Notes From Madagascar: Heat, Lemurs, Biodiversity and Deforestation

Baby_Sifaka_MadagascarUganda to Madagascar, what a mad trip and extraordinary change of atmospherics.

A childhood dream adventure to view lemurs in the wild came true when we flew from Entebbe, via Nairobi, to the capital city of Antananarivo (known as Tana). Trading the dusty dry season in Uganda for the lush rain forest of northeast Madagascar was a shock. Even more so was to change from the vaguely British atmosphere of Black Africa to the distinctly French atmosphere of  Tana.

Here the population is a unique mix of African and Indonesian peoples with an admixture of South Asians, other East Asian groups and Europeans. The Indonesian component dates back to the initial human population of this massive island and the associated cultural practices give it a curiously Asian appearance although Madagascar is only 200 miles from Africa and more than 2500 miles from Indonesia.

Resting in a modest resort hotel, hours from civilization and between rain showers, I enjoy reflecting on how extraordinary the Indri indri are. An endangered species of lemur which does not survive in captivity, the Indri indri leap from tree to tree, traveling 90 feet in three jumps and starting from a seated position. It is as astonishing a sight as I have ever seen in animal locomotion. It is like watching kangaroos travel through the tree tops.

When the island of Madagascar broke away from the continent of Africa, some 250 million years ago, no monkey precursors or large carnivores were on the bus. In fact, large groups of small mammals must have been missing because the lemur family diversified and filled multiple evolutionary niches.

The Indri indri (the largest lemurs) seem to fill the ape niche. The Dwarf lemur seem to fill the squirrel niche. The Sifaka lemur (a baby pictured above) and others fill the Koala bear niche and the common Brown lemur adapt like Vervet monkeys to all manner of human intrusions. I look forward to observing more in the next few days.

This morning we hiked for three hours through mountainous, primary rain forest. When it was not raining the humidity was 99.99 percent. The mud, the bugs, the mold, the thorns and ultimately the leaches… they were all subsumed to the anticipation of the search for Indri Indri and Golden Sifaka.

For the remainder of the day periodic downpours alternated with brilliant sun. Nothing dries, including previously dry clothes.

WiFi is free in the hotel lobby but it connects to nothing, it downloads nothing and it frustrates Debbie. Back to Tana tomorrow.

Deforestation: from Tana to southwestern Madagascar

Madagascar_deforestation_lrgAfter an overnight at the upscale Tamboho hotel in Tana, we left for the airport at 0500 for an 0700 flight to Toliaro (aka Tulear) with a touch down in Ft. Dauphin (Tolanaro) in southern Madagascar. Yes, we are having trouble keeping the names straight.

At 0500 the usually crowded streets were dark and empty. The heaps of trash by the road, filth and poverty remind Debbie of India.

I have come to the conclusion that Madagascar is the victim of self-inflicted deforestation which is approaching irreversibility. It is the “tragedy of the commons” writ nationwide.

Tragedy of the Commons

Presumably, over population has created the increased demand for cooking charcoal. This has prompted relentless cutting of endemic trees which make high grade charcoal. These trees require 40 years for replacements to reach adulthood. The invasive Eucalyptus require only five years to maturity and outcompete the native trees for water and nutrients. They have become the defacto replacement crop to supply charcoal and to slow soil erosion.

Unfortunately, only one species of lemur has been able to adapt to a Eucalyptus diet and most species are under intense pressure or have become extinct. Whereas 25 years ago lemurs were visible along the roadside, now the primary forests are limited to national parks and private reserves. As a result, so are the lemurs. I think the Indri indri are unlikely to survive two decades.

Sam_Lova_MadagascarThe Malagash language has far too many syllables per word or proper name. Witness Antananarivo, which, loosely translated, means “the city of twelve hills united by our king and distributed to his twelve wives.” Apparently in recognition of this phenomenon the trailing vowel is frequently not pronounced. Throw in the occasional Francophonization of a local place name and nothing is verbally recognizable. Maps are hard to decipher. Go figure.

According to our terrific guide, Lova (pronounced Lou-va), in photo, 70 percent of the population is illiterate (analphabétisation – for you Francophiles). This is the result of a poor education policy and an agrarian society that values field hands rather than diplomas. When the harvesting of rice competes with the classroom or exams the harvest takes priority. Classrooms are not revisited. Clearly, lack of education translates to intractable poverty.

From the air, as we flew south, we could see that the rivers run brown with soil erosion. It seems that the combination of poverty and overpopulation will conspire to wash this unique ecosystem into the sea. Their heritage of the lemurs is nearly lost already.


We have landed at Tulear in the southwest. It could not be more different. The rain forest was impossibly wet and this is dry. It is scrub, cactus, arid land with the occasional (remarkable) baobob tree for as far as the eye can see. Nomadic farmers and cowherds dot the one lane highway. We are driving four hours to a lodge near Isalo National Park. Hopefully a little elevation will temper the intense heat. It feels like my “full safari” clothes will melt to my skin. I do not expect trouble drying my laundry here.

Our guide says that this was once forested but is now plantation land. It is, in mid March, unusually hot and dry. The cyclones and rain came early this year, we are told.

Unlike Uganda where there are public or private schools every few kilometers, schools seem rare here. The few I have seen are locked and shuttered. Like Uganda, families march endlessly along the road side without a visible origin or destination.

Most buildings are wood frame and slat construction. The slatted walls are filled in with local clay. When the clay is dry it is plastered with a smooth layer of cow dung mixed with termite mound earth.

There is a certain tension between the driver/guide and passengers when using the automobile AC. The drivers and guides find anything above the lowest AC setting both too cold and too expensive. The low level does not reach back to the passengers.

Isalo Death March

Today we woke in our 5-star hotel, Isalo Rock Lodge, BF’d and drove to town to pick up a local guide for an 8 km trek through Isalo National Park. The hotel is spectacularly sited amongst the sandstone cliffs. The temp was well over 90 degrees for most of our arid hike over sandstone bluffs and into dry ravines.

We saw several bird and plant species that are unique to Madagascar. Midway we came upon a remarkable oasis – La Piscine Naturelle. We swam in a natural pool, delightfully cool, below a spring fed waterfall. We saw five other tourists and their guides. Otherwise we were the only visitors to the park.

Debbie_Isalo_Death_March_HikeAfter walking two hours across a desert space of intense sun and the rare Tapia tree shadow we descended hundreds of meters into a cooler ravine where we had a picnic lunch.

Ed. note: this death march (photo at left) qualified as a push-yourself-to-the-limit gap year activity. Why neither of us dropped from heat stroke I do not know. We carried lots of water and drank it all. It came out of the bottle hot. – DW

After lunch we found ring-tailed lemurs and red footed brown lemurs. These are both ground adapted species which have quadrupedal locomotion and very long tails. Compare this with the dancing Sifaka which bounces on its hind legs when on the ground.

The ring tails move through the trees like cats with less vertical jumping and more horizontal, or semi-horizontal, locomotion.

We were exhausted at the end of our trip.

With the help of our guide, Fleuris, I cut a parasite growing out of my right big toe. [Photo upon request. – DW] I hope I got it all. The eggs came out this morning. For details about the toe parasite, read this post.

During the evening we were alone in the beautiful bar and we broke our television fast by watching BBC World while eating dinner.

Although a physically beautiful property this hotel is poorly ventilated. With only eight hours of AC per 24h day and little cross ventilation our two nights there were long, hot and sticky.

We woke in a hot sweat. Despite the arid vastness there are more mosquitos here than anywhere else. I was well bitten.

Poverty_pic_cropped_SMALLWe started our four-hour drive through the dry savanna back to Tulear. In the village of Ilakaka we saw the communal river where men, women, children, cars and laundry were being washed. Simultaneously, women were panning for sapphires. Modesty demanded a quick cover up when we Vazaha (white persons) stopped to look.

How do people scratch out a living here? Small patches of crops. Dried up river beds. Endless sun. Cloudless skies. And ceaseless heat.

Ilakaka is a sapphire mining and trading town. Although crowded and particularly gritty, with the end product displayed in multiple, foreign-owned, showrooms it is easier to see the source of the commerce and the cause of the well stocked store fronts (huts). I bought Debbie a souvenir garnet ring.

It was a two hour drive through dry grassland before reaching Zombetse Preserve (the one remaining narrow strip of forest in this expansive desert).

In Zombetse we saw two color variations of verroux Sufaka, black limbs and white limbs. We found them only afte a 90′ trek through dens forest with Baobob trees, rare Tapia, mosquitos and no-see-ums.

There is no tyrant of the pedestrians here. We barrel through town honking our horn. If they don’t get out of the way they risk death.

Back into the car for a another long hot drive. Debbie sits in the middle to avoid the boiling plastic seat cover on her side.

The fractured government of the last few years has tried to charge for public school. Recently the
government has not paid the teachers for ten months. Most teachers have left work. Most schools have closed (in this SW region). Many schools have squatters in them.

The beach at Ifaty

Paradisier_Hotel_HOTWe are ending the day at Le Paradisier in Ifaty, which I am calling a minus one-star beach hotel. It is hotter than Hades. Every service is catch as catch can.

Is this what we were hoping for? Certainly this is no worse than real life in Africa but within the tourist bubble one might have expected more. “TIA” is the universal explanation (This Is Africa). The other 10 guests are on a group tour from Slovakia. We are in someone else’s tourist bubble. More later.

Update: the Paradisier, above, turned out to be nicer than we first experienced. But sleeping at night was nigh impossible in the 90-degree F heat, under a suffocating but necessary mosquito net and with no breeze. – DW

Photo of baby Sifaka: courtesy of zoom lens on Debbie’s Samsung Galaxy camera.

Deforestation image:  courtesy NASA’s Earth Observatory

4 Responses to Notes From Madagascar: Heat, Lemurs, Biodiversity and Deforestation

  1. Minor March 14, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    Wow. This all sounds unforgettable. I request parasite photos.

  2. Nancy Harrison March 16, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    how did you discover the parasite in your toe? How did it get far enough in that it had to be cut out? What did you use to cut it out? If you weren’t a doctor and/or asked the guide, would you have figured out what the problem was, or would you have just thought your foot hurt? What type of parasite was it and what would be the effect of not figuring it out? I think we need a whole blog entry on the parasite and accompanying surgery. All in all though, sounds like a very interesting trip.

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  1. Onward: Sam’s Gap Year Wrap-Up | Gap Year After Sixty - September 1, 2014

    […] Holidays with family in Connecticut were followed by a blessedly quiet January in Maine. Then it was off to Africa to reconnect with East Africa (after 42 years) and to see lemurs in my dream destination of Madagascar. […]

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