Farewell Madagascar …

There is this awful sense that if you don’t see it soon you won’t see it at all. Madagascar, a crucible of evolution in isolation, is losing its distinct suite of habitats. Virtually every lemur species is endangered.
Threats to Madagascar’s biodiversity and ecosystems
  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction.
  2. Agricultural fires.
  3. Erosion and soil degradation.
  4. Overexploitation of living resources including hunting and over-collection of species from the wild.
  5. Introduction of alien species.

You can read all about it at wildmadagascar.org

How did it come to this?

The industrial revolution has hardly touched this place. At every turn you see people at work, not machines at work. People dig fields with shovels, not tractors. They carry or pull their loads. They make crushed rock by taking a hammer and cold chisel to large chunks of granite.

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The majority of homes are not connected to an electricity supply.

When it comes to their carbon footprint the Malagasy lead exemplary lives. Their environment is going to hell in a handcart.

It is worth noting that the main source of cooking fuel is charcoal. That’s what the guy has on his back in the sack capped with grass to stop it falling out. That’s what the wood in the photo below is destined to become. The two men have dragged the three wheel cart up the hill. The journey down is gravity assisted and not without hazard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACharcoal is a renewable.

The European Union gives its blessing to burning an American forest in one of England’s power stations. Renewable … but it would require the consumption of the entirety of British forests to keep it going and it would not be renewed in our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Conservation is the privilege of affluent nations. For poor nations survival is the only priority. Energy poverty is not the saviour of our world.

Birds of Madagascar …

Travel without a purpose entails all the hassle, expense, risk and inconvenience as travel directed at some specific end. The results though are a matter of chance. Here, on my country estate in the goldfields region of Victoria, Australia, the nearest neighbours to my south have just returned from a tour of British farms. They found the chance to compare their own farming with agriculture in a place where it rains fascinating. We had a chat about it all yesterday and they were radiant in the telling of their story.

My principal reason for travel is birdwatching. Trip accounts from birdwatchers can easily turn into a series of lists. I try to avoid that, although if I’d had succumbed to that on this trip the lists would have been mercifully brief. Seventeen days in Madagascar produced a list of just 85 species, the busiest day was 31 species, most days were less than 20. A single day out in Victoria would turn up more than the entire trip.

The paucity versus other tropical sites is worth some thought. The way to ratchet up the numbers is to visit as many habitats as you can. We did that. Forests of various types, mangroves, agricultural areas, wetlands, seashore, higher altitude, mid-altitude and sea-level. Madagascar’s long isolation will have played a role. Islands tend to have a subset of the birds of the nearest continent. Africa is extremely rich but its contribution to Madagascar is quite small (the prevailing wind is from the east). The total list for Madagascar is not much more than 250 species, some 115 are endemic. Five bird families are found nowhere else.

Nor was it a case of beating a handful of common species off with a stick. The population density was low. For a tropical destination birds were surprisingly scarce.

My best guess is that this is due to competition from those pesky mammals. The lemurs can reach every inch of the trees all the way to the outermost leaves and they work in shifts 24 hours of the day. They must take a good part of the available resource.

Here are a few examples of what is on offer.

A male Madagascar Magpie-robin.

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A male Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher.

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A Common Sunbird-Asity.

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Madagascar Scops Owl.

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Dimorphic Egret, the grey form is more common at the coast, the white form more common inland.

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CrestedCoua.

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Blue Coua.

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Sickle-billed Vanga.

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Madagascar Kingfisher.

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Madagascar Fish Eagle.

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Lemur …

Lemurs are our very distant relatives although you would have to climb a very long way up our family trees before you found our last shared ancestor perhaps about 65 million years ago. That is when the Haplorhini and the Strepsirrhini went their separate ways. You and I, the monkeys and the apes are haplorhine.

Not too long after that the ancestors of today’s Lemurs made their split with the ancestors of the other Strepsirrhini, the Lorises and Galagos, by the not so simple means of migrating to Madagascar. That was somewhere in the vicinity of 60 million years ago. Madagascar was already an island having split from Africa about 100 million years  prior and from India about 30 million years prior. (There is, incidentally, a nice animation of the breakup of Gondwana <HERE> . You can drag the pointer through time and take in the break up at your own pace).

Nowadays such a journey would mean swimming, against the current, at least 560 km from Mozambique. 60 million years ago Africa and Madagascar were just as far apart but further south and ocean currents were likely to have been more favourable to animals washed out to sea on a raft of floating vegetation. Representatives of only five orders of terrestrial mammals established populations in Madagascar so it can’t have been too easy. It is considered most likely that the arrival of just one raft load gave rise to all the various lemurs.

The taxonomy is, of course, in a state of utter chaos. In 1994 there were 33 species, by 2008 there were about 100. DNA analysis is finding splits especially in the nocturnal species where the outward appearance is fairly uniform. I filched the version below from Wikipedia and modified it slightly …

The extant Lemurs comprise five families (and there are three extinct families)

  • Family:Daubentoniidae: aye-aye
    • Genus: Daubentonia (1 extant species, 1 extinct species)
  • Family:Cheirogaleidae
    • Genus: Allocebus: hairy-eared dwarf lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Cheirogaleus: dwarf lemurs (6 extant species)
    • Genus: Microcebus: mouse lemurs (21 extant species)
    • Genus: Mirza: giant mouse lemurs (2 extant species)
    • Genus: Phaner: fork-marked lemurs (4 extant species)
  • Family:Indriidae
    • Genus: Avahi: woolly lemurs (9 extant species)
    • Genus: Indri: indri (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Propithecus: sifakas (9 extant species)
  • Family: Lemuridae
    • Genus: Eulemur: true lemurs (12 extant species)
    • Genus: Hapalemur: bamboo lemurs (5 extant species, 3 extant subspecies)
    • Genus: Lemur: ring-tailed lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: †Pachylemur (2 extinct species)
    • Genus: Prolemur: greater bamboo lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Varecia: ruffed lemurs (2 extant species, 3 extant subspecies)
  • Family:Lepilemuridae: sportive lemurs
    • Genus: Lepilemur (26 extant species)

I was lucky enough to see and photograph at least one representative of every family except the Daubentoniidae … the Aye-aye is very hard to find in the wild.

Family: Cheirogaleidae represented by a Mouse Lemur

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Family: Indriidae represented by the Indri

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Family: Lemuridae represented by the Common Brown Lemur

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Family: Lepilemuridae represented by the White-footed Sportive Lemur

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Lemurs have a low basal metabolic rate, as much as 20% below the values predicted for mammals of similar body mass. This may have been a trait that enabled the founding population to survive their time on the raft. It may also be as much as they can manage on their fairly energy poor diet, the larger lemurs mainly subsist on leaves, the smaller ones mainly on fruit. Various behaviours such as huddling and opening themselves to the morning sun serve to increase their body temperature …

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Nonetheless they are extremely agile and athletic. When Sifakas cross open ground they do so by bounding on their hind legs and are likely to finish the journey by bounding well up the trunk of the tree they are heading for.

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And if the trees are close together why not fly?

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An Australian is inclined to compare a lemur with the Koala, similarly arboreal, similar diet but one a gymnast and the other a couch potato. Why? The quick answer is the Fosa (pronounced Foossa – long O soft S). This is Madagascar’s largest carnivore, it is somewhat catlike but with a longer body. It will climb trees and it does take lemurs. Thus they need the agility to evade predation.

There is a major flaw in this argument. The DNA studies show that the Aye-aye split from the other lemurs early after colonisation. The radiation that brought about the diverse forms seen today occurred between 42 million years ago and 30 million years ago. Madagascar was without mammalian predators until about 20 million years ago. The Fosa may have sharpened their skills but the skill set existed for more than 10 million years before the Fosa arrived.

A bird’s eye view …

Anjajavy, a luxurious hotel in a spectacular setting, was the ideal place to finish a tour of Madagascar.

From there it was back into the Cessna Caravan for the flight to Antananarivo and the farewell Madagascar by South African Airlines to Johannesburg.

The two trips across country in the Cessna gave opportunities for some aerial photography …

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Starting from the west coast in the vicinity of Anjajavy.  Then leaving the coastal strip and climbing onto the central plateau.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApproaching Antananarivo

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In the last view we are looking almost exactly due south across the Ivato Airport, Antananarivo. In Google maps the tower behind the terminal is shown as the Sheraton Hotel, but a quick search of Antananarivo Hotels will not turn up a Sheraton. To the immediate right of the tower is the Madagascar International Conference Center built in 2008 for the African Union summit which was to be held in Madagascar the following year. The hotel was to have housed the visiting dignitaries. The 2009 coup put an end to Madagascar hosting the summit. The extravagant facilities have had very little use.

Cuvier’s Oplure …

The Anjajavy webpage burbles thus …

The forest sheltering rosewoods and baobabs is home to many animal species such as the famous Verreau lemur (Coquerel’s Sifaka), birds of paradise, the chameleon, the Cuvier oplure (a type of iguana)…

The range of Verraux’s Sifaka brings it nowhere near Anjajvy. It is reasonable to suppose that Coquerel’s Sifaka was inserted as a correction. The nearest bird of paradise is on an entirely different island – New Guinea, but considerable licence has to be allowed when dealing with common names. But what to make of the Cuvier Oplure? A google search turned up 358 results most of which bore a striking similarity to each other, this creature has an entirely new mode of reproduction, not sexual, not parthenogenesis but by an asexual means known as cut and paste.

In Madagascar Wildlife a Visitors Guide from Bradt Guides we find that “The presence of iguanids (family Iguanidae) is unexpected as the stronghold of the group is Central and South America“. There are no iguanas in Africa, nor have any fossils turned up there. The Madagascan representatives, seven species in two genera, were included in the Iguanidae on morphological grounds. DNA sequencing has opened up a whole new approach to working out patterns of descent and relationship and, as a result, taxonomy is undergoing considerable revision. The Madagascans now get a family of their own, the Opluridae. The genetic distance between them and the Iguanidae indicates that they shared a common ancestor well before the break up of Gondwana. It is likely that they rafted to their present position on Madagascar the Ark rather than by swimming.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was to all intents and purposes the founder of modern vertebrate paleontology, the guy who demonstrated the reality of extinction by the careful comparison of fossil forms with modern animals and was the first to describe a number of Iguanid taxa. He thoroughly deserves to be remembered in the name of a reptile and so I present to you Cuvier’s Oplure, Oplurus cuvieri

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Or in English English (and as we have seen, not quite accurately) the Black-collared Iguana. It may be found on the ground or climbing trees and is common around Anjajavy.

Anjajavy …

No roads lead to Anjajavy. It  sits on a peninsula that is not connected by road to the main highway system. We flew in …

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… this time by charter plane, the redoubtable Cessna Caravan, a splendid aircraft that will carry 10 to 12 people and a sensible amount of luggage about 1000 nm at 185 knots. It will make do with a fairly short dirt strip. There is only one engine and the undercarriage is fixed. Ideal for this sort of work. (Although if you’re thinking of buying one you should also consider this alternative). A short drive brings you to paradise.

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The hotel is set in gardens and looks out onto the sea, it is surrounded by native forest on a limestone landscape. Not far away there are mangroves. Coquerel’s Sifaka and Common Brown Lemurs roam the grounds. Cuvier’s oplure peeks at you through the cracks in the boardwalk (and from every webpage – if you want a good example of how far nonsense can be spread by cut and paste just google “Cuvier’s oplure” … I will demystify this creature in a post of its own).

The accommodation units are beautiful and comfortable. Anjajavy l’Hotel boasts membership of Relais et Chateaux.

The food is French and the waiters are not, what could be better than that?

Go boating, fishing, snorkelling, walking, caving, botanising, birding and take afternoon tea with the lemurs.

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When we arrived the Maître de Maison, Cédric de Foucault gave us a warm welcome and brief introduction. The impact of the place was such that when, at the end of his speech, he asked “Any questions?” the one that sprang to mind was “How much do you want for the place?”

The American Embassy …

Back again to Antananarivo and our last night in the Hotel Colbert.

We had become quite familiar with the journey from airport to town and back again. It takes you past the impressive US Embassy which it is forbidden to photograph …

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Not to worry you can find some nice ones online, this one is from <HERE> where you will also find a map courtesy of Google.

There are a couple more here … http://diplomacy.state.gov/discoverdiplomacy/explorer/places/195861.htm