One of the great paradoxes of life is the fact that I’m passionate about protecting the natural environment, yet I get bored of viewing wildlife very quickly. Give someone a camera with a telescopic lens and they immediately believe they are on a National Geographic assignment, frantically papping away at anything that moves and then cursing the thing for moving while trying to get that perfect shot. I myself enjoy grabbing a good photo but there are only so many pictures of a lemur sitting in a tree that I need, and unfortunately many of these may have been taken in a wildlife refuge. Call me old fashioned but travelling in environments that are full of nature and untouched by humankind is where I take my joy even if it is becoming increasingly rare these days. For instance, wildlife parks in East Africa are barely more than an oversized refuge these days that require a huge amount of human management. We all know Madagascar is unique with a staggering 90% of everything in the country appearing nowhere else on earth and accountable for 5% of all known species on the planet. It is the fourth or fifth largest island in the world (depending how you wish to class Australia) and is split into surprisingly varied climatic zones ranging from tropical forest, highland mountains and plateaus, savannah, desert, mangroves, and some of the best beaches anywhere. The dry forests of Madagascar have been cleared. All of it. For agriculture, firewood and construction materials. The remaining forests will be gone within 40 years should the current rate of deforestation persist, with 80% of all of the country’s natural areas already lost. These figures are terrifying but need to be taken in context with humanitarian issues as discussed in the previous blog.
My current trip to Madagascar was definitely one to savour the remaining parks and wildlife and it’s surprising how easy it is to see a lot of animals, even for a novice like myself. However, these parks are nothing more than tiny islands of hope in an otherwise barren land. Ranomafana National Park lies to the southeast of the country and is officially 41,000ha in size which sounds impressive until you realise that many corporate farms around the world dwarf this figure. Getting to the park involves driving through endless hectares of farmland, largely paddy fields as Madagascar is the world’s biggest consumer of rice per capita. Trees come at a premium, and where they do stand there will usually be the rising smoke from the production of charcoal which is an essential fuel for the locals. Entering Ranomafana is abrupt with tropical rainforest appearing from nowhere and mountain peaks towering over the magnificent river that descends the valley through impressive waterfalls. But blink and you will miss it as patches of deforestation soon appear on the far side of the reserve as the local town is approached and before long normal service is resumed. The park itself, set up in 1991 is a beauty. The trails require a little effort which is always a good sign and the guides were not afraid to hack through the forest in order to view an animal of some kind. People get upset hacking through forest but often fail to realise it grows back almost immediately and soon forget when they see a cuddly lemur in a tree, and lemurs we did see. Lemurs are worth the hype. The noise they make is hilarious, like a little pig hunting for truffles. Don’t ask me what flavour I saw in this particular park but getting to see a mouse lemur jumping around the branches on a night walk was a definite highlight. What you are imaging is correct, a tiny lemur the size of a mouse, maybe nearer to the size of a rat but rat lemur doesn’t really have the same ring to it and there is no doubting that the mouse lemur is a cute little bugger. Chameleons are another speciality in Madagascar and they too were in plentiful supply along with the giraffe weevil and a variety of birds, frogs and fungus.
There is no doubt that when people think of lemurs, they wonder directly to the ringtail lemur as made famous by a kid’s movie although they are no more or less exciting than any other lemur. We got to see them at a tiny reserve after leaving the nice but typically crazy town of Fianarantsoa. The reserve was no more than a block of trees under a huge granite rock formation which was impressive yet surrounded by agricultural land. In fact, the reserve is only 30ha and it is quite remarkable that anything lives there at all but ringtail lemurs do thanks to a programme set up to encourage locals to take care of the lemurs and their reserve in return for tourism income. It’s a good job because the ringtail lemur population has decreased by 95% in the last 20 years and 103 of 107 species of lemur are threatened with extinction. I did say that the ringtail lemur wasn’t any more exciting than others, but I have to admit they are amusing and that is probably due to the fact they spend a lot more time on the ground and are easier to watch. The ones we saw were also relatively unafraid of humans and didn’t hesitate to sit on rocks with their genitals on full show as excited photographers filled up their memory cards.
Isalo National Park sits in the centre of the southern part of Madagascar and is worth a shout simply because of its uniqueness. Once again created for the benefit of the local population as much as for the protection of the environment and wildlife, Isalo is a huge rocky landscape crafted not from the granite that we were used to seeing in the central highlands but sandstone. Within the sandstone cliffs were caves that were used for burial rituals by the local people. This and the fact that it was useless for anything else such as farming made it easy to protect as a national park. The climate had also changed to what we were accustomed to in the east. Suddenly we were in an area where it hadn’t rained for months and the days were hot and the sky cloudless. The park was a semi-arid wilderness with scorpions hiding under rocks and little bushes that resembled miniature baobab trees. A small river had carved a valley down into the sandstone that treated us to a little oasis of bloody cold water that we could take a dip in. Lunch was had at a little campsite as lemurs looked on in anticipation awaiting a chance to steal anything edible that lay unguarded. This was my kind of hike, almost void of people, vast, hot, scenery forever changing, beautiful natural pools to cool off in, a bit of wildlife, it was all quite stunning. What’s more, once we thought the sun had set and finished for the day, the sky suddenly filled with a fierce blend of purple, orange and red that lasted for maybe an hour after the sun had disappeared. This was only then replaced with the stunning Milky Way overhead. Before arriving at Isalo, we had driven through a vast plain that was largely grassland but also exhibited signs of largescale agriculture with huge fields of corn stubble awaiting to be reseeded. This was also a land where zebu cattle ruled and that the local people were dependent on. There were no three-story mud brick houses here, just small single story mud huts. Where water came from, I have no idea. Leaving Isalo and heading further south west we were met with even harsher conditions as the grasslands gave away to nothing but scrubland for as far as the eye could see. How anyone could live there was a mystery to me, but small settlements were everywhere. It was here that we began to see a few baobabs. How many used to be here I dare not think of and baobabs have a unique ability to raise empathy within an onlooker thanks to their haunting and often lonely appearance within the landscape. They look like trees from another time, a time that no longer exists, yet they stubbornly hang on because after all, why shouldn’t they? With only 20% of Madagascar’s natural environment remaining, it is the sight of a baobab that perfectly encapsulates the country’s plight.