7 mins

Lemur loving in Madagascar

William Gray travelled across southern Madagascar on a quest for the aye-aye, but finds plenty of natural distractions and other lemurs along the way

(William Gray)

Imagine a lemur drawn by Quentin Blake – all pointy and scratchy, long bony fingers and goblin eyes. That’s what an aye-aye looks like. Apparently, there was one in a tree, fast asleep in a hole 15 metres above our heads. We were waiting for it to wake up. Head torches ready. Necks craning. Just one glimpse and I’d be happy. Just one glimpse of this nocturnal, elusive and most mysterious of all lemurs...

But the forest was flickering with lightning. I could feel the tension building in the muggy Malagasy evening air. Deep bass thunder mingled with the percussion of piping frogs and the whining falsetto of cicadas. The storm was minutes away.

“Wake up!” I silently urged the dozing creature high in the canopy above me. But even as I stared up at the branches, the first drops of rain struck my face, warm and heavy.

The author, William Gray, looking across the backbone of the Isalo massif

The author, William Gray, looking across the backbone of the Isalo massif

The island ark

Not all lemurs are as challenging to find as the aye-aye. Two weeks earlier, at the start of my wildlife odyssey in southern Madagascar, I had barely stepped foot in the rich, tropical stew of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park before indri began calling. It sounded like whale song in the forest: a siren cry, swelling, reverberating, holding the forest rapt with each melancholic note. Following my guide, William, along a vine-tangled path we soon found the singers – half a dozen piebald lemurs clutching tree trunks and fixing us with large, round, lemon-coloured eyes.

They seemed surprised to see us; that wide-eyed prosimian gaze of unblinking curiosity and bewilderment. It gave them a certain look of vulnerability – sadly befitting the most threatened mammal group in the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists 24 lemur species as critically endangered, 49 endangered and 20 vulnerable. A recent report, however, suggests that 95% of the 113 known species and subspecies of lemur face extinction. Even as new ones are identified, like the Groves’ dwarf lemur in 2018, they bound straight onto the Red List.

Ever since I read of Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s quest for an aye-aye in their 1989 book, Last Chance to See, I have longed to glimpse this mysterious, scruy prosimian. The aye-aye may not be the rarest of lemurs (although it’s still classified as endangered), but, to me, it has always embodied everything that’s enigmatic and irreplaceable about Madagascar – from its strange, unique wildlife to its diverse range of habitats.

These would be the main focus of my trip, an overland journey tracing the RN7 road from Toliara on the south-west coast to Antananarivo in the Central Highlands – a 900km road trip linking the arid, almost desert-like spiny forests of the south with the rich stew of rainforest in the east. Along the way, I planned to join the dots between a succession of national parks and reserves, each playing a crucial role in protecting lemurs and the tens of thousands of other endemic species that have evolved on this great island ark, cast adrift from ancient Gondwanaland some 150 million years ago. With around 90% of the island’s native forest cover already lost, eective conservation also relies on empowering local people to protect their own patch of forest. Tourism plays a huge part in this. The future of community-managed forests in Madagascar depends on people visiting – staying in local lodges, paying entrance fees, hiring guides…

The mostly nocturnal Hubbard’s sportive lemur stares down at us from its resting hole in Zombitse NP (William Gray)

The mostly nocturnal Hubbard’s sportive lemur stares down at us from its resting hole in Zombitse NP (William Gray)

Look and you will find

“Come. Quick. Look.” William’s familiar contact call drifted through the trees in VOIMMA Community Reserve, a strip of wildlife-rich forest on the edge of Andasibe. Diminutive, fleet-footed, impish-faced, he was like a forest wraith; I, meanwhile, lumbered behind, snagging every stem and creeper as I desperately tried to keep up.

Those three brusque words always preceded an encounter with something extraordinary: a foot-long Parson’s chameleon slow-stepping along a branch, its scaly body a living work of art – like finely chiselled serpentine; copulating stick insects trembling in twiggy ecstasy; girae-necked weevils manoeuvring across leaves like miniature JCBs… the forest twitched with small wonders.

It only took the merest hint of a lemur to send William flitting ahead. A gifted mimic, he clucked and grunted, and his calls were invariably answered. “Come. Quick. Look.” And he’d tease open a window in the jungle tapestry to reveal golden diademed sifakas leaping from trunk to trunk, or the teddy-bear faces of black-and-white rued lemurs staring down at us from a chink in the canopy.

This was the Madagascar of my imagination. But  I was about to discover that tropical rainforest – what remains of it, mainly limited to an increasingly threadbare swathe confined to the east – is just one of the island’s diverse forest habitats. After a few days exploring Andasibe-Mantadia, I returned to the capital, Antananarivo, before flying 900km south-west to the city of Toliara: gateway to a quite dierent world of trees.

The sharp end of Madagascar

Sunrise in Madagascar’s spiny forest was like waking up in the pages of a book by Dr Seuss. Octopus trees waved their 10m-long arms above my head, while baobabs stabbed the ochre-red sand like giant carrots.

Three guides had joined me from a nearby village. Their local tract of spiny forest was owned by a French NGO that worked with families in the area to safeguard the thorny-yet-threatened habitat from cattle grazing and charcoal production. Less than 40% of this arid, sun-baked forest remains. Nearly all of its plant species are found nowhere else on earth, while its cast of animals also includes a long list of endemics. We spotted one of them – Petter’s sportive lemur – fast asleep in the spiky clutch of an octopus tree.

But birds, not lemurs, are the main drawcard of Madagascar’s spiny forest. While one of my guides led me on a slow ramble, the other two threaded themselves through the prickly scrub and toxic euphorbia, seeking two avian rarities. First, a running coua skittered into the open, sunlight flashing on its magenta eye shadow. Then, minutes later, they found a long-tailed ground roller – another handsome bird, streaked brown and white, its wings and long, pert tail edged with sky-blue.

By mid-morning, the temperature had soared to over 35°C and even the spiny-tailed iguanas began seeking shade in the hollows and wrinkles of the older baobabs. Relief from the heat didn’t come until dusk when we ventured out again, this time using torches to shine a light on the night shift. When two bright discs blinked back from the bush, we crept nearer, ignoring the nick and tug of thorns, hardly daring to breathe… Elusive, restless and easily spooked, some of Madagascar’s 20-odd species of mouse lemur are small enough to sit in an egg cup. They are also quite possibly the cutest mammals on the planet.   

Of course, going all gooey over a wide-eyed grey mouse lemur wouldn’t come close to getting an eyeful of an aye-aye. My next chance of spotting one of those, however, wouldn’t be for another week when I returned to the tropical rainforests of the east. Before then, I had the small matter of a 900km road trip, following the RN7 north-east through the heart of Madagascar.

A grey bamboo lemur at the Lemur Island refuge (William Gray)

A grey bamboo lemur at the Lemur Island refuge (William Gray)

Rock formations and semi-arid plant life in Isalo NP (William Gray)

Rock formations and semi-arid plant life in Isalo NP (William Gray)

A collared nightjar – the author stared for a full minute at this patch on the forest floor before he ‘saw’ it (William Gray)

A collared nightjar – the author stared for a full minute at this patch on the forest floor before he ‘saw’ it (William Gray)

Dancers in the forest

“It’s mango season.” Toky, my driver-guide nodded towards stalls piled with yellow fruit as we drove through a kaleidoscope of Malagasy street life. Glossy black zebu, the country’s prized cattle, hauled carts laden with rust-coloured bricks, freshly baked in pyramid-shaped kilns that smouldered on the edge of each town we passed through.

Leaving behind the spiny forest of the south-west, we entered Madagascar’s third major vegetation zone – dry, deciduous forest that historically covered most of the island’s western flank – but it wasn’t until we approached Zombitse-Vohibasia NP that goat-grazed scrub and barren fields gave way to woodland. One moment we were driving through dusty farmland dotted with baobabs – sacred to the locals – the next we were walking in Zombitse’s thick forest where the regal giants hadn’t been stripped of their leafy kingdom.

Zombitse was also the realm of a lemur almost as high on my wishlist as the aye-aye. While Toky waited in the car, I followed two local guides in search of the ‘dancing’ Verreaux’s sifaka. At first, all I saw were flashes of white fur through the mesh of branches ahead. We stopped and waited. Dozing in a hole, high in an old tree, a Hubbard’s sportive lemur fixed us with gremlin eyes; vasa parrots fussed through the canopy, while an enormous Oustalet’s chameleon – the length of my forearm – sidled along a vine, hissing and changing colour from orange to white.

When we began picking our way through the forest again, the sifakas seemed less wary of us. A clatter of branches – slim, elegant fingers wrapped around a trunk – and suddenly one of the adults was staring at me from just a few metres away. Then it bounded away again, first on the ground, ‘dancing’ on all twos, its arms held aloft like an orchestral conductor, then springing from trunk to trunk, a black-and-white fur-ball ricocheting through the forest.

A small patch of forest clinging to the lower slopes of the Three Sisters offers sanctuary to ring-tailed lemurs at the Anja Community Reserve (William Gray)

A small patch of forest clinging to the lower slopes of the Three Sisters offers sanctuary to ring-tailed lemurs at the Anja Community Reserve (William Gray)

A woman with her baby walks beside the RN7 road near Zombitse-Vohibasia NP (William Gray)

A woman with her baby walks beside the RN7 road near Zombitse-Vohibasia NP (William Gray)

Set out at after dusk into the spiny forest and use torches to spot grey mouse lemur by their eye glow (William Gray)

Set out at after dusk into the spiny forest and use torches to spot grey mouse lemur by their eye glow (William Gray)

Paradise for prosimians

They can jump over 9m,” Toky told me as I clambered back into the car, sweaty and scratched but exhilarated. Operatic indri, hypnotic mouse lemur and now acrobatic sifaka; I was beginning to wonder if I’d peaked on prosimians. How could the scruy, buck-toothed aye-aye possibly compete? But there was a lot more lemur loving to come before I even reached its rainforest hideout.

Beyond Zombitse, the RN7 arrowed across plains scattered with clusters of red-clay houses. After a 90-minute drive, we reached and crawled through the gem-rush town of Ilakaka, spawned by the discovery of sapphires in 1998; from there we then delved into the ancient, weather-beaten massif of Isalo National Park for a rendezvous with what, for many, is the most endearing lemur of all.

According to local guide Charles, a family of ring-tailed lemurs lived in a gorge, deep in the heart of Isalo. To reach it, we set o early, our boots rasping on Jurassic quartzite as we scaled ridges riddled with burial caves of the Bara people. Hiking across a hot, windblown plateau, rusty pinnacles of sandstone reared around us. Charles showed me scorpions skulking under rocks and bloated Pachypodium ‘elephant’s foot’ plants squatting on boulders like dwarf baobabs. The trail reached a cli edge and we began descending into a canyon; a lost world of palms and ferns, dripping emerald moss, jade-coloured pools and frisky lemurs. The ring-tails had found a green sliver of paradise.

 

I saw another group a couple of days later, having travelled 180km further north-east, with the RN7 climbing into the Central Highlands. This time their home was a small swathe of forest skirting the Three Sisters – smooth-domed granite monoliths rising to 1,500m. Anja Community Reserve is just 30 hectares in size, yet it protects over 300 ring-tailed lemurs. Local villagers gain employment as guides, while the enterprising reserve has helped fund a local fish farming project, tree nursery and school. People are better o and the lemurs have somewhere safe to live.

I spent several hours with a family of Anja’s ring-tails – dodging a hail of leaves and twigs as they raided a fig tree, then sitting quietly nearby as they rested, groomed and played among jumbled boulders. They often did this before roosting in caves hidden in the mountains, my guide told me. As the last pools of evening sunlight seeped from the forest, the lemurs’ black-and-white tails flickered in the deepening dusk as distant thunder rumbled in the east.

Satanic leaf-tailed gecko (William Gray)

Satanic leaf-tailed gecko (William Gray)

Ranomafana NP after heavy rainfall (William Gray)

Ranomafana NP after heavy rainfall (William Gray)

Last chance to see

Low cloud flirted with the treetops as we arrived in Ranomafana NP the following evening, another 120km north-east from Anja and now back deep in the rainforest-clad mountains of Madagascar’s east. “Very soon it will rain,” said Toky. But nothing dampened the enthusiasm of my local guide for tracking down some of the rarest, most elusive inhabitants of this 416 sq km rainforest.

Our first morning’s walk, fording streams and scaling steep ridges, was rewarded with a rainbow of chameleons and tree frogs. We glimpsed golden bamboo lemurs – only discovered in 1987 but already critically endangered. And we encountered Uroplatus phantasticus – a cryptic, demonic little dinosaur also known as the satanic leaf-tailed gecko. No bigger than my little finger, it fixed me with a baleful, unblinking stare, as though it had just hatched from  a dragon’s clutch, intent on wreaking havoc.

It’s the aye-aye, however, that strikes dread in the hearts of the Malagasy. In some parts of the country, the night-dwelling, amber-eyed, black lemur is fady [taboo]. A harbinger of disease or misfortune, some fear the aye-aye simply pointing its elongated ‘finger of death’ at them. The curiously protracted digit is actually used for tapping hollow branches and tree trunks to help the lemur echo-locate juicy beetle grubs – something I would risk any curse to witness.

On my final day, Toky drove me two hours east of Ranomafana where the Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station not only enrolled villagers to tend a rainforest nursery and replant areas of slash-and-burn, but also employed local guides to radio-track nine species of endangered lemur – including the aye-aye.

Hiking into the forest at dusk, we quickly found the tree with a sleeping aye-aye tucked away in a hole 15m above our heads. I stared up at the branches. The first drops of rain struck my face, warm and heavy. A torch beam suddenly flared into life. Something shuffled through the pool of light and I heard a little voice in my head: “Come. Quick. Look.”

verdant farmland on the eastern slopes of the mountains beyond Ranomafana (William Gray)

verdant farmland on the eastern slopes of the mountains beyond Ranomafana (William Gray)

Footnotes

The trip

The author travelled with Rainbow Tours on a tailor-made trip: A 14-night itinerary including the national parks of Andasibe-Mantadia, Isalo, Zombitse-Vohibasia and Ranomafana, as well as the community forests of Ifaty and Anja, with half board and international flights.

Vital statistics

Capital: Antananarivo

Population: 27.5 million

Language(s): Malagasy and French

Time: GMT+3

International dialling code: +261

Visas: UK/Irish nationals required to pay €35 (£31) in cash on arrival.

Money: Malagasy ariary (MGA). Euros and credit cards are accepted at hotels, major shops and restaurants, but ariary cash is useful for tipping guides. There are ATMs in main towns and cities.

When to go

When to go Tropical Madagascar is hotter and drier in the south and west, with more rain in the east and less humidity in the Central Highlands.

Apr-Sept: The driest and coolest months; some species are less active and parks can be crowded in August.

Oct-Dec: Rains can start mid-Dec, but weather is usually fine; lemurs have young and mangoes and lychees are in season.

Jan-Mar: The main rainy season brings heavy downpours that can make travel in remote areas difficult.

Health & safety

Travellers need to be up to date with routine immunisations including tetanus and should consider protection against diphtheria, rabies and hepatitis A (visit www.fitfortravel. nhs.uk). A yellow fever certificate may be needed if arriving from continental Africa. Mosquito-bite prevention is crucial; there’s a risk of malaria throughout Madagascar, and sometimes dengue. Schistosomiasis is also present in freshwater bodies

The country is generally safe. In Antananarivo, be aware of pickpockets and don’t walk alone after dark. If in doubt about self-driving, hire a driver/guide.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Madagascar. Air Madagascar (airmadagascar.com) flies to Antananarivo from Paris (11hrs). Ethiopian Airlines  and Air France operate flights from London Heathrow via Paris and Addis Ababa respectively.

Getting around

Madagascar has limited public transport. There is a sporadic (and slow) passenger railway service between Fianarantsoa and Manakara on the east coast. Minibuses, or taxis-brousses, are cheap and cover most routes, including the 24-hour dash between the capital and Tuléar. For flexibility and reliability, most visitors hire a private driver and vehicle.

Tsaradia operates internal flights to a wide range of destinations. Expect to pay around Ar900,000 (£187) for a one-way fare between Antananarivo and Tuléar.

Cost of travel

If you’re on an organised tour, daily living costs of around Ar30,000-50,000 (£6-10) should cover items such as lunch and tipping guides. Independent travellers should budget around €150 (£130) a day for a good, mid-range hotel room, private vehicle and driver, meals, national park entry fees and guides.

Accommodation

An excellent base for visiting Andasibe-Mantadia NP, the 25-room Mantadia Lodge opened in 2018. Perched on a hill with views west across the forest, its contemporary bungalows have bright, minimalist interiors.

Le Paradisier overlooks the reef-fringed coast at Ifaty in the south-west. Activities include diving and whale-watching (June-Sept). 

Isalo Rock Lodge is a 60-room retreat; its stone cottages boast and raised decks with views of the rugged sandstone hills of Isalo NP. The nearby Jardin du Roy offers an equally chic stay.

Betsileo Country Lodge is a small property near Anja, filled with local crafts and offering mountain views from its chalet-dotted gardens. 

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