Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Antananarivo Railway Station


The central railway station in Antananarivo, bang opposite our hotel, was a modest colonial structure with hardly any activity. The pavement outside, however, bustled with a familiar crowd of peddlers, squatters and casual onlookers. The railways came to Madagascar at the beginning of the twentieth century, mainly for transportation of local sugarcane crops. The solitary passenger line runs between Fianarantsoa and Mankara. In words of the official railway guide, " (The journey) theoretically is about 8-12 hours but practically could take much longer. It is risky to organise a tour around it, unless you are ready to skip the train ride at the worst case!"  The Indian trains, perpetually running late, could take a tip or two from this candid railway guide.  

Fortunately, our itinerary required us to take a plane to Tuliara, the southern-most airport and port of Madagascar. Getting off from the plane at Tuliara (Tulear), we were greeted by an intense sun and a strong desert-like dry wind. Not surprisingly, Tuliara is called the 'City of the Sun' due to its arid climate and less than 400 mm of annual rainfall. The new spelling of the city, adopted in the 70s after freedom from the French in 1960, is akin to our own renaming of Mumbai/ Bengaluru/ Kolkata/ Kochi and others in India. Tuliara is today an important national hub for export/import of commodities such as sisal hemp, peanuts, cotton and rice. 

Our destination was a location 12 km. from Tuliara known as Arboretum d'Antsokay, a treasure-land of endemic shrubs and succulent plants of Southern Madagascar. The botanic gardens of Arboretum were set up around 1980 on the initiative of Swiss amateur botanist Hermann Petignat to house the most threatened species of Madagascar with special emphasis on plants thriving in the arid climate. 

Madagascar ocotillo (Alluaudia procera)

Today the garden, collaborating closely with with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, WWF etc. has over 900 species of rare plants. It also provides a natural abode for several endemic birds and reptiles, and has, among other things, a lovely restaurant for the visitors. 

The Restaurant at Arboretum d'Antsokay

No talk on trees of Madagascar would be complete without the mention of the magical baobab, variously called the 'boaboa', the 'bottle tree', 'the tree of life', 'upside down tree' or the 'monkey bread tree'. The tree has a very long life; just how long, nobody knows exactly but a tree with carbon dated life of around 6000 years has been reported! Among the eight species of baobab found in the world, six are endemic to Madagascar.

A Young Baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) at d'Antsokay

The baobab is truly the tree of life. Every part of the tree is useful. The tree can store hundreds of litres of water in its trunk 'which is an adaptation to the harsh drought conditions' in arid parts of Madagascar.

Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata)

At the arboretum, we were fascinated to see the beautiful radiated tortoise which is endemic to southern Madagascar but has now been introduced in a number of adjoining islands including Mauritius.

A walk through the red earth of the botanical park also brought us face to face with a large unfamiliar brownish-grey bird having a prominent blue eye-strip and a reddish-brown cap. This was the Red Capped Coua which is endemic to Madagascar.

Red Capped Coua (Coua ruficeps)

Couas are large terrestrial birds from the cuckoo family endemic to Madagascar.The name 'coua' is derived possibly from the phonetic notation of the call of the bird.

Blue Coua (Coua caerulea)

More than a dozen species of Couas are found in the world, of which, four are reported to be extinct. At least six different species of couas are endemic to Madagascar. All of them have large feet and a reversible third toe for scrambling through plants and shrubs for food-- akin to all members of the cuckoo family. The Coucas also feature bright blue coloured patch around the eyes, a little bit like the species of wanga birds found locally. The blue coua has a light greyish blue coat while the crested coua, as the name suggests, has a prominent crest.  The giant coua, the largest among all,  is upto 60 cm in length.

The drive from Toliara to the Isalo National Park took us through varying terrains of  cultivated areas, sandstone formations, rocks and canyons of strange shapes and sizes. As the sun descended into the horizon, the landscape turned into a fantastic natural stonehenge spread over several miles. This was the 'la fenetre de I'salo' or the window of Isalo.

Images of 'La fenetre' at Isalo National Park

A long trek through the Isalo National Park under the scorching sun can be tough on the body. However, it was rewarding for the variety of shrubs, plants and birds we encountered on the way. The most striking among the birds was the Cuckoo Roller which is sexually dichromatic and the two sexes are distinctly different in appearance from one other-- unlike most other rollers having identical male and female sexes.

Cuckoo Roller of Madagascar (Leptosomus discolor) - The flying bird is Male and the sitting Female 

 The cuckoo roller is an amiable bird and the locals reciprocate its friendliness by protecting it. Killing a cuckoo roller is a bad omen. It is regarded as a harbinger of good weather and a symbol of love, as it is often seen in pairs.   

The Male Cuckoo Roller

The dominant inhabitants of Isalo are the Bara tribe who have an unusual custom of reburying their dead, often after a gap of several years. In the first funeral after death, the body is buried in a temporary or a 'provisory' grave, usually in the crevice of an accessible sandstone hill and marked as such. 

A Provisory Grave for a Bara Dead

The tribal Malagasy  believe that the spirits of the dead, after complete decomposition of  the body and fulfillment of  certain family objectives, join the ancestors of the tribe. This is an occasion of rejoicing and celebration. After the death of a member and after a certain period, extending upto several years, if the family does not witness any adverse event, the successful transition of the spirit is announced. It is the second funeral, called the 'turning of the bones' or Famadihana.

A Coffin being Taken Out 

On this occasion, bones from the old provisory graves are taken out, wrapped in fresh silk wraps around a hand made ladder and taken out in a second funeral procession. There is rejoicing with wine, lavish food/meat, music and dancing to mark the celebrations. The remains of the body are then buried again in a second, more permanent, decorated tomb. As Bara tribesmen say, " We do not come from mud, we come from these bodies!"

A healthy Zebu

From Isalo we move on to Ihosy, the capital of the grass raising Bara tribe. Heads of cattle, particularly bulls or 'zebu' are regarded as a measure of wealth and prosperity among tribesmen. Very few are slaughtered, unless there is a big occasion like 'famadihana'. As a result of increase in numbers of zebus over the years, precious forests have been cleared and converted into vast grasslands for grazing of cattle, particularly in Southern Madagascar. After continuous and repeated grazing, most of these grasslands become unfit for cultivation or for any other use.

Innocence Personified: A Bara Child

Bushy grasslands are home to a number of local endemic birds. The most striking among these is the local variant of sparrow, locally called the 'Madagascar Fody' or the Cardinal Red Fody. The female fody is in appearance similar to our common house sparrow, but the male is striking cardinal red in colour.

Madagascar Fody Pair (Foudia Madagascariensis)

One that Came to the Table: Flavistic Fody

Fodies are quite fearless in the domestic environment, very much like the common sparrow. One also comes across flavism in Fodies. Non breeding male fodies are canary yellow in colour. A hoard of them came down to our breakfast table in the resort, looking for crumbs. Interestingly, a number of endemic birds of Madagascar are distinguished by a dark patch of varying colour around the eye. The male fodies have a dark black patch around the eye, while Couas have a blue patch and the wangas have a white patch. Even the white eye of Madagascar has a much broader ring around the eye. It is not clear whether this commonality is related to a unified genetic origin. 

Nelcourvi Weaver (Ploceus nelicourvi)

Saklava Weaver

Weavers are close cousins of the sparrow. The grasslands of Madagascar are home to two of these weavers, the Nelcourvi and the Saklava, both of which have the canary yellow as their base colour. Very much like our Indian 'baya' bird, the males make exotic nests, which require to be approved by the female before it decides it to be suitable for raising the family. Interestingly, the name Nelcourvi has its origin in the Tamil word for Finch- nellukuruvi. Sakalava derives its name from a tribal clan of the island in the 17th century, which was later merged with the French Madagascar. 

Approaching the city of Ambalavao, we stop for a unique co-operative effort in conservation at the Anja Park. In the early nineties, one of the most beautiful species of lemurs- The Ring Tailed Lemur was on the verge of extinction due to indiscriminate hunting and loss of habitat. The last 100 odd numbers remained in the region of the 'Three Sisters'; an area where three huge granite boulders protect forests at the base. The area has numerous caves formed by the winds which serve as burial grounds for the local betsileo tribes. Here too, the destruction of forests was pushing the lemurs and other endemic creatures to a virtual path towards extinction. In the nineties, the government stepped in, and with the help of  local people, decided to create a small haven for ring tailed lemurs, now known as the Anja Reserve. 

Ring Tailed Lemurs (Lemur Catta) at Anja Reserve

At Anja, the guides and forest keepers are all local people who have learned to look after the lemurs as a new way of life and livelihood.

Double Decker Ride 

The lemurs at Anja Reserve are a happy lot. Protected by the community and accustomed to the admiring looks of the visitors at close quarters, they move around in families, hopping from tree to tree with acrobatic ease.

Posing for the Camera

The Anja Reserve is also known for a variety of endemic plants and orchids. The mountains in the area offer one of the most stunning landscape in the entire island.

Mountains in the Anja Region

Continuing our travel further north, we reached the well known Ranomafana National Park, a primary tropical rain forest spread over an area of over  160 square miles and famed for its various species of bamboo lemurs.

Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur aureus)

Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus)

Namorona River at Ranomafana

There are three sub-species of bamboo lemur; Golden Bamboo Lemur, Greater Bamboo Lemur and Lesser or Gentle Bamboo Lemur. All three co-exist together in Ranomafana Park. Bamboo lemurs are critically endangered species found only in the thick forest cover of the Park, much of which has already been lost in the past due to deforestation. In 1986, Dr. Patricia Wright discovered the Golden Bamboo Lemur here for the first time. This expedited the need to have a National Park at this avenue, which was formally opened in 1991. It is learnt that this step, to a large extent, arrested the destruction of bamboo habitat in the park for construction, fishing, baskets and furniture. However, progress, eternally in conflict with the environment can only be checked up to a point and no further. Namorona River bisecting the Ranomafana National Park is also a source of electricity through its hydroelectric power station located at Ramonafana. 

The Golden Bamboo Lemur survives on a staple diet of growing bamboo shoots, which contain a very high percentage of deadly cyanide (150 parts per million, to be precise). An adult lemur, on an average, consumes half a kilo of bamboo shoots every day, containing enough cyanide to kill a man three times over! Till date, no one has been able to understand how the metabolic system of the lemur quite naturally neutralizes this deadly poison. It is indeed ironical that lemurs, which have a natural metabolic immunity for these and other strange elements, ultimately find themselves helpless at the hands of the greatest destroyer of all time--the man!

The Road to Fanarantsoa

  From the tropical forests, we gradually move on to the urban suburbs and towns of this large island. Fanarantsoa, the island's fourth largest town is also its nerve centre in more ways than one. It is the cultural and intellectual capital of Madagascar and also the focal point for activism and political turmoil in the region. The World Monuments Fund in 2008 listed it as one of the 100 most threatened historic sites of the World and the city proudly displays this distinction in a plaque. Interestingly, not only the various monuments of the city, but the plaque itself is also in urgent need of repair!

Ambozontany Cathedral at Fianarantsoa

From Fianarantsoa, we descend on to Antisarabe, the Island's third largest city-- a non-descript town with very little to write about-- and then back to Antananarivo, where a plane waits for us for our final flight out of Madagascar.  
It took me a long time to assimilate what I had seen on this 'bewitching' island, during my two week stay. An island that once had a tryst with evolution of nature, and which, to my mind, is in urgent need for restoration and preservation of its natural treasures, much more than the relatively trivial task of refurbishing the man made buildings of Fianarantsoa. Unfortunately, the population in Madagascar, in the first fifteen years of this century has been growing at close to 3 percent every year--a rate among the highest in the World. According to one report, 90 percent of primary forests in Madagascar have already been lost. The current explosion in the population does not auger well for the remaining ten percent. Man needs grains to stay alive. So who eventually wins in this mad race between forestation and cultivation? No prizes for the right answer! 


(This travelogue is based on a trip to Madagascar organised by the Bombay Natural History Society)
(The views expressed are the author's own)
Jitendra Bhatia
copyright 2015 Jitendra Bhatia

Sunday, September 20, 2015



Isolated from the African Mainland for some 165 million years, Madagascar has evolved its flora and fauna in virtual isolation. 

Spotting some of these endemic species can be as fascinating as finding developed life on a new planet in the galaxy. 

More than half of breeding birds in Madagascar are endemics, though their diversity is not as rich as an island like Borneo. Renowned Madagascar researcher Olivier Langrad says that Madagascar's isolation from the mainland has resulted in high levels of endemism. Moreover, as there are no islands between the African mainland and Madagascar, there have hardly been any stepping stones for colonisation.

Mascarene Martin (Phedina borbonica) Breeding Endemic in Madagascar

Madagascar's most popular birding area Perinet is a three hour drive from Antananarivo. Half way to Perinet, we halt at Marozevo, to visit a unique chameleons farm operated by a private company. Set up by the French naturalist Andre Peyrieras, the farm or reserve, also known as  Reserve Peyrieras, consists of large enclosed greenhouses which the visitors can enter accompanied by a guide. It is a convenient way of spotting and photographing reptiles kept inside the greenhouses under near-natural habitat. The most popular exhibits at the farm are chameleons, many of which are endemic to Madagascar.

Oustalet's Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti)

Chameleons are unique reptiles from the lizard family. Found in a variety of shades and hues, chameleons also have ability to change colour. In proverbial parlance, you often equate crafty and inconsistent behaviour of a person to the changing colour of a chameleon. Nothing, as far as this hapless creature is concerned, could be further from truth. There is popular perception that chameleons change colours according to the hue  of their surrounding environment. However, this is not always true. Changes in colour are often related to a specific emotion and could also be a means of communicating with other mates. As with many birds and animals, changes in appearance could also be for defending one's territory.

Carpet Chameleon (Furcifer lateralis)

Over 200 species of chameleons are known to the world and of these, more than half, mostly endemic, are found in Madagascar. The name 'chameleon', derived from the original Greek 'chamaeleon', roughly translates as 'lion of the ground', though it is difficult to associate any of its attributes with that of a lion. Despite their bulging stereoscopic eyes and demonic appearance, chameleons are harmless creatures which are popular as household pets in many countries. Some people tend to regard chameleons as miniaturized forms of  prehistoric dinosaurs. Chameleons often behave threateningly towards members of their own species by posturing menacingly and changing colours rapidly, but other than this aggressive streak, they are quite docile and passive in nature.  

Locally, Malagasy people tend to treat chameleons with considerable introspect. One proverb says that they have 'one eye on the future and one on the past'.  Some of the local people believe that treading on a chameleon could result in untold misfortunes. 

Parson's Chameleon (Calumma parsonii)

Be as it may, we found our first find, the Parson's Chameleon (Calumma parsonii) a solid jolly good fellow. The island's second largest chameleon (after the Malgasy Giant Chameleon), Parson's chameleon has two sub-species, one of which is characterized by its huge orange eyes. The largest specimens could grow to the size of a normal cat. 

As we came out of the Reserve Peyrieras to move on towards Perinet, we were confronted by a large Madagascar tree boa on a branch in a rare combative mood.

Madagascar Tree Boa (Sanzania madagascariensis)

The tree boa is a non venomous snake endemic to the island and is found in two distinct sub species in the eastern and the western parts of Madagascar.

The winding road to Perinet passes through thick foliage and crosses many small streams. The Eastern part of Madagascar is lush green with typical rain forest vegetation while in stark contrast, some parts in the south can be quite rocky and barren. 

A River near Perinet in Eastern Madagascar

We are headed for the Perinet Andasibe-Mantadia National Park which is home to a large number of birds and several species of lemurs.

Madagascar Bee Eater (Merops superciliosus)

For us visitors, the familiar garden birds in their unique endemic versions were all new. The long list of 'lifers' included the wagtails, the bee eaters, the hoopoe and sunbirds. The Olive bee eater or the Madagascar bee eater, also seen on coasts of East Africa is quite common in the grasslands and mountain forests of Madagascar. The Madagascar Wagtail with its prominent black necklace is endemic to Madagascar and can be seen abundantly near streams and wetlands all over the Perinet forest. Madagascar Buzzard, Yellow Billed Kite and the Madagascar Fish Eagle are found virtually over the entire island.

We stopped for the night at a small cottage resort on the edge of the Perinet National Park and were embarrassed to find that rooms of cottages have built-in toilets without any doors. Sometimes, as in Antana, you have the luxury of toilets with a thin cloth curtain. We learnt that this 'French' arrangement is common in Madagascar, even in some luxury resorts. So if you are sharing your room with someone, be prepared to shed all privacy or else use toilet and the room by turns.

We woke up to an overcast sky and by the time we arrived at the Mantadia National Park, it had started drizzling. Moving around the park in raincoats with all the photographic equipment can be quite a performance. But rain here is a routine occupational hazard. Park has almost 200 or more rainy days in a year and the humid rainforest is dripping most of the time. A World Heritage Site since 2007, the Mantadia National Park is largely made up of virgin primary growth forest. Some of the endangered species of mammals and reptiles have been reintroduced here under close supervision.  

A Pair of Eastern Woolly Lemurs( ) at Mantadia

Considering the dismal weather in the arboreal habitat, we were lucky to spot a pair of Eastern Woolly Lemurs, snugly huddled high up in the branches.

The large liquid eyes of lemurs easily make them the most soulful animals in the world. These are timid, highly social family creatures that stay together through thick and thin. Many species spend entire life with a single mate. We were to find out soon that photographing lemurs is a tricky business as the complete animal rarely comes out in the open and is always partially hidden in the thick foliage. 

Diademed Sifaka- a cross or a predecessor? 

Carrying the most identifiable and representative insignia of the Malagasy land, lemurs are primates that look like a cat crossed with a squirrel and a dog. Madagascar is world's solitary homeland for some 60 species of these unique primates. Reportedly, 15 or possibly more species of lemurs got wiped out from Madagascar after arrival of the most destructive  mammal on earth -- the civilised man. Given its reckless greed, a few others like the largest sized Indri and the Diademed Sifaka would have met a similar fate, had timely conservation and relocation efforts not been taken on war footing to save them.

The story of evolution and eventual  survival of lemurs as a species is interesting. Based on fossils found in Africa, it is presumed that lemur like creatures evolved some 60 million years ago in Africa and crossed over to Madagascar while the landmass was still shifting from the mainland. By the time monkeys and primates came into existence some 20 million years ago, Madagascar had already drifted apart. As a result, the lemurs on one hand survived here in isolation, and on the other, the drifted island remained untouched from evolution of primates. As a result, there are no monkeys in Madagascar. Assuming that this hypothesis of selective evolution is correct, lemurs could rightly be called predecessors not only of primates but also of the homo sapiens that  arrived in this world many million years later. 

We are back at the Mantadia National Park the next morning, to get a sighting of the mythical Indri (Indri indri), one of the largest lemurs of Madagascar. Excitement runs high as we find a large female with a cub high up in the branches of a tall tree.

Indri (Indri indri)  one of the Largest Lemurs of Madagascar

Indri, also known 'babokoto' locally, is suffering serious threat to its natural habitat due to rampant deforestation, logging and conversion of forests into rice fields by the 'slash and burn' cultivation method. The local name 'babocoto' meaning 'father of a small son' originated from several mythical stories associated with this magnificent creature. 

A Baby Indri Riding on its Mother's Back (Mantidia National Park)

According to one of the popular stories, a boy ventured into the forest and when he did not return after a long time, the father decided to look for him, only to find that the boy had transformed into the 'Indri'. The distress call of babokoto is believed to be resembling the wailing of the father looking for his lost son. The scientific name 'Indri indri' also has a funny story. In local Malgasy, the word 'indry' means 'here it is!'. It is said that the French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat first went looking for this lemur accompanied by a local guide who after spotting the animal, shouted in Malgasy  ' Indry indry!', or 'here it is, here it is!' Pierre mistook this to be the name of the lemur, somewhat in the same fashion as naming of the kangaroo in Australia. The first sailors who caught a kangaroo in Australia went back to the native aborigines to ask for its name and were told -- kangaroo. It was learnt many years later that the aborigines were not naming the caught animal but were merely asking -- 'kanga--roo' or 'what did you say?' There are others who disagree with the Indri story and say the word originated from another Malgasy name for the lemur-- endrina.

We were fortunate to hear Indri calling or wailing in its famous three note call. The first is a loud roar, followed by a long middle note and finally a descenting wail. As one Indri calls, many others in the family join in to provide a musical choir which can be heard for miles. 

Critically Endangered Indri Lemur

Indri is today on the list of critically endangered animals, fighting for its existence under close monitoring and supervision. Though regarded as a sacred animal in Madagascar, there are also reports of its killing for meat-- that is regarded as a delicacy in some regions. No Indri has survived in captivity for more than one year and none has bred in captivity. So the chances of seeing a live Indri in the forest, in the coming years, look grim.  

From Indri, we move to a different part of Mantadia to see yet another magnificent resident of the Park-- the Diademed Sifaka. Measured from the top of the head to the tip of the tail, Diademed is one of the largest lemurs. With a luxury soft coat, black face, a 'diadem' or a crown over the forehead and a combination of  several shades of grey and golden markings over the body, Diademed is indeed a beautiful primate that reminds you of the golden langurs of North East India.

The black faced Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema)

Diademed Sifaka is also critically endangered, though its numbers are somewhat higher than those of Indri.

We were blessed with a clear sky the next morning and the chirping on the trees around the resort quickly got us back to our birding instincts. Almost instantly, we were able to spot and identify the three commonest members of the Vanga family-- the Blue Vanga, the Chabert's Vanga and the White Headed Vanga. The Vanga, now regarded as a unique bird group, has 22 different species (varying from 13 cm to 30 cm in size), each quite different from the other. Scientists now claim that these birds are more diverse than the Darwin's finches and this diversification happened over a relatively shorter span of time. 

Chabert's Vanga (Leptoterus chabert) with its prominent blue circle around the eye

We were not fortunate enough to see the rarer species of vangas such as the sickle billed and the red shouldered but a short walk into the forest led us to a close look of another endemic--the Forest Rock Thrush.

Forest Rock Thrush (Montocila sharpei)

We had begun the day in Mantadia checking out the two largest lemurs of the land--the Indri and the Diademed. The eventful day ended with an exciting night safari before dinner, looking for the smallest lemur of Madagascar--The Pygmy Mouse Lemur. The mouse lemur exists in Madagascar in 22 distinct species, the smallest one of which is the Pygmy. Incidentally, the pygmy mouse lemur is also the smallest primate in the world. It rarely exceeds the size of a large mouse (50 cm). Being a nocturnal animal, nature guides in Madagascar take visitors on a night safari to convenient spots to see this fascinating animal. Food kept on the edge of the forest soon attracts the pygmy, which can then be photographed under artificial light. To say the least, the methodology is questionable and may not be kind to the poor animal which is being forced to lose its natural way of searching for food though its nightly feeding under the floodlight. 

The Pygmy Mouse Lemur (Microcebus myoxinus)

As we walked back to the waiting vehicle taking us back from the forest to our resort, we realised that we had completed the first leg of our journey to this fascinating island. Next day, we were to return back to Antananarivo where a short flight would take us to the southern-most tip of the country. But more of this later!

(to be continued)
(Part 3: Re-living the Dead & Other Fantasies)

Jitendra Bhatia
copyright 2015 Jitendra Bhatia


Tuesday, June 30, 2015



Several years ago, I knew a charming accountant of Indian origin who came from Madagascar. Her ancestors were probably 'jahajis'-- or immigrants who left India by ships to seek gainful work in distant lands. Women immigrants, by the gender specific nomenclature of Indian vernacular, were 'jahajins' or 'women of the ship'. My linguistic author friend Peggy Mohan beautifully captures the cultural diaspora of these 'jahajins' in her English novel of the same name. Replete with Bhojpuri phrases mellowed by the pidgin-creole linguistic influences of the far off Caribbean, 'Jahajin' could easily be the story of a large number  of Indian settlers not only in the West Indies, but also in Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Africa and of course, Madagascar.   

But my  'Jahajin' friend from Madagascar did not know a word of Gujarati--the language of her ancestors, though she spoke French, the lingua-franca of Madagascar, fluently. I was intrigued to learn that her aunts and grandmothers, very much like the women of 'Jahajin', had left their remote villages in Saurashtra on small sailboats more than a hundred years ago to seek opportunities in this French island, then known as Malagache. Most of them took up menial jobs, some became small time traders and a few even competed with black Africans to work as labourers on agricultural estates of this large island. Lives of a few enlightened women like my accountant friend have since changed dramatically. She today works for a chartered accounting firm in Singapore and her clients represent a large multi-national conglomerate of German origin. Many others, the Gujarati Khojas, Ismailis and Daudi Bohras have prospered in trade, but for many others, mostly illiterate, life is still a daily struggle.

Human Machines--Man drawn Rickshaws in Madagascar 

As a nature enthusiast, my interest in Madagascar was second only to places like the South American Rain Forests, the Galapagos or perhaps Borneo. So an opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in this pristine island was hard to resist. As a writer of sorts, I was also keen to get a close feel of the people and places of this unknown land. 

My knowledge about Madagascar was limited to what my accountant friend had told me. Later, I chanced to see the TV series on Madagascar made by BBC and narrated by David Attenborough. Admittedly, it is impossible to create in a static blog, the sheer magic of Madagascar's unique wild life, as depicted in this wonderful three part documentary, which must have taken several months or maybe years to complete.

Geologists tell us that several million years ago, when the mainland Gondwana commenced its shift east-northwest towards what is now India, a large piece of land broke off and formed the present island of Madagascar. This separation from the mainland allowed Madagascar to evolve its fauna and flora in a manner uniquely different from the mainland Africa or Asia. Madagascar on one hand has no large predators or apes and on the other, it is endowed with its own  evolved species of lemurs, chameleons, birds, flora and trees not found anywhere else. It is indeed a unique laboratory or observatory of mother earth and nature.

One of the Succulent Plant Species at Arboretum d'Antsokay in South West Madagascar

We arrived at Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar completely exhausted from a long flight via Mauritius. Antananarivo airport reminds you of small Indian airports as they existed in the eighties and the nineties. Ditto the town, though Antananarivo does have its own prosperous localities complete with neat shops, food stores and recreation parks. A bird's eye view of the city from top of a hill, including the artificial lake Anosy and the Mahamasina stadium actually looks beautiful.

Antananarivo- The Capital of Madagascar

But suburban areas outside the downtown are made up of shanty structures and nondescript wooden shacks with a few shops or food stalls here and there. As in India, tourists, irrespective of the colour of their skin, are perceived as highly privileged, gullible people. On arrival, we were handed out statutory warnings not to venture into the streets un-escorted, to 'never-ever' loiter outside after dark and to never attempt taking pictures of the royal palaces. Discarding these somewhat colonial perceptions, we promptly found ourselves surrounded by a motley group of locals as we stepped outside the hotel. But they were a harmless lot, curious to know where we came from and keen to explore possibilities of acting as our local guides (of course at a nominal cost, to be settled preferably in US dollars). Language was a problem as they knew very little English and their French accent was difficult for us.

A Local Butcher Selling his Wares in Antananarivo

Majority of migrant population in Madagascar is a mixture of Austronesian, Bantu, Indian, Arab and Somali settlers. Add to these the numerous persons of mixed blood originating from the colonial British and French ruling class.

Nothing Like A Free Ride on Mom's Back: A Hen with her admiring audience in Antananarivo

From a mere 5 million in 1960, the population in Madagascar has grown by 450 percent to 23 millions in the last 55 years, with a low GDP rate of 2.4 percent. Contrasts in Antananarivo are to be seen everywhere, from well stocked food stores to beggars seeking to scrape a meal somehow.

A Man Pulled Rickshaw Behind a Limousine on a Street in Antananarivo

From the neat downtown you can actually touch the underprivileged, all pervasive ghost town. Once you cross the urban boundary, you are amidst rich vegetation surrounding the bright green rice fields, which offer  a glimpse of one aspect of the country's rich avian diversity.

Children Playing Hopscotch Across Paddy Fields near Antananarivo

Water birds in and around rice fields are easy to spot. During our sojourn we immediately snapped the dark grey morph of the Dimorphic Egret. It exists in grey as well as white morph and is endemic to Madagascar (it extensively breeds here), though it is also seen in the nearby Comoro islands, Seychelles and the coastal belts of Kenya and Tanzania.

The Grey Morph of Dimorphic Egret (Egretta dimorpha)

We spotted the white morph several days later. Experts are of the view that the Dimorphic Egret is a close relative of the Little Egret which is more universally distributed.

The White Dimorphic Egret- Near Antananarivo

In a country of rice eaters where an average person eats over 100 kg of rice every year, productivity in rice fields is of vital importance. Once a net exporter of rice, Madagascar today imports 20 percent of its requirements. This deficit is attributed to poor productivity in rice fields, lack of modern agricultural methods and also, naturally, to sharp increase in population. Much of the cultivatable area lies in the mountain highlands terrains where terrace method of rice cultivation is prevalent. On roads leading out of Antananarivo, you see rice fields grown in narrow terraces along the road. On one such stretch, we were lucky to see a solitary Madagascar Squacco Heron (often also known as Madagascar Pond Heron), a stocky white heron with a characteristic blue bill.

Madagascar Squacco Heron (Ardeola idae)

Madagascar Squacco Heron is an endangered bird that breeds in Madagascar and the surrounding islands. Not more than a few thousand birds survive, due to as rapid erosion of habitat and lack of conservation efforts. Our guide tells us that once upon a time, Magagascar Squacco was as abundant in these wetlands as its cousin the (European) Squacco Heron. Sadly,not any more.

Talk of rice fields and can a kingfisher be far away?. Easily the most adorable bird of any respectable wetland and a darling of all bird photographers, kingfishers exist in more than 90 'avtaars' all over the world. What we had in front of us was a gorgeous Madagascar Kingfisher, a worthy member of the family and endemic to the island.

Madagascar Kingfisher (Alcedo vintsiodes)

The Madagascar Kingfisher is closely related to the Malchite Kingfisher found all over the African mainland. During the course of our travel, we were also to see the Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, the other kingfisher commonly found in Madagascar.

Madagascar Wagtail (Motacilla flaviventris)

We were to learn that most common wetland and garden birds of the African mainland have endemic Malagiche equivalents with clearly different distinctive features. Likewise, we have a Madagascan Hoopoe and a Madagascar Magpie Robin, both endemic to the island.

Madagascar Magpie Robin (Copysychus albospecularis) with Broader White on Wings

The chirpy grey wagtail of Africa turns up here as Madagascar Wagtail with a white breast and a prominent black necklace around the neck, the Oriental White Eye here is the Madagascar White Eye, endemic to the island and identified quite easily with its very prominent white around the eye.

Madagascar White Eye (Zosterops maderaspatanus)

As we turned back to the hotel, a strange, peculiarly shaped black bird flew over us. This was the Hammerkop, seen commonly in Madagascar as well as in mainland Africa.

Hammerkop( Scopus umbretta)

Hammerkop derives its name from its anvil shaped head and a long beak and is also sometimes named as the Anvilhead. The bird, unlike other birds, participates in strange rituals and builds a very large nest which can be as much as 1.5 metres in diameter. It is made up of ten thousand or even more sticks. It is a 'compulsive nest builder', making upto 2-3 nests in a year, not all of which are actually put to use. Because of its strange appearance and peculiar habits, Hammerkop is regarded as an evil bird in Africa as well as in Madagascar where its presence near a house is not very welcome. Several traditional stories exist about misfortunes resulting from destroying an Hammerkop's nest. Amongst African tribesmen, it is believed that the destroyer gets struck by lightening while in Madagascan folklore, as narrated by Fox Leonard in his book 'The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar', destroying the nest could result in leprosy and other ailments. Thankfully, these beliefs provide a certain degree of protection to this harmless and highly social bird whose abandoned nest provides shelter not only to homeless birds but also to many small animals.
(to be continued)
(Part 2: The Land of Chameleons and Lemurs)
Jitendra Bhatia
copyright 2015 Jitendra Bhatia