He jumped onto my shoulder and munched furiously on his banana. At first I was unsure, not expecting such boldness from a lemur. But soon enough I became his friend, and he became mine. This Red-fronted Brown lemur was incredibly tame and insisted on stroking my hair. He was reluctant to leave, despite no more bananas to eat. From a small distance, the Small Bamboo lemur was happy to remain on the branch from where I could stroke him. Both the Golden and Black and White Sifaka’s; a genus of the lemur family, bounded about forever eyeing me up for more bananas. I was at Ilot de Lodge in Madagascar, one of the very few places where four species of lemur can be fed bananas for the privilege of a close and personal encounter.
Analamazaotra Special Reserve
As an island, Madagascar has been in isolation for at least 80-million years, allowing a rich playground of endemic flora and fauna to evolve. From swollen baobab trees to acrobatic lemurs and colourful chameleons, it was an ecologist’s paradise. We were heading east towards Andasibe, on the fringe of the Analamazaotra Special Reserve. I met Mr. Dona, my guide for the evening to discover nocturnal lemurs, chameleons and frogs. He has been guiding as a naturalist for 20 years, and his experience definitely showed tonight as his well-trained eyes glanced over the forest.
The chameleons absolutely fascinated me, particularly in their ability to change colour, and often quickly. It’s an ancient lizard with a curled up tail and often found hiding in tree branches. The males are distinct with their casque helmet-like horns on top of their head. Flashes from my camera, seem to disturb them as their eyes rolled around and their reptilian skin changed colour. Madagascar contains nearly half of the chameleon species in the world, of which the majority are endemic.
I was to meet Mr. Dona again the following morning as sunrays streaked through an abundant forest canopy. Madagascar has about 6000 species of flora known to science. He pointed towards the vines that twirled around numerous tree trunks. I was to learn the vines will always twist to the right due to the Coriolis force.
I walked through my fair share of invisible spider webs in search of lemurs. They were soon to be seen prancing about, leaping effortlessly between the tree branches. I captured some good views of the Black and White Sifaka, also known as the Indri Indri. Occasionally he would look down at me, and then go about his eating and playing again. Their life expectancy ranges from 25-45 years, with females having offspring every two to three years. Mr. Dona pointed up towards the forest canopy to a male adult lemur that weighed about 25 kilograms. I was pleased they were dangling in the treetops and not on my shoulder.
I was staying at Kirindy Ecolodge when I first met John, my next guide. Just like Mr. Dona, John was also a well-experienced guide with a remarkable eye for observation. It was a fortunate start to the evening by seeing a Grey Mouse lemur dash across the dining room. At first, I thought it was a giant rat as I seized the moment to take a photograph. John did see the Grey Mouse lemur in the forest, later again that night. I eventually did see it, although it was far too difficult to capture another photograph.
There are approximately 80 species of lemur in Madagascar, maybe more. Eight species of lemur are found in Kirindy Forest, of which I was fortunate enough to see seven. We had stepped off the main track and ventured cross-country. John was considerate to remove the invisible spider webs and would wave a stick up and down. I thanked John for his magic wand.
The Conquerl’s Dwarf lemur and the Forked Marked lemur were the most common lemurs to be seen that evening. I could sense John’s excitement as we continued to discover different creatures of the night. It was like a treasure hunt, with the added challenge of darkness. Thanks to John, I eventually saw the Fat-tailed Dwarf lemur, with just one eye glistening at me. From a greater distance we could see the Black and White Sifaka’s peacefully sleeping, their bigger size made them easier to see.
Most lemurs are nocturnal, but I did see two more lemurs the following day. The White Sifaka, with their beautifully patterned body and face were on acrobatic display, playing and leaping through the forest. They are also known as the dancing lemurs, and I can see why. One White Sifaka sat in a tree branch, posing for quite some time. He appeared so chilled and relaxed, unperturbed by our presence. Others continued to play, whilst some clung their limbs around tree branches. The Red-fronted Brown lemur appeared soon after and I was surprised how confident and curious he was. John began to communicate in lemur language, making distinct noises in the back of his throat. It was a great way to befriend a lemur. Beautifully coloured butterflies fluttered about and higher up in the forest, a Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher had caught breakfast and was enjoying the delights of a moth.
Anja’s Reserve was seven kilometres south of the town, Ambalavo, as far south as I would travel. It is extremely popular as an ecotourism site and the reserve guarantees most visitors a chance to see a Ring-tailed lemur. I walked and talked with several guides that afternoon. The guide I spent most time talking with was 60 years of age and walked barefoot. He didn’t look a day over 40 and was minus any grey hairs. “No stress” was the answer. And perhaps that is true. Malagasy people are incredibly fond of time to relax in their natural surroundings. It was part of their daily ritual.
The Ring-tailed lemur appeared to be quit tame and responsive to the guide’s lemur talk. He was busy munching on leaves and fruit mostly, interjected with a few flying leaps. I practiced the noises with my throat, but seldom got a response. Communicating with lemurs was definitely going to take some practise, just like any language. His fur pattern was striking, his tail striped like a zebra. I wondered how nature evolves such distinct beauty and definition.
Ranomafana National Park
Ranomafana National Park is a large area of tropical cloud forest and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The biodiversity is immense, with over 3000 plant species. I felt enshrined by a rainforest with palms, tree ferns, orchids, mosses and giant bamboo. Leeches were on patrol, but I had taken care to wear boots and waterproof pants. No more bare legs, although a few brave tourists were sporting just t-shirts and shorts. No thanks.
Ranomafana National Park was established in 1986, with an emphasis to protect two species, the Golden Bamboo and Greater Bamboo lemurs. I saw three species of lemurs, of which there are twelve in total in the national park range. Laurel, my guide for the national park showed me the food that the lemur’s had been grazing on. It was a half eaten plant stalk. These lemurs eat most vegetation, in fact they are surrounded by a supermarket of food.
I spent some time observing the Red-fronted Brown lemurs, high up in the treetops. They were incredibly busy eating and frolicking between branches. The Grey Bamboo lemur was smaller in size and darted with great agility throughout the forest. Laurel had spent most of his career guiding in the national park and had considerable involvement in the identification and history of the Golden Bamboo lemur. He had worked with Patricia Wright, who had been one of the pioneers in the evolution of the National Park and had also instigated an environmental centre.
My expedition of chasing lemurs in Madagascar had come to an end. I discovered a vastly changing landscape that supports an incredibly rich, biodiverse flora and fauna. Biologists estimate that eight in every ten species are endemic to the island, crafting an evolutionary story throughout the last 80-100 million years. I had seen at least ten lemur species, some I had even touched. But I do recall my most fondest memories of the lemur who insisted on sitting on my shoulder and playing with my hair. It’s not every day a lemur gives you a new hairstyle.