Madagascar: Leaping Lemurs!

After three amazing weeks in Madagascar, I am still processing everything I saw and learned.  It was a fantastic experience, although I know that I just scraped the surface of this mighty island in the few weeks that I was there.

As this blog is one where I reflect on past travels, it feels a little soon to be writing about my adventures – so I decided to just post some photos (some of many, many photos which I took!) of wonderful lemurs to enjoy.

And sifaka.

And indri.

Despite having a huge amount of photos of lemurs to sift through, I realised that I had watched them more often than photographed them.  Often they were high in the canopy, shadowed by leaves, or with the sun ‘in the wrong place’.  And they can move really fast!  I have many blurred images, and several where I wonder if there is indeed some cute furry critter lurking in amongst the greenery.

I spent a lot of time in Madagascar with the condition which I named ‘lemur neck’, brought on by craning my head back as far as physically possible to watch some far-leaping energetic lemur make its way through the trees above.  But a sore neck was a small price to pay for such close contact.

Depending on what you read, lemurs were first named as such by a Swedish zoologist in 1758.  The name comes from the Latin lemures, which refers to a restless spirit of the dead – perhaps that’s what they seemed to be to the visiting Europeans who first glimpsed them in the treetops.  found only in Madagascar, there are many different types of lemur (the experts seem unable to agree on the number – in fact, they seem to agree on very little about these amazing creatures) and I count myself fortunate having seen perhaps a dozen or so of these.

Prior to this, my main knowledge of lemurs came from my childhood watching the BBC TV programme Animal Magic, where the presenter, Johnny Morris, often carried a ring-tailed lemur around on his shoulder.  She was called Dotty, and was, for me, exactly what a lemur should look like.

The smallest is the mouse lemur, and the largest is the magnificent indri.  A giant lemur, the size of a gorilla, became extinct around 1700 years ago, as have several other lemurs, including the mythical-sounding sloth lemur.

Lemurs are under threat from a number of sources.  With an increasing population, requiring more land for agriculture, the native forests are being cut down.  As humans encroach further into these forests and wild places, the numbers of lemur become fewer, particularly those (such as the golden bamboo lemur) which require a very specific diet.

The main predators are the fossa, also unique to Madagascar, and raptors, but killing lemurs for bushmeat is also a problem, and seems to be poorly policed.

Lemurs are primates, in the suborder strepsirrhini, which includes bush babies, but their tails are not prehensile, but rather seem to offer balance as they make improbable leaps between whippy branches, and hang upside down to reach that delicate morsel of food.

Some lemurs eat insects and small invertebrates, whilst others are wholly vegan.  There are nocturnal ones which doze in tree holes and crevices during the day, and diurnal ones which are active in daylight.  They also sing and dance!

This wee cutie is a greater bamboo lemur, which I saw in Ranomafana National Park. I also saw the rare and endangered golden bamboo lemur, but due to being in the rainforest, photographs were too dark.  The clue to the main source of their diet is in their name.

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Greater Bamboo Lemur

In a more northerly rainforest, Andasibe, lives a close cousin, the eastern bamboo lemur, who were much more keen on posing for me.

The most ubiquitous and boldest of the lemurs I came across was the brown lemur.  In a couple of locations, they were so obviously used to humans that they wandered round us quite casually, even touching or jumping on people.

This particular brown lemur tried to disguise himself with a false moustache as he plotted some mischief.

When I finally saw Dotty’s cousins in the wild, at Isalo National Park, I was so excited to finally encounter one of the heroines of my childhood.  Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups, and sometimes all I could see were stripy tails hanging from trees like the bell pulls on church bells.

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But I was slightly freaked out to find this one glaring at me…  What was he plotting?

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We disturbed a couple of nocturnal lemurs during the day as they snoozed in holes in trees.  Both of these are sportive lemurs – James and the small-tooth.  The term ‘sportive’ apparently reflects how acrobatic and active them are during the night.  Both of these little furries just looked sleepy and slightly outraged at being disturbed.

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James Sportive Lemur

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The tiniest lemur, the nocturnal mouse lemur, obligingly posed surrounded by pink flowers, looking impossibly cute.

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One of the larger of the lemurs, the black and white ruffed, demonstrated just how acrobatic they can be.

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Look! No hands!

The sifaka is a member of the lemur family, but is much larger with a hairless face, with a tail which is as long as its body.  They also live in families, and leap great distances above in the canopy.

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Milne-Edward’s Sifaka
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Verreaux’s Sifaka

These pale lemurs were like ghosts in the trees, their huge eyes seeming to see things which I could not.

The largest lemur of all is the wonderful indri.  Described by the Lonely Planet as “a four year old child in a panda suit”, they hold a mythical place in Madagascar folklore.  Known locally as Babakoto (which seems to mean ‘father of a little boy’), it is seen as back luck to kill one as they are seen to be one of our ancestors.  One of the most magical things about these large lemurs is their song.  Each day, the indri sing to each other, communicating in elaborate hooting songs, which rise and fall through the forest.  The first time I heard it, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end – it was like whale song of the forest.  (Go to the Facebook page for this blog to hear it).

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I felt very fortunate to have seen and spent a little time watching and listening to this endangered and unique creature.

However, I had a much closer (and much more silly) contact with a brown lemur on an island in a private reserve.  Lured by some banana, this one set about using me as a platform to demonstrate his party tricks.  He was so soft, warm and fluffy – just like he looks – but his feet were absolutely freezing!  Animal magic indeed.

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