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