By Malee Baker Oot
Jack motions and I follow, burrowing to the tangle of lianas after him. The spongy forest soil crumbles beneath my boots as I try to keep pace. I reach out to push a low hanging vine away from my face and instantly feel movement. Shit. I look up at my hand just in time to prevent my fingertips from grazing the perfectly camouflaged scales of a tree boa. The snake watches me wide-eyed, a patchwork of beige and olive colored diamonds. Muscles rippling, the serpent coils most tightly around the slender branch as I continue past. I remind myself that although I am on an island literally crawling with snakes — more than 80 different species — almost none of Madagascar’s terrestrial snakes are poisonous.
Abruptly, Jack pauses, raising his hand in the international symbol for stop. After two weeks working together, Jack the botanist and I have overcome our language barrier — the fact he doesn’t speak English and my Malagasy is limited to barely a few words — by creating a communication system based on gestures and animated sounds, like some kind of bizarre, non-verbal twin language. Every time I attempt to express an idea to Jack I fear I look like a fall-down drunk horrifically butchering an attempt at sign language. But Jack understands.
Ahead through the tunnel of vegetation I can finally see what caught Jack’s eye — a brief flutter of movement. A lanky, chestnut and ivory colored crested ibis is launching herself skyward from the protection of an elaborately woven nest. The ibis is almost primordial in appearance — in fact, the whole scene feels prehistoric — the steamy coastal forest dripping with vines and teeming with life. I feel like I’m looking for dinosaurs, but I’m actually looking for Eulemur collaris — the endangered collared brown lemur.
Although perhaps less visually striking than Madagascar’s flagship ring-tailed lemurs, collared brown lemurs are undeniably endearing. Sable brown in color, the males also have tufts of golden fuzz sprouting from their cheeks like overgrown mutton-chop sideburns. Like much of Madagascar’s wildlife, collared brown lemurs are found no place else on earth — and even within Madagascar, their range is limited to just a few pockets of habitat in the southeastern part of the island. My temporary home for the month — the protected Sainte Luce Reserve — is one of the last bastions of habitat for the lemurs, and also one of the most pristine and biodiverse tracts of littoral forest remaining in the region.
But, I’m actually not at the reserve for lemurs. I am here for the trees — volunteering to assist with a forestry study — gathering data assessing the impact of a massive reforestation effort undertaken in 2010. However, I will readily admit I’ve quickly become fond of the reserve’s resident collared brown lemurs. The creatures seem to be perpetually overhead while I collect tree data — gorging on fruit and trapezing between clusters of leafy canopy. On my first day in the reserve, one of the little buggers even unceremoniously emptied her bladder directly onto my head.
Today, though, the brown lemurs are starting to piss me off. It’s well past noon–we been out nearly five hours — and still haven’t seen a single one. It’s my day off — but observing creatures that actually move seemed like a nice change from measuring trees. I’d agreed to help my camp-mate, Dinah, a primatology grad student from the University of California (Davis) with her research on the two groups of collared brown lemurs believed to be living in the reserve’s extensive tract of littoral forest. I had been briefed succinctly on the fission-fusion theory posited by the study’s hypothesis. Basically, the hypothesis suggested that when times are lean, the frugivorous collared brown lemurs break into smaller groups to reduce internal competition for resources. The logic certainly made sense — and in theory, my task seemed simple: find lemurs, count lemurs, write down what they are eating in a chart. I hadn’t considered this would be the one day the little buggers would decide not to show.
In addition to the collared brown lemurs, the Sainte Luce Reserve is also home to four other species of lemur: fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, who live off fat stores in their tails when resources are scarce, greater dwarf lemurs, which actually are relatively small, nocturnal and highly endangered woolly lemurs, and the exceedingly curious, chipmunk-sized mouse lemurs. But today,Â of course, nobody else is deigning to make an appearance either.
Overhead, leaves rustle and my pulse quickens. I scan the canopy expectantly — but it’s just the salty breeze rolling off the sunlight dappled water of the Indian Ocean, barely visible through the fringe of forest. Without the boundary provided by the sandy beach and azure water beyond, the forest seems endless — but sadly, almost the opposite is true. Although a global conservation priority, Madagascar remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and the island has lost much of its native vegetation as forests have been carved up for slash-and-burn agriculture (a practice called tavy), and to feed the demand for charcoal — a resource much of the island’s population relies on for fuel.
As go the forests, so goes the wildlife. A hotspot of endemism, nearly all of the plants and animals found in Madagascar exist no place else on the planet. But, the island’s wildlife is also rapidly disappearing as adequate habitat becomes increasingly hard to come by.
Unexpectedly, Jack stops abruptly like he’s hit some sort of invisible barrier. Ahead of us, the vegetation is closing in — the trees getting closer, the forest becoming a knotty tangle of vines, leaves and branches. Jack points to the thick bush and behind me I hear Heri, our camp guide, utter a word not requiring a translation, de Heaulme’s. We’ve reached the boundary of the reserve, and stumbled on a small, undeveloped parcel of land belonging to one of the most prominent families in southeastern Madagascar.
Brothers Alain and Henry de Heaulme first made a pit stop in Madagascar at the end of the First World War while returning to their home on the island of Reunion — both islands under French control at the time. The brothers returned to Madagascar a decade later, taking advantage of a government policy granting settlers generous land allowances and claiming an area along the Mandrare River. The de Heaulmes quickly transformed their newly acquired property into a sisal plantation, turning to the local Tandroy people to solve their personnel problem.
It is easy to pigeonhole the de Heaulme family as nothing more than relics of an exploitive colonial system that operated not only in Madagascar but also across much of mainland East Africa. But, reality is far more complicated — and so is the family’s relationship with southeastern Madagascar. The de Heaulme’s most enduring legacy is Berenty — the private reserve established by the family in 1936 outside the town of Fort Dauphin, southern Madagascar’s shipping hub. While most of the forests in southern Madagascar were felled decades ago, the ecosystems of Berenty remained in-tact, supporting endemic spiny and gallery forests — and most famously — the lemurs depending on them. Today Berenty is home to six species of lemur — and is one of the most visited reserves on the island. The place has been criticized for offering a wildlife experience far more contrived than a visit to one of the island’s remote national parks. But, Berenty is also a research hub–the reserve’s lemurs are easy to observe — and studies done at Berenty have provided reams of data on some of the planet’s most unique and rapidly disappearing animals.
I begin to hear a familiar noise mingling with the cadence of the crashing tide. A Madagascar sparrow hawk, chest speckled with chocolate and ivory colored feathers, is circling overhead, barely visible through the screen of canopy. We inadvertently head downhill, seemingly the path of least resistance, sliding down the steep slope toward the sandy beach. I use the knotty lianas like a ropes course, catching myself and swinging from vine to vine every time I lose my footing in the spongy soil.
At the edge of the forest, Jack unfurls a tightly braided reed mat in a shady patch of grass straddling both the sand and the trees, a slender transition zone. He props himself up on his elbows, smoking a homemade cigarette rolled skillfully with newspaper. A strong breeze rolls of the water, plastering my sweat soaked shirt to my back and I get a sudden chill. I unpack my lunch — a container of once steaming beans and rice and hand out the last of my energy bars to Jack, Dinah and Heri. While Jack naps, we sit on a giant log, smooth as driftwood, eating and gazing out at the shimmering water of Baie Sainte Luce, site of France’s first colony in Madagascar.
The French first arrived in 1642, establishing a short-lived colony in Sainte Luce, settling along the sheltered bay. But, barely a year later, ravaged by malaria, the settlers abandoned the site at Sainte Luce and relocated to Fort Dauphin. Today, Fort Dauphin remains the largest in southeastern Madagascar, the town is undeniably the region’s most thriving shipping hub and bustling market town.
Being sedentary — even briefly — has drained everyone. We decide to bag it, and head back to camp. Once we’ve thrown in the towel, we’re sure to see lemurs, right? But we don’t. At the edge of the forest, we stop briefly to admire a traveler’s palm — a beautiful specimen, spreading skyward like a peacock’s tail. The palm is the national tree of Madagascar, and the iconic emblem emblazoned on the tails of all of Air Madagascar’s planes.
Along the last elbow-like bend in the river before camp I hear a familiar sound — the muted splash of crocodiles sliding off the bank into the dark water. So far, after two weeks, I still haven’t actually seen one of the reptiles with my own eyes. But, during my first trip to the reserve — a short paddle through the mangrove from the village of Ambandrika in a leaky, hand-carved wooden pirogue — I was assured by Elise, my supervisor, the area’s resident Nile crocodiles were very ‘gentle’.
The sun slips closer to the forest as we walk the single-file footpath through the thigh-high grass into our camp — a small clearing housing a few nylon tents, a tin-roofed, open-air dining room, and a three-walled kitchen. I can hear the sounds of dinner — pots clang, a fire crackles, and oils sizzles. I take advantage of the remaining window of daylight to sit at our wooden, perpetually ant-covered camp table and record the species we’ve seen over the course of the day —endemic palms, birds, and of course, the tree boa, everything, it seems, but any lemurs.
Dinner is a steaming platter of spaghetti laden with sliced onions and julienne carrots seasoned with fresh ginger. As twilight spreads over camp, the chorus of night sounds begins to crescendo, dominated by a frog-like chirping emanating from the river. I’ve been told the sound is actually made by crabs burrowing in the river’s muddy banks. Head lamps click on around the table as a steaming pot of burnt rice tea appears, poured into tin metal mugs flecked with chipped paint. Just beyond the glow of the light encasing our dinner table I can see dark shapes begin to zigzag across the moonlit night sky — flying foxes — and every time they swoop low, I swear they are the size of small house cats.
After several rounds of tea, I’m ready for the muggy confines of my tent and my musty, forest-saturated sleeping bag. But first, I head to our commode — a screen made of tightly woven reeds coiled into a semi-circle around a gaping hole in the ground. I situate myself cautiously over the latrine and gaze up at the leafy tree limb obscuring my view the star sprinkled night sky. On the branch just above my head, I suddenly notice two miniscule pinholes of light, tiny glowing orbs — the eyes of a miniature mouse lemur — its gaze cast on one of my most personal evening rituals. After a few seconds, the creature scampers away, disappearing into the dark canopy. I can’t help but smile — it’s the first lemur I’ve seen today.
Malee is a freelance writer who was lucky enough to spend most of her formative years living Africa and Asia, toted around the world by parents working in public health. She has an environmental background and regularly covers conservation-related stories for Political Moll. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Go Nomad, Go World Travel and Not For Tourists. She is currently co-writing a regional cookbook and teaches cooking classes for adults and children at her local food bank (the Arlington Food Assistance Center). She currently lives outside Washington, DC with three very spoiled rescue dogs.
All photos by author via Flickr.