Madagascar lemurs: The Indri and me

When Madagascar parted company from the rest of Gondwanaland 100 million years ago, it went its own evolutionary way. About 40 million years later, refugees from mainland Africa washed up on its shores and found a new world to colonise. Alison Westwood went looking for long-lost lemur cousins.

A dancing lemur in an Octopus tree. For more photographs of Madagascar and lemurs, click on this photograph.

A raindrop plops from leaf to leaf, somersaults through layers of forest canopy and lands with a  splash on my nose. I wrap a soggy hat more tightly around my camera and follow Zaka up the steep path. Watch the ground for slippery roots, duck to avoid a slap from a liana. Stop! There it is, the sound we’ve been waiting for. Either the largest balloon in the world is being deflated, or the indris are singing in Andasibe this morning.

I scramble to keep up with Zaka as he disappears in the direction of the cries, then almost bowl him over when he pauses, pointing. ‘Where? Where?’ We edge forward. Between dripping foliage, on long grey limbs bearded with lichen, two black-and-white teddy bears are regarding us sternly. One opens her mouth with a great roar. Her mate joins in. The howl-wail song starts again and the forest dissolves in a downpour of noise.

The indri is the largest lemur alive today (there used to be one the size of a gorilla). Some people think it looks like a humanoid panda and say its call resembles that of the humpback whale. Indris belt out their duets loud enough to be heard several kilometres away and neighbouring groups keep in touch by singing about territory, mating, weather conditions and warnings. Sure enough, a distant answer floats back over the hills.

Zaka and I are in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a primary rainforest where the trees are older than memory and taller than stories. Next door is the Analamazaotra special reserve, a secondary rain forest set aside specifically for the protection of the indri. It had to be, because the indri is also the most obstinate lemur alive. Unlike other lemurs, it refuses to live or breed in captivity and doesn’t do well outside its natural habitat.

At the turn of the 20th century you could have heard indris sing every morning anywhere from Tamatave on the east coast to Antananarivo in the central highlands. But their song has been fading with the rainforests. The Malagasy believe the indri is closely connected to humans and it is fady – taboo – to harm them. But while the indri is protected from man by fady, most of its habitat isn’t.

Sacred forest of the place of mud

Since humans arrived on the island a few centuries ago, the virgin forests of Madagascar have been eaten away by tavy – slash and burn agriculture. In  recent decades, as population and poverty have proliferated, it raged out of control. Trees were turned into charcoal, hills into rice paddies. The great green seas of forest shrank into isolated puddles, then disappeared completely. It’s not only the indri’s eastern rainforests that are vanishing, either. The spiny forests of the dry south are critically endangered too. It’s incredibly sad. Because if there’s anything as thrilling to see as an indri is to hear, it must be a dancing lemur in an octopus tree.

I went to look for one in the Alafada of Ifotaka – the sacred forest of the place of mud – a bumpy three-hour drive from the town of Tolagnaro. Beyond a village full of children clamouring for photographs, we waded across a river towards a bristling forest full of the tombs of their forefathers. Like most things in Madagascar, the spiny forest confuses scientists, who aren’t sure whether it’s a forest or a desert, so they call it a thicket. Normal people don’t worry about what to call it. They’re too busy thinking ‘woah, man’.

Scientists describe the spiny thicket as one of Madagascar’s seven ecoregions and list endemic species like red-flowering dwarf baobab, 20 species of pachypodium or elephant foot, and the dominant Dideraceaea family, or octopus trees. Non-scientists gesticulate as if they could wave the long legs of an octopus tree into the air above them, 50 feet tall, like fronds of some giant terrestrial seaweed. Both scientists and tourists are fascinated by the dancing lemur’s ability to jump around on octopus trees, which are covered in long, sharp thorns.

The dancing lemur is more correctly called the Verreaux’s sifaka. It’s a member of the same family as the indri and is almost as large. Unlike the indri, which many believe never descends from the trees, the dancing lemur will occasionally walk on the ground. It does this by sashaying along sideways on two legs, arms waving wildly to keep its balance – an unforgettable spectacle which explains its common name. Its local name, sifaka-bilany, needs no explanation. It means ‘sifaka of the cooking pot’.

Fortunately, this forest is fady because of the tombs inside it. The Malagasy have a special relationship with death and the dead. Rich or important people have tombs many times the size of the homes they once lived in, and much better built (they have to last longer, after all). As many zebu cattle as possible are slaughtered at funerals, and their horns decorate the tombs. Scenes from a person’s life, and occasionally the manner of their leaving it, may also be painted on the tomb, and their descendants will visit frequently for a chat. The dead of Ifotaka are neither gone nor forgotten and their ghosts protect the forest.

It’s quiet in the sacred forest. Too quiet. If there were sifaka around, we’d probably hear them. Although they don’t sing, they do bark, kiss, grunt, grumble and growl. We find flat brown scorpions under rocks and sparkling crystals inside rocks. A tomb the size of a tennis court bakes in the sun. Couas rustle in trees, feathery false alarms. The atmosphere is stifling and I don’t argue when we wade back across the river without seeing a sifaka.

Just as I’ve brushed sticky river mud from my feet and put my shoes and socks back on, our local guide, Popo, jumps up and starts pointing at trees, the universal expression for ‘I see lemurs’. Off with our shoes, and back across the river. Popo dives into the thicket, Gino hangs a right. I run after him. No, we’re lost. A cry over there. That way, quick! We find Popo sitting quietly near a clump of octopus trees in which a furry bundle is perched. I stalk the sifaka with my camera while it growls at me like a cat. Then, in a flash of white fur, it’s gone. I wade back across the river without worrying about mud in my socks.

Islands within an island

These river crossings are significant, because lemurs can’t abide water. At Ifotaka, the river protects sifaka who’d probably be potted if they got across to the village. Along the east coast, rivers create boundaries that cut lemur populations off from one another. Similar species have evolved separately between rivers in a kind of microcosm of Madagascar itself. One of the most striking examples of this is found on the Masoala peninsula.

Masoala is one of the Rainforests of the Atsinanana, a natural world heritage site inscribed in 2007. The peninsula is covered with the largest continuous rainforest left on the island and is one of the few places a rain forest meets the sea. The forest is protected as Madagascar’s largest national park and its coral reefs are preserved by three marine parks. Masoala comprises less than two per cent of Madagascar’s landmass, but contains 50 per cent of its plant and animal species. It’s also the sole home of the red-ruffed lemur.

Separated from its closest relative, the black-and-white ruffed lemur, by only a river, the red-ruffed lemur was once classified as the same species. Red-ruffed and black-and-white lemurs can understand one another’s calls, but they haven’t met in millennia. Their long separation has resulted in completely different colouration and quite possibly some unique adaptations to their environment.

Farmers of the forest

Finding the red-ruffed lemur involves taking a stroll along an impossibly perfect beach. Flamboyants festooned with orchids and panther chameleons lean lazily over soft golden beaches sheltered by melted chocolate boulders. Behind them rise dense ranks of mist-puffing trees. In front, warm turquoise water laps against coral reefs. Hundreds of humpback whales will arrive any day now to start breeding in Antongil Bay. A rainbow shimmers on the horizon. The two British honeymoon couples I’m sharing this long stretch of beach with keep looking around and grinning.

We cross a stream by bucket-ferry and step into the Masoala rain forest. It’s altogether different from the highland forests of Andasibe. Here are mangroves with a thousand roots surging into the ground, tripod trees balanced on finger-thin legs ten feet tall, and cathedral-high trees whose trunks flare out into mighty flying buttresses.

Half an hour later, our guide Fred finds a family of six red-ruffed lemurs, high in the forest canopy, catching the sun so their fur blazes. I move directly underneath one to get a better view, but have to look down for a moment to relieve symptoms of lemur-neck. Whap! Something lands in my hand. Something yellow, squishy and stinky. Lemur poo. Fred almost splits his sides. ‘It’s the first time that ever happened,’ he says, between hoots. ‘Ho ho ho! Your face!’

But as we walk back along the beach, Fred provides a new perspective on this gift from the forest. ‘When I see fresh lemur droppings, I always look inside and find they are full of seeds, and these seeds have already started to grow.’ He looks at me to make sure I understand. ‘The only way the seeds can grow is if they have first been inside a lemur’s stomach. Lemurs are much better farmers than people. They can plant a thousand trees a month this way. But no lemurs, no forests. And no forests, no lemurs.’

The aye-aye and I

I thought about that on the boat to Nosy Mangabe, an island reserve and sanctuary for the aye-aye, a ludicrous-looking lemur so well-adapted to stand in for Madagascar’s missing woodpeckers that its bony middle finger is elongated to dig grubs and insects out of holes in trees. Yet lemurs were late arrivals on Madagascar. Nobody’s sure how they managed to cross the Indian Ocean after the island broke away from the mainland. One theory is that they floated here on huge rafts of vegetation. It was a lucky escape.

While their prosimian ancestors in the rest of the world lost the race against other primates and became extinct, the lemurs who stowed away on Madagascar had no competition. They multiplied into a hundred different species. They grew long fingers, learned to sing and dance and helped to plant the rain forests. In evolutionary terms, lemurs inhabited a parallel universe to our own where primates became monkeys and apes and, eventually, humans.

Lemurs are long lost relatives who took a totally different course. In them, we can see a shadow of our early counterparts who were wiped out long ago. Indeed, the word lemur comes from the Latin for ‘ghost’, although that may also be because of their wailing cries. Which brings me back to the indri.

The indri’s local name, babakoto, can be translated as ‘ancestor’ or ‘father’ and the Malagasy have a myth about it. Long ago, there were two brothers who lived in a forest. One brother decided to leave the forest and raise crops. He became the first human. The other brother stayed behind and became the first indri. He still cries in mourning for the brother who went astray.

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