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Ring Tailed LemurGreat Leaping Lemurs!

Madagascar's tourism industry is counting on a lemur-led recovery.

Words and pics by Roderick Eime

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 remained largely undisturbed for the majority of its existence and has only felt the influence of man in the last two thousand years. In this short time, hungry humans have deforested 85% of the landmass, felled huge boabab, tamarind and ebony stands, remodelled vast tracts for agriculture and placed most of the endemic flora and fauna on the endangered and threatened lists.

Yet even as a developing country with some of the poorest people in the world, Madagascar retains a unique beauty and charm that attracts tourists, adventurers and scientists from all over the globe. But as an evolving nation still struggling to distance itself from a hectic colonial past, the population's priorities are not necessarily focussed on environmental conservation and preservation.

A healthy recovery in tourist traffic was rudely interrupted in mid-2002 by a bout of internal strife that saw bridges destroyed, roads blocked and the already delicate infrastructure further upset. That behind them, the now legitimised government can get on with resurrecting the economy and protecting the remaining, immensely valuable biodiversity.

John Cleese with Ring-Tailed Lemur (AP photo/Hans T Dahlskog) What little the world knows about Madagascar is thanks to people like Sir David Attenborough whose amazing BBC television series featured the highly engaging and animated lemurs, chameleons and birds. John Cleese's self-confessed love affair with the ring-tailed lemur also helped put these delightful creatures on the screen and in the hearts of the world.

Consequently, ask any recent or prospective visitor to Madagascar what first comes to mind and they'll almost certainly answer; "the lemurs".

Despite their cute, cuddly teddy-bear looks, lemurs are actually primates, albeit an early incarnation that pre-dates 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.

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.

White SifakaProbably the best known of these locations is Berenty Reserve near the historic southern port and tourist town of Forth 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. The reserve itself was established in 1936 as something of a concession to the burgeoning sisal industry that is responsible for over thirty thousand hectares of cleared land around Berenty. 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 WWF award for his efforts.

Despite the ample wonders elsewhere, Berenty is likely to be the highlight of any visit to Madagascar. Troupes of semi-tame Ring-Tailed Lemurs patrol the grounds around the guest bungalows in search of morsels. These usually take the form of guest proffered bananas, but there is some contention about the impact of hand feeding, so this practice is being discouraged.

SifakaOut in the forest, visitors can either wander alone on the wide paths or take a guided tour. Perched high in the tamarind trees, bands of White Sifakas look imperiously down on the clumsy bipeds straining for a look as they go about their business of selecting the juiciest leaves. A parallel species of lemur, the Sifakas aren’t much interested in humans, and who can blame them. Instead they leap and cavort amongst the branches and occasionally come down for a stroll along the path. “Stroll” is perhaps not the most accurate term; it’s more a sort of alternating sideways skip that resembles some flamboyant highland fling.

Even when one considers the myriad attractions of this vast island, Madagascar is certainly not for everybody. It takes patience, perseverance and persistence to get places, especially if you are making your own way overland. The airline, Air Madagascar, is a competent enough operation although fraught with delays and last minute rescheduling. The delightful Malagasy people are cheerful and immensely tolerant of awkward westerners, even if service standards are somewhat average by comparison. But the experiences delivered by your efforts are more than enough to compensate for any perceived hardships while your precious tourist dollars will go some way to preserving that which you have just marvelled at.

Female BrownTravel Tips:

Madagascar is best suited to open-minded travellers with an interest in nature, ecology and culture. Photographers and videographers will be in their element, so take plenty of film and tape. Be prepared for minor disruptions to travel schedules and have patience with service staff - they work at their own pace.

Fact File:

Best time to visit: May to October
Visas: Three month validity. Obtain prior to arrival.
Health: Take precautions against malaria, hepatitis and diarrhoea.
Best currency to use: Euro
Electricity: mainly European 220V standard

Getting There: Australians will need to fly via Mauritius utilising a combination of Air Mauritius, Air Austral and Air Madagascar. It can be complicated and schedules vary, so consult an experienced agent.

Getting Around: Air Madagascar operates a comprehensive internal network that is definitely the way to cover longer distances. Keep road travel to short distances as conditions vary enormously.

Travel to, and accommodation at, Berenty is best organised as part of a complete travel package, although committed independent travellers can make their own arrangements at local hotels in Fort Dauphin.

Adventure Associates organises annual group tours to Madagascar departing in September. Contact them on (+612) 9389 7466 or 1800 222 141 or visit

More travel stories

Other Web Sites: - Adventure Travel Experts - Madagascar Fauna Group - Lemur info from this site - CIA World Factbook info - Case study of deforestation in Madagascar

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