When the vast island continent of Madagascar wrenched itself free from the mighty Gondwanaland tens of millions of years ago, it took with it a veritable Noah’s Ark of plant and animal species, and established itself as a unique ecosystem that remains so to this day. But only just.
The planet’s eighth continent has remained largely undisturbed for the majority of its existence and has only felt the influence of man in the last 2000 years. In this short time, hungry humans have deforested 85% of the landmass, felled huge baobab, tamarind and ebony stands, remodelled vast tracts for agriculture and placed most of the endemic flora and fauna on the endangered and threatened lists.
Consequently, the idea that Madagascar would ever become a tourist destination has almost always been a remote notion. That was until the world discovered a delightful and intelligent lesser primate called a lemur.
Madagascar’s botanical and zoological notoriety comes as a result of its irresistible attraction to naturalists, biologists and documentary filmmakers. Today, the almost 600,000-square-kilometer island is known around the planet as home for some of the most exotic animal and plant species anywhere.
In his pioneering BBC documentary series, Zoo Quest, Sir David Attenborough transported a myopic mid-20th-century population, via the wonder of television, to adventurous and romantic lands in search of the world’s most wonderful creatures. This groundbreaking series also spawned a batch of best-selling books, of which “Zoo Quest to Madagascar” (1961) was one. In another high-profile media escapade, eclectic English comic John Cleese pursued a troupe of black and white ruffed lemurs into the depths of the forest for three weeks.
"They're gentle, well mannered and pretty, and yet great fun . . . I should have married one," says Cleese in typically sardonic style.
Despite their cute, cuddly teddy-bear looks, lemurs are primates, albeit an early incarnation that predates the apes of neighbouring Africa. Madagascar has fifty surviving varieties (five families and fourteen genera) ranging from the 25g mouse-sized Pygmy Mouse Lemur to the very vocal Indri Indri which would, if it could, stand over a metre tall.
But as an evolving nation still struggling to distance itself from a hectic colonial past, the population’s priorities are not necessarily focused on environmental conservation and preservation. A bout of internal strife in 2002 saw factional violence that effectively derailed the delicately recovering economy. Only now has the legitimately installed government had time to concentrate on preserving the remaining, immensely valuable, biodiversity.
Today, visitors to Madagascar come mainly to see lemurs in the wild, with the vivid and charmingly grotesque chameleons as a supporting act. The botanical headliner is almost certainly the giant baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) still dominating the western landscapes around Morondava.
There are several locations dotted around the island where visitors can get a true up-close-and-personal experience with lemurs. Berenty in the south is famous for its Ring-Tailed Lemurs, Périnet in the east has both the Black and White Ruffed as well as the Brown Lemurs, while Lokobe and Nosy Komba on the northwest island of Nosy Be have semi-tame groups of Black Lemurs.
Perhaps the best known is Berenty Reserve near the historic southern port of Fort Dauphin. Visited as much by bona-fide researchers as tourists, the lodge-style accommodation is roomy, clean and comfortable even if some find it pricey by Madagascan standards. Established in 1936, Berenty’s scant 260 hectares is something of a concession to the burgeoning local sisal industry occupying over thirty thousand hectares of neighbouring cleared land. The lodge’s owner and local sisal baron, Jean de Heaulme, maintains the reserve as much out of pragmatism as philanthropy and has even received a World Wildlife Fund award for his efforts.
Tourists were not introduced to Berenty until the 1980s and their impact was immediate. The ravenous bands of tame Ring-Tailed Lemurs that now patrol the grounds around the bungalows are the result of unmonitored hand-feeding. These animals have become reliant on tourist-supplied bananas, and now that this practice has been greatly reduced, they are suffering from as yet undiagnosed, but probably diet-related maladies that include weight loss and patchy fur. In contrast, their siblings who live exclusively in the forest are in excellent condition.
Acknowledged lemur expert, Alison Jolly, who has studied these animals closely for decades believes a strict rationing of bananas could bridge the gap between visitor satisfaction and interference in this case. Experts are, however, unanimous in their verdict that no supplementary feeding should take place in the forest.
This debate aside, any guest at Berenty is sure to be delighted with simple observation of these exquisite animals. In late afternoon, small bands of White Sifakas skip merrily across the open ground between trees in a curious upright fashion that is a distinct visual highlight. These attractive, if sometimes ungainly, creatures are completely disinterested in tourist offered food, preferring instead their usual diet of leaves, buds and flowers.