Thursday, September 7, 2017

Madagascar - Part 2: The dream

Stanley - Thursday

Last week I chronicled the disgraceful way our tour operator, Madagascar Natural Tours, handled Michael's birthday trip.

However, even in bad circumstances, in a place like Madagascar there will always be highlights.  So, putting the bad behind, let's take a look at the extraordinary offerings the country has.  The animals one dreams about.

I dream of a sifaka lemur (Photo: Jill Wilson)

First, some facts:

Name: Republic of Madagascar

Flag of Madagascar (it's white on the left)
Size: 587,041 km2 (226,658 sq mi) - nearly the size of France.  Fourth largest island.

Population: 24,400,000

Currency: Malagasy ariary (approximately 3,000 to the dollar.  Paying for things provided ongoing light relief as most places did not take credit cards.  It seemed that whenever we saw an ATM, there was a rush to draw cash.  At 3,000 ariary to the dollar, drawing three-hundred thousand to half-a-million ariary was the norm.  Large wads stuffed in pockets and too-small wallets.

Just over $3.  Biggest denomination is 20,000 ariary.  I never saw one.

Government:  Constitutional democracy

People: 18 sub-groups of African and south-east Asian origins.  The Malagasy people are very attractive, generally small, and look healthy.  I only saw a few fat people and no evidence of malnutrition. 

Languages:  Malagasy and French

Biodiversity: Madagascar is a biodiversity treasure.  Over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else, thanks to its isolation from both Africa and India.

Last week's teasers

I asked what you thought this was a photograph of.

When I saw this during a night walk, I immediately thought it was an owl of some sort - an owl with a frown.  But I was wrong.  It is actually two collared nightjars cozying up to each other.   The eye on the left is the left eye of the nightjar on the left; the eye on the right is the right eye of the nightjar on the right.  If you look carefully, you can see their beaks.

This was the second teaser:

Our guide stopped us at a tree and pointed to a length of the trunk, perhaps a metre long. He asked what animal we could see.  Ten of us looked blankly until he used a twig to raise the head of a mossy leaf-tailed gecko.  You can see its head pointed downward.  Here's another picture of this species of gecko, taken from the Mail Online.  Can you find it?  Unbelievable camouflage.

Lemurs - I prefer the French pronunciation - leMOOR, rather than the English LEEmer

The name is thought to originate from the Latin lemures, meaning ghosts.
Lemurs are probably what first comes to mind when Madagascar is mentioned.  There are over 100 species, ranging from the minute mouse lemur (weight 30 grams - just over an ounce) to the large indri, which weighs in at about 8 or 9 kilograms or 20 lbs.  Historically, there were even bigger ones, but they are now extinct.
Lemurs evolved independently from other primates, such as monkeys and baboons.  And it was the diversity of Madagascar's climate that gave rise to the extraordinary diversity among these animals.  Since the different types of lemurs are spread all over the country, one can only hope to see some, rather than all, of them.  I think we ended up seeing about 15 different types.

The experience of looking for lemurs was very different from what I expected.  I thought we would walk through forests, necks craned upward, searching for them.  We certainly did some of that, but generally the guides knew where the lemurs were.  In addition, in some places, the lemurs had become habituated to humans and, not only were comfortable around people, but often jumped on their heads and shoulders,  More like a zoo, in fact.

However we came to see them, the lemurs were wonderful to watch, not only for their looks, but also for their amazing facility in moving through the forest.
Here are some of the lemurs we saw.  I have to admit that I'm unsure that I've identified them all correctly.

Where we say a number of lemurs
The indri is the biggest of the lemurs and is the only one with virtually no tail.  It is called babakoto locally, which can mean ancestor.  It is highly regarded, almost worshiped.  It has a remarkable call that can be heard over great distances.  Click here to hear the call.  It often hangs upside down from a branch.  It is endangered.

Other species

Black lemur (I think)
Baby mouse lemur

Woolly lemur?

Dwarf lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur

Mongoose lemur (?)

Hybrid lemur
Hybrid lemur 

Hybrid and woolly(?) lemurs

Crowned lemur

Mette said she would die if a lemur jumped on her shoulder.  It did,  She didn't.

Sifaka lemur (which one I am not sure.)
Sifaka lemur
Sifaka lemurs are so well adapted for arboreal existence that they struggle on the ground.  To get around on the ground they have to hop, either forward or sideways.  This is amazing to watch.  Click here to see the sifaka moving on the ground.


Unlike the indri, which is revered, the aye-aye is hated.  It is the sign of bad luck.   If it is seen in a village, it is believed that a villager will soon die.  It is often killed on sight.

It is quite big (1.5 to 2 kg) and body and tail can be a metre long.

It is quite remarkable in how it finds food.  It knocks on the bark of a tree.  If it hears an insect, it gnaws the bark away with its special incisors, then inserts a very long third finger in the hole to get its prey.  (I suspect the long middle finger is why locals don't like it.)

It is also amazingly mobile and can cover several kilometres a night in search of food.


Aye-aye hand

Chameleons and frogs and other creepy crawlies

Madagascar is home to over half of the world's 200 species of chameleon.  Some are huge and some are tiny.  All are fascinating.




Big!  Parson's chameleon (Photo: Jill Wilson)

Stick insect
Tiny frog


Surprisingly, Madagascar has nothing like the predator population of Africa.  Lemurs have two natural enemies, fossa and birds of prey.  I would have thought that lemurs could have taken a page out of the chameleon's book and developed one eye that looked up and one down.

The difficult to photograph fossa

Well, I think that is enough for today.  Next time, I'll take a look at the amazing baobab trees and say a few words about the Malagasy culture.


  1. I've just updated my bucket list :-)

  2. Alan has a classification of animals all of his own. First is Fuzzy and non Fuzzy. You have both here. You also have very fuzzy and the lowest category of Fuzzy; Adequate.
    In non- fuzzy you have small and green. You also have scary fuzzy ( aye aye - which is Glaswegian for 'yes indeed' by the way) and scary fuzzy is not common. Most fuzzy animals by definition, are not scary.
    I hope you have found this comment of use.
    So an aye aye is a scary, adequate fuzzy but I would never say that to its face in case it gave me the evil eye. Or the finger.

  3. I'm with Mette had the aye-aye jumped on my shoulder...or simply popped up unexpected in a just its hand is down right Stephen King scary.