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Madagascar’s Lemurs – Looking for Lemurs!

Madagascar is a Garden of Eden on the road less travelled.

One of the largest islands in the world, certainly the largest in Africa, Madagascar is one gigantic crucible of wildlife, flora and fauna. Breaking off from mainland Africa more than 150 million years ago, it lolls in the Indian Ocean, 250 miles off the coast of East Africa.

Sandstone canyons of Isalo National Park, Madagascar’s Grand Canyon

WILDLIFE

In the land where dinosaurs once roamed, wildlife and ecosystems have evolved and simmered over eons to become the unique species they are today, found nowhere else in the world. The country accounts for 5% of the world’s biodiversity. 95% of the reptiles are endemic, as are approximately 90% of plant and mammal life. That’s some feat! Aided by wildly diverse landscapes and climates, wildlife thrives across tropical dense rainforests, semi-arid desert canyons, remote powder-sand beaches and verdant cool central highlands.

THE LEMURS

Thrust into the limelight by the self-titled Hollywood blockbusterMadagascar has become a household name, yet remains an infant on the tourist trail. Political instability isn’t helping and is extinguishing future hope, to some extent. But the film has highlighted the plight of it’s most famous residents, the Lemurs. Quirky and wondrous, the lemurs of Madagascar span 100+ species, with several waiting to be officially declared, having only recently been discovered. In fact, in this cradle of wildlife, new species are constantly being discovered. My guide ‘Desiree’ even re-discovered a species of bird, believed to be extinct – the Helmeted Vanga. But as quickly as new species are discovered, existing species are plunged into ‘threatened’ and ‘endangered’ categories. The lemurs have been described as the most threatened mammals on the planet. Reasons for their dislike begin with the term ‘Lemur,’ which is Latin for ghost. The creatures of the forest gained a reputation as elusive souls of the jungle, historically feared by locals. In a nation dominated by traditional beliefs and cultural superstition, the lemurs were misunderstood.  The ‘slash and burn’ destruction of rainforests, down to a current 20% of the area originally occupied, and evident to the eye whilst travelling by road, is an arterial threat to Lemur survival. Trees are chopped and burned for use as charcoal, the land scorched and scalded to force new growth through rice plantations, and soil eventually depleted of nutrients and quality. Hardwood trees such as mahogany and rosewood are now illegally being removed, eliminating in an instant the hundreds of years it takes each to grow. Lemurs’ habitats are vanishing fast. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, considers 23 species of Lemur critically endangered, 52 species endangered and 19 vulnerable or threatened.

CONSERVATION

The good news is that there are organisations taking matters into their own hands. Anja Reserve in Ambalavao, where I see my first iconic ring-tailed lemurs, is a community-run private reserve managed by a local association. It’s a roaring success and source of much pride. Private reserves are growing, to protect remaining swathes of forest and wildlife. And many primary forests are protected. Lemur conservation projects are highlighting the need to preserve the species, whilst educating and re-training locals in other fields of income. The Wildlife Conservation Society is re-training locals through tree nurseries and eco-tourism. The Lemur Conservation Network is a great example, engaging anyone interested in all manners of conservation, from volunteering on-the-ground to fundraising remotely. Planet Madagascar currently has some exciting projects through community conservation and education. It collaborates with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, a wildlife charity in Jersey, Channel Islands, (one of my former BBC regions) where I personally know first-hand the excellent and inspiring work towards conservation.

LEMUR SPECIES & BABY LEMURS

I have been fortunate to see several lemur species, many of which are sadly endangered, spread across the country’s national parks and reserves. The hikes have been challenging but oh-so-worth-it to witness the quirky ways of the lovable primates. My highlight? I managed to see a 4-day-old baby lemur cradled in it’s mother’s lap. It poked it’s alien-like head out from her lap, staring down at me, piercing bulbous eyes loaded with curiosity. Mummy quickly moved on and, all to fast, it was a dream, banished to a moment in time. But I’ve got the pics to prove it (below). The local park guides are invaluable and true treasures of the forest. I can’t emphasise enough how incredible their sight is, spotting the most obscure and camouflaged creatures whilst re-enacting the exact call of plethora birds and lemurs. I never ceased to be stunned by their ability, enthusiasm and level of knowledge.

Lemurs, Lemurs, Lemurs! PICTURES

1. NEWBORN – 4-DAY-OLD INDRI LEMUR

Quickly come this way, follow me.‘ The shouted whisperings of my guide, Desiree, as he disappeared through thicket up a steep bank in the rainforest. Pulse rocketing from the excitement, adrenaline and uphill haul, I launched up, chasing his feet through dense primary tropical jungle, zipping around gnarled trees and launching over hug logs, trying not to grip tree barks which house chameleons, snakes and itch-inducing leaves. ‘Quickly, baby lemur, baby lemur!’ And at that, I snuck through the rainforest like a light-footed Fossa in a way I’d never have believed capable, to see the baby. It didn’t matter that I’d walked face-first into giant cobwebs and been stung by all sorts, even lashed in the face by hanging reeds. This baby is a very rare sighting and full credit goes to Desiree.

Just 4-days-old, this baby Indri lemur was an incredibly rare sighting.

2. THE ICONIC RING-TAILED LEMUR

Defined by it’s long furry striped black-and-white tail and sadistic red eyes, the ring-tailed lemurs are iconic and symbolic to Madagascar. Unusually, the ring-tailed lemurs spend time on the ground. I saw many on the ground at Anja Reserve and in Isalo National Park. As they’re closely protected and endangered, it was a privilege to see them in action, foraging fruit and scurrying nimbly across boulders, rocks and trees. They communicate by scent markings; the males attempting to out-stink each other during mating season!

Oh, the captions that spring to mind when I see these images…

‘Sunning myself’

‘When you bump into an old friend’

Picking fruits in tandem

3. COQUEREL’S SIFAKA LEMUR

I found these to be very striking. Their appearance is attractive and their gaze fixed and almost naive with those bulbous golden eyes.  Their fur looks so thick and warm, they’re certainly the cuddly ones of the forest. Due to their strong legs and flexible arms, they can actually jump vertically from tree to tree. It came as a surprise to see, as they’re quite large primates. My guide explained that the Coquerel’s are dominated by the females. The males have to wait to eat until the chief female has finished or he risks being hit! Females also choose who to mate with. The Coquerel’s sifaka has a varied diet on over 100 fruits and greens of the woodland it inhabits. Conservation efforts place much focus on this species.

Close-Up Coquerel’s sifaka lemur, Madagascar

Coquerel’s sifaka lemur, Madagascar

4. BAMBOO LEMUR

One of the smallest and cutest, the Bamboo lemur is undeniably adorable. They’re very elusive and shy so catching a good image can test the patience. I see these at Andasibe Mantadia Perinet Reserve and rainforest. The Bamboo lemur is the smallest diurnal lemur, which means it’s active both day and night. It is so-named because majority of it’s diet constitutes bamboo, which they strip away vigorously to reach the inner pith. Deforestation is severely threatening this species and it is listed as ‘critically endangered.’

The bamboo lemur is one of the smallest and cutest.

5. INDRI LEMUR

The largest of the Indri species is Indri Indri or ‘Babokoto’ in Malagasy. It’s one of the largest lemurs in the world. They can grow upto 1 metre and weigh around 9-12 kgs. Their survival is severely threatened. I find the Indri the most human, in characteristics: they can live upto 80 years, mate for life and have a long gestation. The offspring parents for 9 years and as a newborn, the Mum carries baby on her stomach for the first 3 months, then on her back for 6 months. Seeing the Indri in action is endless fun, as they move swiftly, up in the trees and canopies, hardly ever nearing the ground. They can leap around 10 metres, which is incredible to watch given their size. And they’re shockingly gymnastic, dangling from their legs, as if performing aerial stunts. Heartbreaking fact: When caged and removed from their natural habitat, they refuse food until they die. This is one species that cannot survive in captivity. That thought lingers and truly highlights just how desperate is their plight for survival.

6. SPORTIVE LEMUR

I am lucky to see 2 of the 24 subspecies of the critically endangered Sportive lemur: Habbard sportive lemur and Zombitse sportive lemur, the latter native to a particular primary rainforest (and national park). For me, these are the cutest – in fact I find them hilarious and couldn’t help but manically giggle watching them. They can’t see during the day as they’re nocturnal, relying solely on their hearing, which makes it more amusing that their eyes are gigantic and almost cross-eyed. As the lemur attempts to trace sounds, it look in all the wrong directions, scrambling to focus the eyes and get them looking in the same direction. The Habbard sportive lemur below was my personal favourite – lovable and innocent-looking with marigold eyeballs. The name is utterly uncharacteristic of the lemur – it is not sportive at all and in fact rather sedentary, living in its tree most of the day. As a herbivore, it feasts on tiny fruits and leaves.

The endangered Habbard sportive lemur. Also the cutest.

The endangered Zombitse sportive lemur. Just look at those sweet eyes!

7. BLACK-AND-WHITE RUFFED LEMUR

They’re so-called for the ruff that frames an attractive face. The ruffed lemur differs to the Indri as it has a tail, isn’t monogamous and drinks water. To spot them, we set off early in the morning as that’s when they’re most active. Also a herbivore, the Black-and-white ruffed lemur sustains itself on fruit, seeds and leaves. What’s special is that this species gives birth to it’s offspring in a nest of leaves and branches, high up in tree canopies. Whilst the mother sources food, the babies remain here but many fall out and plummet to their death, leaving infant mortality rates high for this species. 1 in 4 babies survive to adulthood.

Black-and-white ruffed lemur. Similar to the Indri Indri but with a tail.

8. COLLARED BROWN LEMUR

Belonging to the Brown Lemur group, these are very versatile primates as they’re diurnal, active both day and night. I see them both during the day and on a night hike. The tail is almost the length of the lemur, giving it a larger appearance. It’s one of the few species in which the males are dominant. The collared brown lemurs are fascinating to researchers as they’re very sensitive and are affected by the weather, change of seasons and amount of light. Villagers hunt the collared brown lemur for its meat or sold as pets, which has shifted the species to the vulnerable category.

Collared Brown Lemur, nibbling on tree fruit

 

9. VERREAUX SIFAKA LEMUR

The Verreaux sifaka is the only species to have webbed hands and feet. I heard it referred to as the white sifaka, due to it’s white colour, with a black face. The sifaka species is famously known for it’s ‘sifaka dance’ which it performs when on the ground in a troop, almost dancing with hands in the air and jumping along the ground on it’s feet. The Verreaux is currently ‘vulnerable.’ Deforestation, hunting and being sold as pets are threatening their wild existence.

Troop of Verreaux sifaka lemur, peering down at me.

Verreaux sifaka lemur, also called the white lemur.

10. DIADEMED SIFAKA LEMUR

The orange in the Diademed sifaka gives it away. They’re considered among the most attractive lemurs. The name arises from the ornamental head-dress worn by royalty, known as a diadem. It’s size makes it’s the second largest primate after the Indri Indri.

Bright colours of the Diademed sifaka lemur

11. MOUSE LEMUR – NIGHT HIKE

A highlight of the lookout for lemurs is hiking through the forest at night. The forest comes alive with nocturnal activity and I was plunged into this on my first day in the countryside of Madagascar. Admittedly quite anxious, at the thought of the snakes and spiders, I was amazed by just how peaceful I found the experience. The fear of the dark and unknown are quickly overcome by the adrenaline to spot something. My guide finds chameleons, frogs and even dragonflies by night!

He taught me the night hike technique:

+ Shine flashlight and look for red or yellow eyes glaring back. + Immediately switch off any light whilst positioning yourself closer. + Listen intently. The animal would believe you’d gone and start to move again. + Flash light and keep camera ready! It’s harder than it sounds and definitely an art to master. So I was amazed to have gained these images – without a camera flash too. We spot 2 of the 8 species of Mouse lemur : Goodman’s mouse lemur and the Eastern woolly mouse lemur. The Goodman’s was discovered only in 2005. They’re very small lemurs, nocturnal and elusive. They survive winters by storing fat in their tails.

The smallest Mouse lemur, spotted on a nocturnal hike

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9 thoughts on “Madagascar’s Lemurs – Looking for Lemurs!

    • Thank you Ken. It took a great deal of stamina too – hiking in humid rainforests & pointing heavy camera upwards for prolonged periods. Absolutely worth it though!

      • I can relate in a small way. I’ve done some hiking in the wilds of Michigan’s U.P. looking for waterfalls. Although, the waterfalls aren’t as hard to find & they stay still once you find them. What you’re doing is more than just nature photography. You’re documenting these beautiful creatures for future generations. Great job!

      • Appreciate your kind words Ken, conservation is very important to me. All nature photography is uncertain by, well, nature – chasing waterfalls sounds thrilling!

  1. I saw this article from Planet Madagascar. It is tragic that lemurs are threatened and our children maybe never see them. We try our best in Madagascar but you see the problems with poverty. Your photos and description are great and even I learn something new. Andry

  2. Thank you for your interest in the lemurs of Madagascar Anisha. It is an honour to have journalists bring the endangered animals to the public eye. Now that you have seen them yourself, you can appreciate how unique they are. Beautiful photos too. Keep it up!

  3. Your photos are fantastic. Is it easy to get close to the lemurs? What are the odds of seeing them? I’m looking at organised group trips and want to make sure I see as many as possible. Thanks

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