of a sifaka, though we were searching for these in this forest, too. Both are among the more than 100 different varieties of lemur that live in Madagascar—and only in Madagascar.
Along with nearly 90 percent of Madagascar’s intriguing wildlife, these primitive primates are found nowhere else. Madagascar is sometimes referred to as the “eighth continent,” since the flora and fauna on the world’s fourth-largest island are so unique. Its unusual biodiversity reflects its isolation: Lying off the southeast coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar was once joined to Africa and India as part of a super-continent some 100 million years ago. But when it broke away, its species developed wholly apart from these other landmasses, and most of them are endemic.
In more recent times—a geological blink of an eye—Madagascar has undergone extensive deforestation, and the cloistered habitats that once sheltered legions of lemurs across the island a century ago have largely disappeared. The fragmented tracts that remain are mostly national parks, including the one we were walking in, Andasibe-Mantadia.
This park is located in montane rain forest on the east slope of the spine of mountains that run the length of the island. About 100 miles from the capital of Antananarivo (“Tana” to locals), it’s the nearest place for curious travelers to get a glimpse of the indri and hear its inimitable call.
The indri is the largest living lemur, more than 2 feet tall and weighing 15-20 pounds. Its dramatic black and white fur coat stands out in the rain forest’s green gloam, as does its piercing, round golden eyes, when you’re lucky enough to catch one’s gaze.
But it was the indri’s eerie call we heard first. Though distant, it was loud, and we made our way through the thick foliage in pursuit of it. A bit like a long trumpet blast, the indri’s voice is heard by very few people on Earth. This lemur species is critically endangered, with anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 individuals left in Madagascar’s eastern rain forests. Rapid habitat loss and hunting continue to diminish their numbers, along with all of Madagascar’s lemurs.
Soon, our patience and tenacity were rewarded. We heard two indri calling to one another, and suddenly we spied them directly overhead. We saw a couple more in the neighboring trees as we stood there grinning in awe, transfixed by this rarest of wildlife encounters. Our local guides, young men who had grown up near this forest and know it intimately, were pleased at our delight, and we were certainly impressed with their tracking skills.
Play the clip below for a sampling of indri calls:
Almost as surprising as the indri’s loud moan is the way it propels itself. Lemurs being primates, we expected to see them swing through the trees using their arms. But instead they hopped like pogo sticks, springing on their strong hind legs from one branch to the next. Their agility and balance were astounding, and we could have spent timeless hours in that one spot, watching and listening to them as they ate and communed. A special treat was a glimpse of a baby clinging to its mother’s belly. While she used her arms to gather leaves to eat, the baby was on its own to hang on for dear life, literally—if a lemur youngster loses its grip on its mother’s fur and falls to the ground, it will certainly die.
Eventually this family of indris moved on to another part of the forest and we continued our trek, this time in search of diademed sifakas. This is another of the 11 lemur species in the park, sporting a showy gray and gold coat trimmed with a crowning halo of white, which gives it its name. We got lucky with these, too, a clear, close sighting of several together, including another baby, active in the treetops. Completing our hiking circuit, we also got views of common brown lemurs from mere feet away, and only about head height above the ground.
We were thrilled by our success in the park, and this was just our first opportunity to scout for lemurs on Natural Habitat Adventures’ 13-day Madagascar Wildlife Adventure, a small-group nature expedition for just 10 guests led by a naturalist Expedition Leader and local Malagasy guides.
Moving on to Ranomafana National Park, we found highly endangered golden bamboo lemurs—just two live in the park (and the fact that we saw them is a tribute to our local guides’ extraordinary tracking skills). In the arid sandstone ramparts of Isalo National Park, we were entertained by Madagascar’s best-known lemur, the black and white ring-tailed species. And in the dry deciduous forest of little-visited Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, we got a look at a rare sportive lemur, tucked inside a hole in a tree and peering out at us with its huge, luminous yellow eyes. On the private Anjajavy Reserve fronting the Mozambique Channel, we spied tiny mouse lemurs skittering among the branches on our night walks, while Coquerel’s sifakas hung out on our cabana deck rails and hopped through the gardens.
For lemur lovers, there’s clearly nothing as thrilling as a trip to Madagascar to see them in their native habitat. Yet Madagascar holds even more fascinating wildlife encounters, from giant turquoise Parson’s chameleons and masterfully camouflaged leaf-tailed geckos to long-necked giraffe weevils with bright red bodies and the mysterious fossa, an elusive predator that looks like a cross between a mongoose and a puma.
The future of all these creatures is at risk given Madagascar’s tremendous struggles to conserve its wild lands in the face of poverty and resource exploitation. Yet the presence of every eco-traveler provides fresh hope for their future. As jobs are created for the guides and lodge staff that support tourism, local communities discover that their forests are worth more intact than cut down…and lemurs continue to thrive in them.
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Adventure Collection member GeoEx also offers trips to Madagascar.
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