Land of the lemurs: the race to save Madagascar's sacred forests

Madagascar is home to colourful chameleons, fierce fossas and over 100 species of lemur. But With much of the Indian Ocean island’s wildlife facing extinction, its indigenous communities and eco lodges are focused on conserving their precious habitats.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Pointing is considered rude by many cultures. But in the riverine gallery forests of southeast Madagascar — and everywhere else on the island — extending an index finger is a serious taboo, one of many covered by fady, a range of cultural prohibitions supposedly enforced by supernatural powers. “You can use your knuckle or a full hand,” suggests guide Theophile Zafison when I ask how else we’re supposed to zone in on lemurs camouflaged in thick undergrowth or hiding in a tangle of treetops. Without the aid of digits, searches require more time spent trying to decipher exactly which branch everyone is talking about. 

Stepping over the shrivelled, sticky pods shed by tamarind trees, we carefully scan the canopy for signs of movement. As strong and sturdy as marble columns in a cathedral, thick trunks support a vaulted cupola of fading greenery. Like rays refracted through a stained-glass window, broken beams of sunlight scatter patterns across earthy aisles. In this temple built by nature, there’s a solemnity only the spirits of ancestors can command. 

Once used as a burial site, this forest has inadvertently had its future safeguarded by respect for departed elders. Considered untouchable in local lore, this resting place for the dead has become a home for the living also: paradise flycatchers flit through shadows, warty chameleons spiral their tails around branches and ring-tailed lemurs caterwaul to departed souls.

In theory, Madagascar has a lot to lament. At the frontline of climate change, this island nation in the Indian Ocean has been battered by cyclones and suffered years of sustained drought, while certain areas teeter on the brink of famine. Life expectancy is one of the lowest in Africa (63 for men and 68 for women) and according to data from the World Bank around 80% of people live below the poverty line. Most roads are so potholed and broken you could be forgiven for thinking a meteor shower had recently rained down. 

Yet for all its difficulties, challenges and problems, there’s nowhere else on the planet like Madagascar. Once part of supercontinent Gondwana, it began to split from Africa 180 million years ago, and from the Indian subcontinent 90 million years later. Eons of isolation has led to high levels of endemism; about 70% of an estimated 250,000 species exist only here. 

Among the evolutionary wonders are chameleons whose skin colour changes to regulate their body temperature; carnivorous fossas, small mammals as fierce as any dog but as stealthy as a cat; and, of course, lemurs — the charismatic primates that inspired several blockbuster animated films. 

Of the 107 known lemur species surviving on this massive island (Madagascar is about the size of France), several can be found in the forests around Ifotaka, a town and commune in the far south of the country, where the land is dry, winds are warm and life unfolds around a river that hasn’t flowed for almost six months. This remote, arid Eden belongs to the Antandroy people, one of 18 ethnic groups in the country, and the only way to reach it is via a bumpy, four-hour drive from coastal city Fort-Dauphin, where flights connect to the main airport in the capital, Antananarivo.

Once nomadic, large numbers of Antandroy communities have settled to work on sisal plantations first cultivated in the 1930s to produce rope. In a space once occupied by native forest, the agave plant is now cultivated in uniform rows. Introduced from Mexico, the plant has fronds so sharp they slice like knives. Wooden carts drawn by humpbacked zebu cattle trundle along a dusty thoroughfare, passing men on rusty bikes with sacks of charcoal stacked precariously on rear racks. 

At the back of the plantation is the Mandrare River Camp, its seven en suite safari-style tents perched along a river that typically runs between November and June, creating fertile, seasonal farmland. It dried out early this year, explains Theo, a guide at the camp. Regardless, people have gone ahead and planted sweet potatoes in the silty sand, singing day and night as they cross the riverbed between their homes and the sisal-processing factory. It’s part of Antandroy culture to sing whether you’re happy or sad.

Owned by Englishman Edward Tucker Brown, Mandrare is the only tourist lodge in the Ifotaka area, supporting both the community and their last remaining patches of forest by providing employment, building schools and improving roads. These precious pockets of greenery not only act as sacred burial grounds, but also form one of the oldest of Madagascar’s four distinctive ecoregions, supporting an array of fantastical vegetation. Once inhabited by enormous elephant birds and gorilla-sized lemurs, it’s still a hotbed of endemic creatures, including a species of octopus tree with sprawling, spiny arms and a chameleon that spends most of its life as an egg.

A good example of this unique, spiny forest habitat can be found a 45-minute drive from the lodge, where we join local spotter Managnandro for a late-afternoon walk.
In a clearing, smoke bellows from a fire a boy is using to burn needles from cactus paddles, rendering them safe to use as fodder for his zebus. Further along, a small cupboard has been carved into the bulbous trunk of a baobab; once used as a water store, it’s now empty. A big tree like this would be considered sacred and it would have been spared the chop because an ancestor could be living in it.

we stop at Ifotaka, the closest village to the lodge, where houses have been constructed from the distinctive, pock-marked wood of the octopus tree. In a small square, women selling tomatoes, peanuts and tobacco beautify their faces with a sun-protecting paste made from ground bark and tattoos etched using prickly pear spines. Below their feet scuttle chicks spray-painted fuchsia pink, a ploy — I later learn — to fool marauding birds of prey.

Wrapped in a sarong bordered with Malagasy proverbs, matriarch Nety Sailambo invites us into a gift shop the lodge helped her to build. “Before, there was a lot of rain, a lot of forest. But now the drought is always there,” she complains, while rearranging raffia chameleons on a shelf. “I’m struggling to find food because nothing grows.”

Nety admits some areas have been slashed and burned out of desperation to create new agricultural plots for a rapidly growing population, but for the most part local people protect the forest “because that’s why the vazahas [foreigners] come”. Despite all the hardships Nety faces in Ifotaka, she’s determined to stay put. “All my children were born here, they grew up here,” she says, almost drowned out by the giggles of her grandkids playing with a skipping rope made of rags. “I’ll never leave this place.”

Rare finds in the rainforest

The WWF estimates Madagascar has lost more than 80% of its natural areas, a figure likely to have risen since the pandemic. During that period, a drop in tourism coupled with poverty led to a rise in deforestation as demand for charcoal, firewood and building materials grew. In the central part of the country, a four-hour drive east of the capital along roads destroyed by convoys of heavy goods trucks, the protected primary rainforest of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is one of the areas hardest hit.

For now, most tour guides have stopped taking tourists to the Mantadia area of the park, instead focusing on Andasibe. Paved trails wind through areas rich in wildlife, making the place extremely accessible (during my visit I’m never far from crowds). I prefer the neighbouring Maromiziha Reserve, a project managed by nonprofit primate conservation organisation GERP and the local community, which opened to the public in 2018. Paths are steeper and animal sightings require patience, but it’s open 24 hours (whereas Andasibe-Mantadia National Park entry is restricted to 8am to 4pm) and the rewards of being nearly alone are worth it.

Etienne Miandriarison is one of 30 local guides taking visitors around the reserve. In the past, he used the forest’s trees as a resource for making charcoal, he tells me. But Etienne now sees the screwpine, ironwood and dragon trees as climate regulators, tourist attractions and, above all, a source of fascination.

Keen to introduce us to his favourite residents, Etienne sets his sights on finding the indri. Shrieking wails soon echo through the valley, leading us to the largest living lemur. Keeping watch for his troop, a sentinel stares down at us, his bulging eyes glued to our every move. On a roll, Etienne is then eager to show us one of Maromiziha’s rarer species, the critically endangered red-bellied lemur — even harder to find due to its lack of defined territory. Working our way over streams and flowers as frilly as a pair of French knickers, we climb to viewpoints and stumble down hillsides. But even a team of Italian PhD students camping at a research station where we stop for a break haven’t had any success in sighting one.

Our luck changes when Etienne takes a detour to show us a waterfall. Lighting up like a bulb, his expression tells us all we need to know. Feeding on fruit, two red-bellies are too distracted to notice us creep up on them, and we’re able to track their movements through the trees for some time. The male, distinguishable by white patches around his eyes resembling spectacles, struggles to keep up with his mate. The female leaps to a branch and is less than a metre away from me. 

Cocking her head curiously to one side, she registers my shock, and after rubbing her bottom up and down a trunk, she’s gone in a scarlet flash. Sadly, almost all lemur species are threatened with extinction. At Miavana by Time + Tide, a luxury resort on Nosy Ankao island, off the northeast coast of Madagascar, efforts are underway to reverse that trend. Because it’s so remote, it would take seven hours to get there from the nearest airport by road and boat — so all guests arrive by helicopter. Our transfer from Arrachart Airport becomes an aerial safari, flying over avenues of swollen baobabs and a forest of limestone dagger peaks known as ‘tsingy’, eventually reaching emerald bays speckled with kitesurfers and surfacing whales.

The property features 14 butler-serviced villas curving around the coastline in a marine protected area. Glass buoys dangle from the ceiling and palms sway above a pool, but the real luxury is the opportunity to witness community and wildlife conservation first-hand. 

Learning from lemurs

Between 2014 and 2017, 100,000 indigenous trees were planted on Nosy Ankao, and since then eight crowned lemurs have been translocated to the island after their home on the mainland became threatened. Using a telemetry device, we track down a collared alpha female, crawling through tunnels of snagging twigs and sticky spider webs to get a good view. Eventually, the animals — thriving in their new home — will be returned, but until that time comes they’ll continue to provide an educational resource for schoolchildren and jobs for local people, including ranger Saniva Clarita, who admits, “For now, I’d like them to stay here.”

Miavana has a 99-year lease on Nosy Ankao, which has been permanently inhabited since the early 2000s. Before that, it was used by treasure-stashing pirates, later becoming the site of a seaweed farm and a base for fishermen. The community living here today still debate over the ownership of coconut trees and whether or not the sacrifice of a zebu as part of a burial ceremony should take place on a sacred spot outside villa 12. A trip to Ampasimangidy, the island’s main village, offers a slice of welcome reality. Accompanied by the resort’s conservation field officer Zach Jordaan, who speaks fluent Malagasy, I stop in at Mama Ceylon’s wooden bar and grocery store for a snack of fried king mackerel and green mango salad. Disco lights flash and music crackles from wardrobe-sized speakers as the build-up to the regular Friday-night revelries begins.

Further down the road, village president Jean Claude Jaodimasy invites us into his immaculate home, constructed from ironwood. Bright plastic bouquets sit in vases on paper doilies next to jars of Ovaltine in a home that wouldn’t look out of place in Billericay. Having been instrumental in setting up the marine protected area, Jean Claude is confident fishing will now be done sustainably; he’s also been working hard to secure community endorsement for the lemur conservation programme. “Without forest there would be no life,” he insists. 

In the past, people would’ve chopped down mangroves for wood and charcoal, but now these important carbon sequesters are protected. Climbing into a sailing boat made from a hollowed Canarium trunk and stitched rice sacks, we drift into a maze of semi-submerged plants, watching crabs scamper through a confusion of salty stalks. 

Conversation soon turns to fady. It’s prohibited to bring domestic animals onto the island, says Zac, sharing the story of a farmer who stowed a pig on a sailing boat and lost his yield of seaweed for the season (an act, supposedly, of divine retribution). Or the lighthouse keeper who smuggled a dog into his home; less than 24 hours later, it mysteriously died. Of course, these prohibitions have a practical purpose: human bodies are buried on the island and animals have a habit of digging them up. 

But taboos have also become an important tool for conservation. It’s fady, for example, to kill lemurs or chop down trees — beliefs more powerful than any government directive. And while so much has already been lost in Madagascar, what remains has never been more precious. Yes, there are difficulties, challenges and problems, but in a broken paradise, where every species struggles for survival, it’s hard to apportion blame. Rather than dwelling on what’s gone, communities from south to north are focused on preserving what they have for the future. After all, there’s nothing to be gained from finger-pointing. It would, in fact, be fady

Getting there and around

Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo is the entry point for most flights; there’s also an international airport in the north east on the island of Nosy Be. There are no direct flights to Madagascar from the UK. Kenya Airways flies via its hub in Nairobi, Ethiopian Airlines flies from London via Addis Ababa, and Airlink will resume flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be from June 2023.

Average flight time: 15h.

Domestic flights between islands are operated by Air Madagascar. Currently, routes (typically flying from Antananarivo) are limited.
Despite often being potholed, roads are the only way to reach most places.

When to go

The cool, dry austral winter (April to October) is the best time to visit, with temperatures from 10-26C. September to December is when lemurs are most active, as temperatures rise to around 27C. Heavy rain from December to March means many camps close. The south west receives much less rain.

Where to stay

Mandrare River Camp, Ifotaka. 
From £1,684 per person, full board, for a three-night minimum stay.
Miavana by Time + Tide, Nosy Ankao. 
Villas from £2,836 per person, per night full board.

Published in the May 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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