Madagascar: Land of lemurs

A swooping scream comes from above. The call of the indri sounds like an angry whale: haunting and very loud

By Emily Payne
Published 15 May 2019, 16:02 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 13:17 BST
A lemur
A lemur

Looking up into the canopy, I make out several black and white shapes before a male appears just 30ft above me, stares intently at my dubious trekking gear, and relieves himself right above my head. I shimmy sideways to avoid the downpour.

The indri, or babakoto (‘man of the forest’), is the largest lemur and has a long-limbed human quality not shared by the smaller primates endemic to Madagascar: the claw-fingered aye-aye and the tiny mouse lemur. They’re at a high risk of extinction and the only place to spot these monochrome tree-dwellers is in the rainforests of Andasibe, where I am now.

It’s 7am, and Evereste, my guide, leads me deep into the greenery between towering trees and past sunlit glades, up declivitous hills and through enormous cobwebs. We stop to admire some minute tree frogs belting out megawatt ribbits. A pregnant Parson’s chameleon, fit to burst, blazes green, her eyes pointing in different directions. We duck under low-hanging branches and tip-toe over termite nests. Between indri sightings, there’s a pause to swim in a natural, ice-cold pool — our own private waterfall in the dense forest.

Andasibe is a lush, emerald green town with cyclone-ravaged shacks and a buzzing high street made of mud. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park pulsates with curious wildlife: from bizarre giraffe-necked weevils to chameleons, diademed sifakas and land crabs. Evereste tells me: “Deforestation caused the parks to split up, but our aim is to link the three forests back together to make it easier for wildlife to flourish.”

As a result of deforestation, hunting and illegal logging, lemurs are now one of the most endangered species on earth. David Attenborough described the world’s fourth biggest island as “an unrepeatable experiment”, adding, “How tragic would it be if we lost it before we understood it?”

Each of the 103 lemur species has its own endearing quirk: like the bipedal ‘dancing’ sifakas, who can lurch up to 30ft in sideways hops or the ring-tails, carrying offspring under their bellies as they leap between rocks. It’s easy to see why they were once kept as pets. The indri, however, cannot survive in captivity. In an enclosed space, they go on hunger strike and die.

For purists, Vakona Forest Lodge’s own private lemur island might seem a bit like cheating — there’s no neck-craning to catch a glimpse of fur (its inhabitants have been rescued from captivity, so they’re habituated). I reach the eucalyptus-infested isle by canoe. Immediately, three black-and-white ruffed lemurs hurtle towards us and a brown lemur jumps onto my shoulder. Aware I’m being ambushed by more and more brown lemurs, I make a run for it. I offer some squishy banana to a quieter, wise-looking diademed sifaka. A padded leathery paw clasps my hand as he graciously picks up the fruit, before leaping over my head into the next tree. For a fleeting moment, I’m in love.

I can’t help wondering why more hasn’t been done to protect Madagascar, the Indian Ocean’s own Galapagos island, where endemic creatures now cling on to their last branches.

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