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

1 comment:

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