Madagascar: The jungle of rarities

The verdant rainforests of Madagascar are home to a staggering diversity of wildlife

By Emma Gregg
Published 3 Jun 2019, 09:27 BST
Masoala National Park
Masoala National Park
Photograph by Alamy

A clattering cough, like a flock of angry pheasants. Strident chirps followed by soft, nasal grunts. A screech like a horse, a wild boar and a teething baby rolled into one. I’ve been eager to see Masoala National Park’s lemurs, but I had no idea that hearing them would be extraordinary, too. 

The screech belongs to the white-belted black-and-white-ruffed lemur, a primate that looks magnificent when hurling itself through the rainforest canopy. The chirps and grunts are the call of the white-fronted brown lemur, which sports a cute balaclava of fluffy, white fur. The clattering cough, I discover, belongs to the red-ruffed lemur. It’s a Masoala speciality, critically endangered and extremely rare. 

“Jumping, jumping, jumping,” yells Felix. When it comes to live nature commentary, sometimes simplest is best, and my local guide has just the right touch. Ask him a question and he offers information galore, but when something exciting is happening, he sticks to rapid whispers, urgent gestures and big, toothy smiles.

Right now, there’s excitement all around us. A large group of red-ruffed lemurs — impressive creatures with teddy bear fur, dachshund-like faces and enormous black tails — are racing through the trees with extravagant leaps. Sounding the alarm, they disappear before we know it. It’s enough to leave me breathless.

Covering most of a sizeable peninsula in northeastern Madagascar, Masoala contains around 900sq miles of rainforest, full of illusions and peculiarities. It can only be explored on foot, but it’s so remote that few people ever do. Venturing along its narrow, dappled paths, I get a strong sense that in this jungle of rarities, I’m a rarity too.

The lemurs operate a shift system. The ones staring down at me now like Cheshire Cats will dissolve into the shadows at dusk, just as other species — invisible for now, ensconced in tree-trunk hollows and forks — start to appear, their eyes glowing like tiny lamps in our torch beams.

White-headed lemur
Photograph by Alamy

Many other creatures thrive among Masoala’s pallisander trees, orchids and clumps of wild ginger. Tree frogs shine like tumbled stones on the leaves. Panther chameleons wobble precariously on twigs, and sometimes the dappled markings on the bark of a tree resolve into another oddity: a leaf-tailed gecko.

Felix, who is adept at spotting the seemingly impossible, can find these cryptic reptiles with ease. On an excursion to the island reserve of Nosy Mangabe, he discovers several; each time, my eyes struggle to see what he sees. Leaf-tailed geckos are prized by poachers, but their impeccable camouflage defeats all but the most determined. Equally elusive is the Peyrieras’s pygmy chameleon — the colour of leaf litter and unbelievably tiny — but Felix promises to find me one and, to my astonishment, he succeeds.

My base for this wildlife adventure is Masoala Forest Lodge, a laid-back beach lodge with seven palm-thatched treehouses tucked amid the greenery. Scrupulously eco-friendly, it’s built from sustainably harvested local materials, is largely solar-powered and the ovens are fuelled by deadwood. I divide my days between forest walks and kayaking forays along the coast on leafy creeks to spot parrots and kingfishers. Then, come nightfall, it’s back into the forest to see what animals have emerged — the hairy-eared dwarf lemur, perhaps, or its cousin, the mouse lemur.

“When the day comes to an end, that’s when really interesting things start happening,” says Felix. Even aye-ayes — long-fingered lemurs that are normally very hard to see — are occasionally spotted near the lodge.

On our final evening, my companions and I feast on local fare, heaping raw papaya and rice onto ravenala palm leaves and eating the mixture with spoons fashioned from folded wild ginger fronds. And as the squeaks and whistles of mouse lemurs ring out from the forest, we add our own clinks to the chorus, toasting the good fortune that brought us to this precious place. 

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK). 

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