Friday, October 10, 2014

Andasibe-Mantadia: Lemurs Are Loud...

Also, they enjoy eating bananas and carrots, have very fuzzy fur just like Ephraim, and are both pretty cute and exceptionally curious.  In and around Madagascar’s Andasibe-Mantadia national park, we encountered lemurs in all shapes, sizes, and colors during our explorations.  Of course, it’s not all lemurs all the time – we also found some pretty interesting chameleons, frogs, geckos, orchids, butterflies, mushrooms, and even birds.  

After flying into Tana on Sunday, we immediately began the trip to Andasibe, accompanied by our indefatigable driver, Lala.  En route, we made a short stop at what was noted on our itinerary as a reptile farm.  Stephanie, at least, was less than enthused by this description, but happy to get out of the car and stretch her legs.  Lucky for us, the reptile farm’s surrounding forest was home to an incredibly cute group of lemurs.  As they were accustomed to humans, we got to meet a couple of the group's representatives and even treat them to a few carrots.

Their hunger satiated, our new friends promptly departed, swinging from tree to tree.

Furthermore, the description of the property as a “reptile farm” was a bit of a misnomer.  It turned out that the owner was a chameleon collector, keeping a multitude of the colorful reptiles in an enclosed garden.  Given that it is quite difficult to find these animals while wandering through the forest (aside from being masters of camouflage, chameleons are primarily nocturnal), it was fascinating to see so many different specimens up close.  One or two lucky chameleons even got to eat a grasshopper so Giorgio could create what he considers the best gif ever.

Onward to Andasibe-Mantadia!  With two full days to explore the large park, we dedicated one day to each of the two main parcels of land – Andasibe and Mantadia.  Andasibe is the most well-known and easiest to get to, so that’s where we started our forest trek.  Compared tothe tsingy, Andasibe was an incredibly organized park, boasting a proper ticket booth, museum, and informative signage.  Our guide led us down one of the well-marked circuits in search of lemurs.  However, the forest paths tend to be suggestions rather than required routes and we quickly veered off-piste to find boa constrictors in the reeds and lemurs in the trees.

Although the forest here supports a wide variety of unique flora and fauna, we particularly wanted to see and hear the famous indri indri, the largest of Madagacar’s lemurs.  (There used to be lemurs the size of gorillas here, but they have become extinct in relatively recent history.)  We had read that the indri indri is known for its distinctive form of communication and were eager to hear its loud call.  As our guide was tracking a group of brown lemurs in the middle of the forest, a new sound suddenly pierced the backdrop of birdcalls and frog croaks.  Just as our guidebook had promised, a haunting, eerie cry penetrated through the trees, sounding much like the song of a humpback whale amplified via megaphone.  Although there were no indri indris in sight, we knew this must be their famous call, which they use to tell one another about the limits of their family territory.  If you’d like to listen, we’ve made a recording in the video below.  Plus if you look close, you might be able to see an indri in the trees. 

With the far-away lemur’s call still ringing in our ears, we set off with our guide to find one of the large creatures.  Indris have well-defined territories for their family groups, so they are fairly easy to find.  Plus, the guides in Madagascar will make every effort to make sure tourists spot lemurs.  Our guide in Andasibe had a recording of the indri indri on her cell phone, which she would play on speaker to get the real animals to respond.  All of the guides can easily mimic the various grunts and snorts of different types of lemurs, calling to them up in the trees.  Many times, we have asked our guides to let the wild animals be!  There’s no need to shake the trees to get the lemur to climb lower or knock on a tree trunk to see if a nocturnal lemur will poke its head out during the day.

Anyway, back to the indri indris – we were off through the forest, trying to track them the old-fashioned way or get them to come to us via more modern means.  Since we had left the proper hiking circuit behind, we dodged spiny vines, clambered over fallen logs and squeezed through the innumerable rainforest trees.  Suddenly, our guide motioned for us to stop.  Along with several other groups that had simultaneously descended on the location from different points in the forest, we had found the indri indri, a quite remarkable lemur.

As the Japanese tourists, then the Taiwanese, then the Italians, and then the Spanish all discovered this same indri indri, our animal viewing experience in the wild became more similar to seeing an animal in a zoo.  (Sidenote: You cannot see an indri indri in the zoo – they only live in Andasibe-Mantadia and go on hunger strike in captivity.)  We told our guide we had enough photos and struck out again on our own through the jungle.  We had chosen one of the longer circuits, so eventually left the largest groups behind and enjoyed tramping through the tranquil forest, finding more indri indris, a few sifakas, a very large chameleon, and a Malagasy giraffe.

Other than the continued presence of the indri indri and their haunting cries, Mantadia was the polar opposite of Andasibe.  Although it is part of the same national park, the two forests are not directly linked.  The land separating them is privately owned and much of it is used for slash and burn farming, rather than conservation.

Mantadia was 15 kilometers up a dirt road filled with potholes.  Although Lala was initially reluctant to make the trip for fear of damaging our car just as we were starting out, he decided to risk it after consulting with the rest of the drivers in the area.  Most other tourists are only in the area for the day and don’t bother to make the one hour drive to Mantadia (yes, it takes one hour to drive 15 kilometers), so we were able to explore much of the jungle on our own (accompanied by our local guide of course).  Mantadia is a primary or virgin forest, meaning the forest has attained great age without any significant disturbance and is comprised of only endemic vegetation.  Once again, the marked path was simply a suggestion, so we explored a large swath of jungle, spotting indris, black and white ruffed lemurs, and red-bellied lemurs.  One particularly memorable lemur, of the black and white ruffed variety, had lost the rest of his comrades.  We found him roaming the treetops alone, occasionally stopping to screech in the direction of the rest of the group, hoping they would respond.

We had thoroughly enjoyed our night walk through the Kirindy forest, so signed up for a similar jaunt in the dark with our knowledgeable guide.  As we set out, Giorgio noted that the full moon would provide great illumination for our hike in the darkness, hopefully limiting the number of tree roots poised to trip us in addition to silhouetting a nocturnal lemur or two.  What we didn’t realize, though, was that the shy nocturnal lemurs tend stay put in their hiding spots when there is a full moon – it’s far too bright!  We briefly spotted a mouse lemur peeking out from a tree hole and a diurnal brown lemur out foraging in the light, but that was about it.  Regardless of the wild life spotting, it was a beautiful evening.

After meeting so many lemurs from a distance in the wild, we made a quick visit to our hotel’s isle aux lemuriens, home to several “ex-pet” lemurs who cannot be released into the wild but can no longer be kept as pets because the practice is now illegal.  They have their own island to roam at the Vakona Forest Lodge – apparently an aversion to large bodies of water obviates any need for a fence.  When Giorgio (mistakenly) read the guidebook describing these lemurs, he spent quite some time puzzling over how a lemur could be an “expat” if they only live in Madagascar.  Whether they are ex-pet or expat, the lemurs were beyond cute, making an incredibly touristy trip to a small island with another large tour group unexpectedly fun.  If you have a banana in hand, any lemur will be your friend.  We met several lemurs who clambered all over us, although our favorites were the shyer bamboo lemurs who preferred to remain on a branch in the shade to observe, but happy to accept a small fruit offering.

Now that we’ve met plenty of lemurs and other Malagasy creatures, we are on the road south!  Stay tuned for further adventures as we continue our travels via car, train, and on foot.


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