In the small Madagascan town of Andasibe, we had been on the lookout for lemurs ever since we arrived. There are said to be 98 species of lemurs in Madagascar and they’re all known to be quite timid, so on our first evening, Zaka, our guide from tour company Natural World Safaris took my wife and me to seek them in the dark.
Many lemurs are nocturnal, feeding all night, but all we saw were occasional pinpricks of red light when the torch caught a lemur’s eyes before it turned and fled into the forest. We’d hear a crashing in the dark trees but nothing more.
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The next day we drove to the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, where Zaka led us up some forested hills. We were told to keep our eyes focused on the treetops. At first I saw nothing but leaves; however, as we left the path, a fast-darting object suddenly shot over us in the trees.
“Sifakas!” said Zaka. These are brown and white lemurs about the size of a thin, gangly toddler. They leap huge distances in what looks like slow motion, but on the ground they hop along rather than walk.
So far, we had only seen treetop blurs but a little further on, the quiet of the forest was suddenly broken by the territorial cry of three indri above us. There was a male, a female and their child somewhere up there. The black-and-white coated indri are taller and bulkier than sifakas, and they create the most extraordinarily loud hooting noise when intruded upon. It sounded like lots of car horns going off above our heads.
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This was exciting but we still had not seen a lemur properly. Some species of this enigmatic creature were hunted to extinction when the first humans arrived on Madagascar 1,500 years ago, so their descendants are wary of us.
That afternoon, Zaka took us to Lemur Island. It is owned by Vakona Forest Lodge, where we were staying. Lemur Island comprises four islands that can only be accessed by canoe.
Immediately on the far shore of the first island, we got our first proper look at a lemur. A black-and-white ruffed lemur squatted there, seemingly waiting for us. Indeed, as soon as my wife and I got out of the canoe, he approached on all fours. Our guide handed us some slices of banana and the lemur – about the size of a very large cat – leapt up on to my shoulder to be fed.
More lemurs came out of the bushes to inspect us. The islands are home to ringtailed lemurs, bamboo lemurs, brown lemurs, and diadem sifakas. The reason they are here – and are so trusting of people – is a story of unusual enterprise. After a law against keeping lemurs as pets was put into effect in 2006, the Izouard family that owns Vakona Lodge bought a number of lemurs to release into the wild. But these were creatures that had become reliant on humans and needed protection.
So, the Izouards fashioned a series of islands below their lodge. Here, lemurs would be protected from predators like the fossa (a vicious kind of mongoose) along with ground boas, civets and dogs. The descendants of these original “settlers” welcomed us warmly.
At one point I had a lemur on each shoulder and another sitting on my head. Imagine a very large, sweet-smelling fluffy cat with delicate black hands ruffling your hair. Later, we even got to see sifakas doing their strange, sidling dance between posts on which our guide placed fruit for them. It is a very strange way to walk indeed.
When it was time to go, the black-and-white ruffed lemur we met on our arrival followed us as far as the canoe. When we had disembarked on the far shore we saw he was still there, as if hoping for more company.
– TEXT BY ADRIAN MOURBY
PHOTO: NATURAL WORLD SAFARIS
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.