The Lure of Lemurs

There are 200,000 reasons to visit the island Eden of Madagascar.

Untangling fishing nets at Île Sainte-Marie.

Photos by Patricia Pearsall

“Over here. Come here, now,” insists the Malagasy tracker, flashing a bright smile that spurs me to scramble some 30 feet down to her vantage point below on this near-vertical hill. Crouching under a thorn thicket and using the bases of tree trunks as hiking sticks, I try to maneuver Tarzan-like, descending to her without snarling my camera gear around a stump, stumbling over a low-hanging vine, or losing traction, all while keeping eyes peeled skyward into the sun-blocked forest canopy. 

Verreaux’s Sifaka

We’re in Andasibe National Park, a proper Rudyard Kipling rainforest, stalking a family of indris, the largest of Madagascar’s lemurs. Lured by the indris’ strange song, which we could hear from our lodge four miles west, my goal is to get at least one clear photo of an indri’s black ears and face, not just the fluffy white butts sitting in the crook of the tree above me. 

Andasibe is one of Madagascar’s approximately 50 fragmented national parks, forests, and private reserves struggling to provide habitat for its vast endemic species populations. At 1,000 miles long, Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island. It makes up less than 1 percent of Earth’s total land mass, yet is home to 5 percent of its plant and animal species—roughly 200,000 specimens of orchids, trees, chameleons, reptiles, fish, and birds—almost all of which are found nowhere else. Among them is the lemur: Madagascar’s poster child, the most threatened mammal on the planet, and the main reason I made the trip.

Fianarantsoa Church in Old Town.

Historically Speaking

My group of a dozen travelers met in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo (known as Tana), to board a van, our de facto day-castle for the next two weeks. Driven by the daring Ntsoa,it carried us from the central plateau, south to the charred grasslands and dry forests, then north into the mountainous rainforests. (The variety of landscape was one of the surprises of Madagascar.) We drove down congested two-lane tarmac, through rivers, and over rutted hard-pack—including partway up the Indian Ocean shoreline on the notorious RN5, which was featured on the BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads—with only one flat tire. Alongthe way, we were entertained, educated, and cajoled under the leadership of Mamy Andrianantenaina. 

Mamy first took us up Tana’s narrow switchbacks to the palace complex for an introductory course in Malagasy history and a view of the sprawling capital. On the way up, we passed a large, chateau-esque house that was once home to the prime minister. The shell of the Rova, or Queen’s Palace, stands atop the hill, where it was gutted by fire in 1995. It was home to the royalty of the Merina kingdom from the 17th century until the French conquest in 1895. The Merina, who make up 95 percent of the capital’s population, are the most politically powerful of the 18 official Malagasy ethnic groups. Lighter skinned, they’re of Malayo-Indonesian heritage and are thought to be the first human settlers, arriving on the island between 200 and 400 A.D. Hailing from the Indonesian islands, perhaps Borneo, they brought with them their language and Polynesian farming techniques. 

So, why is the nation called Madagascar if the people are Malagasy? Blame Marco Polo. The name “Madagascar” was first attributed to the island in The Travels of Marco Polo. It’s thought Polo misattributed and bungled the word “Mogadishu,” the Somali port, having heard it from Malay and Arabic sailors. In European circles, however, the name stuck. 

Betsileo rice fields near Fianarantsoa.

Highland Life … and Death

Driving south into the highlands, we saw terraced fields sweeping down every natural swale and trough, some ready for new crops of rice, some overflowing with ripe carrots, beets, and leeks. In a country that consumes more rice per capita than any other nation in the world (three meals per day), the highland Betsileo are Madagascar’s rice moguls. They generate three crops a year using old terracing and irrigation techniques. This region is also a major vegetable cultivator and hosts the largest zebu (oxen) market in the country. Family compounds are clustered together at the tops of the rice terraces. Each narrow, two-story structure is built of made-on-site clay bricks the color of burnt sienna and topped with a high-pitched metal or thatched roof. 

Following the requisite tourist stroll around the church-festooned old town of Fianarantsoa (called Fianar), the administrative capital of the Betsileo ethnic region, we hiked down the hill behind the city, into and across the rice fields in the valley. Gingerly tiptoeing atop narrow paddy walls, we watched muscled men mold sun-dried red bricks while women meticulously hand-watered plants or whitewashed bamboo. Our destination was a Betsileo three-story dwelling up the adjacent hill. There, we were ushered up to the second floor, seated on a bamboo mat-lined floor, and served a delicious local spread of rice, zebu romazava, tomatoes, and fresh fruit chased with rice water. The entire meal was cooked on one small charcoal brazier up on the third floor. 

Some distance from the homes stands a white stone tomb topped with a cross in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk shrouds. Many Malagasy believe that death is more important than life. Although burial rituals differ among the ethnic groups, most practice “famadihana,” or turning of the bones. When a person dies, an extravagant, expensive celebration takes place. Zebus are killed, and a community feast is prepared. It is served with dancing, merriment, and a liberal supply of “toaka gasy,” or homemade rum. The body is wrapped in silk and taken for temporary burial in a tomb or cave. After seven years or so, the remains and bones are carefully removed, rewrapped in silk, and taken home with a parade of music and dancing. The remains are fêted with a more elaborate ceremonial dinner and then reinterred in a more permanent location. After seven more years, the ancestors are honored yet again. 

Fruit market in Antsampanana.

An Assortment of Edens

Our first all-day forest trek took us down and up some toe-crushing steep trails in the Ranomafana National Park, northeast of Fianar. Though this UNESCO World Heritage Rainforest is home to the rare golden bamboo lemur and 11 more lemur species, my favorite exploration was the night walk along the road outside the park, exposing huge chameleons by headlamp and outing a snake putting the boa-move on an unsuspecting frog in the branch above him. 

From Fianar, we ventured southwest by way of the sapphire mines—Madagascar produces about half of the world’s high-end sapphires—to the sand hills of the Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. There, baobab trees tower over the dry forests that are home to eight lemur species and nearly half of the bird species on the island. The park, established in 1997, has several hiking trails designed to showcase the wildlife habitat.

On the return trip, we stopped at Isalo National Park, where the landscape was a surprise compared to the other parks. Established in 1962, it reminded me of southwest Utah—an arid grassland plateau surrounded by Jurassic-era eroded sandstone massifs carved with deep canyons, which are home to tropical pools and verdant forests full of lemurs and chameleons. While cooling off in a stream, we watched ring-tailed lemurs flying through tapia tree branches. 

For the final leg of our journey, we slogged up the island’s east coast to Mohambo, where we boarded skiffs and seesawed through the surf out to the ferry that took us to lush, unspoiled Île Sainte-Marie. At the island paradise, we enjoyed two days of white sand beaches, pirate cemeteries, reefs for diving, Antarctic whales wintering, and delicious seafood. It was a sublime ending to an amazing journey. 

Madagascar is an Eden of mind-boggling flora and fauna; scrumptious vegetables, zebu, and fish; and genuinely friendly locals. Although the island struggles and many of its species are endangered, don’t let that scare you off; reports show eco-tourism brings funding, support, and appreciation that will help preserve this wondrous place for generations to come.  

An Island in Peril

Burned grass and traveller’s palms outside Isalo National Park.

Madagascar is home to almost 12,000 plant varieties, a thousand orchids, and six of the nine known species of baobab tree. More than half of the world’s chameleons live only on the island, as do hundreds of frogs, reptiles, fish, birds, and, of course, lemurs.This verdant wildlife contrasts vividly with the highest human growth rate in Africa—40 percent of the population is under the age of 14. The majority of the population lives in rural areas where they rely on subsistence farming, which damages the land and has reduced animal habitat to just 10 percent of the island. The plants and animals are further threatened by mining, hunting, and illegal exotic animal and timber trades. However, officials are hopeful that ecotourism will prove a viable, and reliable, source of income to replace these activities and slow the deforestation rampant on the island.

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue. Ready to book a trip? Click here for details on how to get there and where to stay.

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Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum