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Dale Morris visits Madagascar

Photographing Madagascar

Buttressed trees, coiled lianas, draping ferns, orchids and mist.

This is the auditorium of the Indri. The largest of Madagascar’s rainforest dwelling Lemur species.  And this is where I have come to hear their songs.

I have managed to secure the best seats for my small group of six Madagascar photography tour clients and companions by getting to the venue early, and I have brought along a recording device so that I may relive this moment again when I am back at home. Maybe I will make it my ring tone. It was dark when we left our hotel, and its still only just getting light now “but this” I am reliably informed by our local Malagasy guide “Is the very best time of day for the Indris song”. Apparently, the morning mist will amplify the sound and make it resonate.

So, there we sit, during our Madagascar safari, upon seats of rotten stumps and fallen logs made comfortable by cushions of moss, and there we peer with binoculars into a stage of verdant green. We are hushed, expectant, excited and more than a little concerned the performers will not show. After all, nothing in nature is guaranteed, but we needn’t have worried.

The crashing of branches heralds the arrival of the Indris, and before we know it, these cute and cuddly black and white primates have electrified the air with a haunting melody. An Indri song is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful calls in all of nature. It follows the basic harmony of a humpback whale blended with the soulful howl of a wolf, and we were lucky enough to have a twenty minute performance all to ourselves. It was so moving an experience that many of the assembled group had tears in their eyes when finally, the Indris took their bow and vanished.

We huddled together beneath the shade of the forest canopy and peered expectantly at our view screens. Wow! Our images were superb as was the audio recording I had made of them from my cell phone.

In my opinion, the song of the Indri is just one reason why everyone should try to partake in a Madagascar safari at least once in their lives. There are many, many more unusual and beautiful animals to see, and there are also great beaches, good scuba diving and an interesting human culture too. They also grow the juiciest mangos and lychees I have ever tasted! But the main reason to go see Madagascar is because nearly all of the animals are endemic and rare and may not be there in the not too distant future. Madagascar’s once undisturbed forests, with their lemurs and chameleons and beautiful birds are under siege by humans. If you don’t see them now, you might never be able to.

As I flew in to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s bustling highland capital, I could not help but notice the swaths of environmental damage that had scarred the landscape. Nary a tree was standing, and the ground was naught but rice fields and dust. Rivers, of which there are many in this hilly and mountainous country, flowed brown with topsoil runoff. They looked like they were made of chocolate.

It is an unquestionable fact that Madagascar, that most beautiful and unique of all the world’s islands, will soon be a wasteland of cleared out forests and ‘gone forever’ species.

Unless something changes…

The 8th Continent

Technically speaking, Madagascar is part of the African continent. It sits upon the same tectonic shelf as that great landmass, yet hasn’t been physically connected for something like 153 million years. In fact, it has more in common with India which it broke away 88 million years ago. But 88 million years is a long long time to be on your own. Time enough for distinct changes to happen to much of the wildlife that lived and still lives there today.

There are no monkeys on Madagascar, only lemurs (of which there are some 100+ species) and there are no predators as we would know them. The Fosa, a strange and unique dog-like tree dwelling creature is the only toothsome hunter of note, and this is only the size of a large domestic cat. Bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, plant, insect and even bacteria species are nearly all endemic to the island, which means that they are found there and nowhere else on earth. In other words, if these populations die out (which looks likely if the local destruction is not to stop) then they will be gone forever.

And forever is a very long time indeed.

Perinet Reserve, where I listened to the call of the Indri, is just a small private piece of already denuded forest. Its only 85 hectares in size and lies adjacent to the larger (but still quite small) Mantadia National Park. Much of Madagascar’s eastern slope rainforests have fallen to the axe, but that which remains in a protected state within the Nation’s parks are literally brimming with life.

At night time, armed with headlamps and cameras, my group and I ventured forth into the steamy darkness with our local guide Luka; a man with a particular talent for finding wildlife.

There were well worn trails zig-zagging through the darkness and plenty of other tourists meandering around in search of night lemurs and tree frogs, but Luka was the man with the best set of eyes. And within minutes we were crowding around a branch upon which sat an enormous green chameleon. Easily the size of an overweight guinea pig, it swiveled its eyes this way and that, no doubt wondering what all the noise and light was about, but it didn’t seem afraid of us. Quite the opposite actually. It looked intrigued and perhaps a little expectant. Luka wandered away for a while, leaving us to take advantage of the incredible Madagascar photography opportunities, but then he returned with a grasshopper in his hands. “Watch this” he said, proffering the struggling insect to the big green lizard. Instantly, its two bulbous eyes locked onto the target followed by a huge and grotesque tongue which shot out of his mouth like an arrow.

Crunch, the grasshopper was gone.

That night we also encountered giant leaf-tailed geckos as big as a hot dog, tiny mouse lemurs as small as their name would suggest, and all sorts of strange insects, none of which I have seen the likes of before. It was a ‘snapper’s’ treasure trove of awesome topics and Madagascar photography opportunities.

The prize that day was a Giraffe-necked Weevil. A bizarre cherry-coloured beetle who has a ridiculously long neck which is used to joust with competitors for his territory. When man-beetle meets man-beetle and lady-beetle is watching, they will swing their necks back and forth until the lesser of two weevils submits. I had wanted to see one of those since I was a kid, and to have one running around on my hand, urinating in defense and staining my palms green was a privilege I will never forget.

We all got some really unique macro shots from that particular encounter.

Africa or Asia?

The highlands of Madagascar are distinctly Asian in culture, flavors and smells. Yes, the French (who once colonized the country) did leave behind a smattering of architecture and croissants, but in essence, the place feels more like Malaysia than anywhere else.

This isn’t surprising really when you consider the human history of the place.

Although academic questions are still to be completely clarified, it is suspected that the first human settlers arrived on Madagascar’s shores not from Africa, but from some 7000 km away in Borneo. They must have been terribly lost, but genetic markers indicate that most of the indigenous population can be traced back to around 30 women who arrived in a boat. This likely happened only a few thousand years ago, when Madagascar must have been heaven on earth.

There were no enemies to fight, no predators to worry about, lots of nice resources to utilize and lots of food growing in the jungles. Even the snakes are harmless on Madagascar. There were giant docile lemurs as big as a chimp and there were terrestrial birds that made ostriches appear as chickens. You can still find their eggs for sale in the markets. Africans didn’t show up on the scene for another age or two, but when they did, there appears to have been a mixing of the peoples rather than the usual war and strife. It should have remained a paradise for all time, but alas, people are people and it was just a matter of time before they commenced with the obliteration of the natural environment. One by one the giant lemurs fell, the birds vanished, the trees went up in smoke and the many variants on the indri fell silent.

But it’s not too late for those species that remain. At least I hope it isn’t.

There is a great diversity in Madagascar of both animals and landscapes which means plenty of reason for ecotourists to go visit.

In the south I ambled through arid and aptly named spiny forests where Ring-tailed Lemurs and “dancing” Verreaux’s Sifakas were the big draw card, and I walked through avenues of huge and straight baobab trees that towered above me like silvery space rockets. There were coral reefs to snorkel upon and mountains to climb and all the while I saw many groups of tourists enjoying what was on offer.

Madagascar is particularly popular with birders because of the many endemic species found there and absolutely nowhere else. And so tourism, in short, could well be the last best hope for Madagascar’s beleaguered wildlife due to the revenue and jobs it creates. The more tourists who go to see lemurs and chameleons and Fosas and Giraffe-necked Weevils, the more chance there will be that the Madagascan government will enforce their protection. One can only hope and pray!

So as I sit here at home after a fantastic trip, writing this, I am reminded of the beautiful originality of that Madagascar tour every time my phone rings and fills the room with magnificent Indri song. It tells me someone is trying to get my attention, but it also tells me Madagascar is doing so too.

I’ll most certainly be going back there. I somehow feel I owe it to the Indris; those beautiful black and white lemurs who sung such wonderful songs for me and my friends.

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