In search of Madagascar's aye-aye

Madagascar is a wonderfully strange biodiversity bonanza. It is home to 105 lemur species, but it’s the incredible – and ugly – aye-aye that proves most mysterious of all

8 mins

The odds were not looking good.

Before I’d set off for Madagascar, my tour operator had warned me I had just a 1% chance – a one in 100 shot – of spotting an aye-aye.

Some might say that’s no bad thing. Twisting adaption to stratospheric levels of weird, aye-ayes – one of Madagascar’s many lemur species – aren’t the prettiest critters. These bushy-tailed beasties have staring eyes, ratty teeth, big ears and a long skeletal middle finger, which they use to tap branches to echo-locate grubs. They don’t look much like their lemur brethren. But they do look a lot like Gremlins. Writer Douglas Adams described them as seemingly “assembled from bits of other animals”. Many local Malagasy believe them to be harbingers of doom – one reason why they’ve been persecuted towards extinction.

All of which only increased my curiosity, and explained why I came to be stumbling around after sundown in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. So far my night-walk with local guide Marie Razafindrasolo had yielded exotic frogs and chameleons that changed colour depending on their mood (red = ‘go away, I’m fed up’). But there was one particular nocturnal, solitary, butt-ugly resident I craved to see.

So when Marie announced, “My brother saw an aye-aye crossing the road here,” I briefly became excited.

“Really? Let’s look!”

“No, no, that was three years back – and I’ve never seen one since.”

The hunt continued.

Lemur lore

Madagascar is full of mysteries. This large Indian Ocean isle has astonishing biodiversity: around 250,000 species, of which 80% are found nowhere else on earth. The country’s lemurs – endemic prosimians (prototype primates) with watchful eyes, canine nozzles and curious personalities – are the prehistoric headliners of this extraordinary Noah’s Ark.

There are now 105 species of lemur on Madagascar – scientists routinely split DNA hairs to proclaim new variants. However, these same clever scientists haven’t quite fathomed how on earth lemurs arrived here in the first place. The mammals first evolved in Africa around 55-60 million years ago. But Madagascar had sheared away from supercontinent Gondwanaland and drifted off into the Indian Ocean 30 million years before that.

“Lemurs tucking themselves into clumps of vegetation and floating from Africa to Madagascar seems the least implausible theory,” confessed a Stanford University professor I met one day while trekking.

Far-fetched perhaps, but if these unlikely ancient mariners hadn’t set sail they’d be fossils by now: in Africa, lemurs were superseded by smarter monkeys and wiped out. Suffice to say, somehow some lemurs made it to Madagascar and evolved over time into everything from 20g tiddlers to now-extinct 160kg behemoths the size of gorillas.

The lemurs’ real misfortune was the arrival of humans from South-East Asia 2,000 years ago; these settlers have gone on to clear over 90% of Madagascar’s indigenous ecosystems. Today, tourism offers encouragement to wildlife conservation. Since 2009, this sector has slumped due to a 30-something DJ unconstitutionally seizing power; political chaos has created corruption and allowed illegal Chinese-funded logging. But Madagascan travel remains a biodiversity bonanza, and thoroughly safe. Utter a few words in Malagasy and you’ll receive smiles broader than the channel those lemurs navigated to get here.

Call of the wild

But back to my search. I was travelling the country with guide Diary Andrianompoina, whose surname was as long as the silk scarf he wore to ward off evil spirits. We’d driven for 3.5 hours from the capital, Antananarivo, into the Eastern Highlands to reach Andasibe-Mantadia, where folds of mountainous rainforest host thousands of endemic plants, insects and birds as well as 14 lemur species.

Most visitors come here to see indri, Madagascar’s largest, noisiest lemur. Along with local guide Marie, we’d spent a fruitless hour searching for them before, suddenly, the rainforest had erupted. The ear-splitting concerto of wailing was so loud I hadn’t been able to hear Marie tell me that the indri were directly above.

Indris spend much of their day hugging tree trunks like vertiginous firemen who are terrified of sliding down the pole; when they move they do so powerfully, with turbocharged leaps, pinballing between the trees. They are woolly and black-and-white like pandas although slimmer and with the sort of hairy ears men acquire in old age.

The local Betsimisaraka tribe calls them babakoto, the benign forest spirits.

“Why are they so loud,” I yelled?

“To let other indri know not to intrude on their territory,” Marie shouted back. Their call carries 2km but, with habitat loss isolating them to just a few national parks, how many other indri would be listening in the future?

Such is the extent of human impact here that, after my aye-aye-free night walk in Andasibe-Mantadia, an eight-hour drive south was required to reach the next intact rainforest, in the Eastern Highlands at Ranomafana. Madagascar’s interior has been reduced to gullied hills of maroon-red laterite soil: slash-and-burned for shifting agriculture, overgrazed by zebu, carved into hillside rice-terraces. Planted eucalyptus supplies roadside charcoal sacks while clay bricks bake in pyramidal kilns.

Yet learning about the cultural overlay of Afro-Asian beliefs makes for compelling journeys. For example, as we drove, Diary told me about famadihana (‘turning of the bones’), a funerary ritual during which deceased ancestors are removed from their tombs and re-wrapped in shrouds during drunken parties. He also told me about his baby’s ‘first haircut’ ceremony, at which guests ate his daughter’s hair mixed with honey. It’s also common (permission to gag) to fry-up foreskins for consumption after circumcision ceremonies.

On the brink

I’m not sure Ranomafana’s bamboo lemurs would’ve enjoyed a slice of deep-fried prepuce but they certainly relish their cyanide bamboo. On a sunny morning walk within this World Heritage-listed rainforest with local guide, Theo, we saw five of Ranomafana’s seven diurnal lemurs. This included golden bamboo lemurs, only discovered in 1987. They took us only five minutes to locate, which begged the question as to why scientists took so long? Particularly as they scent-mark their territory with pee as pungent as local rum. With golden hoodies framing their dark faces, they’ve developed a digestive system able to handle a daily dose of cyanide-rich bamboo strong enough to kill an elephant. And surprisingly, given their recent discovery, their numbers have since doubled – creating a baffling conundrum as Ranomafana’s greater bamboo lemur is fast disappearing.

As we watched the golden bamboo lemurs, Theo’s mobile rang. “My brother has found the greater bamboos deeper in the forest – shall we go?”

“Yes, but keep it quiet,” I whispered, hoping to sneak away from an Italian tour party whose gesticulating hands kept appearing in my photos.

Greater bamboo lemurs share the same deadly dinners as goldens yet Ranomafana’s population has recently declined from a dozen-or-so to just two.

It took several hours of clambering over buttress roots to find them, but we finally did: two shipwrecked survivors of eons of evolutionary tomfoolery, gnawing shoots within the tangled chopstick forest.

Their glassy orange eyes shone from within a fluff of chestnut-brown and grey fur. They seemed content. And why not, with so much food around? But actually, they’re doomed – as father and daughter, they will never breed. I felt emotional watching the youngster follow her pa everywhere, before they huddled to share bamboo; every time she trilled, I imagined she was asking: ‘Where is everybody Dad?’

Scientists tried to reintroduce three other greater bamboo lemurs from outside Ranomafana, where several scattered, threatened populations exist, but one died instantly and two disappeared mysteriously, radio collars and all.

“Nobody completely understands why they’re dying out,” said Pascal Nalimanana, a scientist at Ranomafana’s ValBio Research Centre. “It could be diet, inbreeding, habitat – many things.” Or maybe evolution at work?

Opportunistically I steered the conversation towards my increasing obsession for aye-ayes.

“A researcher came here from the USA to study them but after three months not seeing any he swapped lemur species,” laughed Pascal. “But they do exist,” he continued, “look at this.”

He showed me recent camera-trap images of a pair in Ranomafana. Grainy pictures but unmistakable... ish... “They have a large range of around 10km because it’s difficult for them to find a mate,” added Pascal.

He also mentioned a private reserve a few hours away that had them. I hurriedly applied to visit but circuitously received a blunt email from the USA saying no.

By now the conspiracy theorist in me was comparing aye-ayes to Roswell’s extra-terrestrials. Was Pascal’s photo faked? Do aye-ayes really exist?

Lemur love

More accommodating are the Betsileo people at Anjaha. They’re desperate for visitors to come to see the iconic ring-tailed lemurs on their self-managed community reserve. It’s an inspiring little project, three hours’ south of Ranomafana in lilac-tree forest amid the bulbous granite kopjes of Ambalavao.

Eking a lifestyle is tough in this arid environment so I was surprised at the tolerance shown by the Betsileo when I first saw ring-taileds tucking into the tomato crop. Nobody seemed bothered. Daniel, a villager employed to guide visitors, was thoroughly proud of these tomato-scoffing miscreants. “Before the reserve was founded [1999], some people would hunt them. Now we look after them and they’ve increased from 50 to 400. Thanks to tourism we can feed our families,” he said – although obviously not with tomatoes.

With delicate white, black and tan markings, ring-taileds mostly scamper along the ground and stare with looks of bewilderment. Their enormous striped tails seem utterly useless: they fold them into S-shapes when running and dangle them like pipe-cleaners when in trees. These tails are not prehensile – a design fault that led to their African ancestors being thoroughly trounced by more dexterous monkeys.

Seaside style

If Anjaha is a micro-model of good wildlife-human cohabitation, then my final destination was another inspiring success on a grander scale.

I flew by light aircraft from Antananarivo to the aridly remote shores around Anjajavy, which is inaccessible by road. Named after a coastal village of the Sakalava tribe, Anjajavy Hotel is an expensive coastal resort of luxurious wooden cottages enclosed by spiny euphorbia and baobab forests, and dotted with outcrops of tsingy (coral-limestone) and unique lemurs.

Empty white-sand beaches, succulent seafood, accommodatingly friendly staff... it’s easy to like. And not least for the chocolaty-brown Coquerel’s sifakas that prance comically across the manicured lawn here like kangaroos, and leap about the trees in kamikaze fashion.

“Visitors are the reason this magical forest is protected,” explained property manager Cédric de Foucault, whose French ancestors took root in Madagascar some centuries ago. His passion for the hotel’s social and environmental commitment burns brightly. “Local people have benefitted so much from the hotel’s presence but we’re not a charity,” Cèdric articulates. “We want to give people dignity through work not handouts.”

The lodge employs 100 people from the local area, where it also sources its seafood and vegetables, and has replanted over 250,000 mangrove and deciduous trees around the forest. I joined an excursion to Anjajavy village and felt genuinely heartened by the most prosperously healthy village I’d seen on this impoverished island.

I also joined Radu, the hotel lemur-spotter, for a night-walk to find some of the world’s smallest primates: nocturnal mouse lemurs. Although, frankly, the difficulty of distinguishing between the members of this genus made it quite baffling. Radu shone his torch into the forest for the umpteenth time, dazzling a pair of wide eyes.

“It looks grey [they all do],” I said, “so that one’s a gray [sic] mouse lemur?”

“No, it has a rufous tail so it’s a northern brown mouse lemur,” Radu replied.

“Even though it’s mainly grey?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “And there’s a golden-brown mouse lemur.” Granted it was a smidgen yellower but I couldn’t find it in my lemur guidebook and these 20cm-long primates defy inspection, scurrying through the branches in perpetual panic.

“It’s a new species,” added Radu.

“Aren’t they just the same species with slight colour variations being reclassified?” I puzzled.

“Oh no!” exclaimed Radu, alarmed at such heresy. “The scientists say they are different.”

Face to fearsome face

Thoroughly relaxed, I flew back to Antananarivo having seen one-fifth of< Madagascar’s prosimian marvels. However, there remained one last itch to scratch.

As a rule, I’m uncomfortable with zoos, but I’d heard Tsimbazaza Zoo opened at night on request and possessed four rare inmates.

Diary and I were alone in the pitch-black, staring into a cage. I saw a bushy fox tail, and then a shadowy outline, moving stealthily, like a raccoon, upside-down. Finally the creature paused to be photographed, and I saw the pinkish face and Edward Scissorhands fingers of the aye-aye. I stared into the burning little yellow suns of its eyes, somewhat aghast – my final Madagascan miracle of evolution.

The author travelled with Madagascar specialists Rainbow Tours.

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