2006-01-20 / Travel

Travels in Madagascar

Part 2: Lemurs leap, chameleons don
Story and photos by Janet Ciegler

Lemurs leap from tree to tree.
Lemurs leap from tree to tree.

Lemurs are adorable, furry and cute, about the size of a cat, with large round eyes, rounded ears, long legs, and long tails. They excel in dramatically leaping from tree to tree (some can leap up to 20 feet), and can hold onto branches with either front or hind feet. Lemurs are primates, distantly related to monkeys and to humans, and are found only in Madagascar, nowhere else in the world. There are 23 species of lemurs. They may eat fruit, flowers, leaves, bark, or insects, depending on the species. Most spend all day in the treetops and can be a lot of trouble to find or photograph them.

A green, foot–long chameleon perched on a branch at eye–level was near my cabin. Its protruding eyes rotated in all directions, but otherwise it ignored us; it had been sitting on that same branch for three months, and must have found enough insects to eat without having to move! In the forest we saw several other kinds of chameleons, some as small as two inches. During a night walk with flashlights, we saw striped, cat–sized civets and a squirrel–sized ring–tailed mongoose.

Baobabs look like upside–down trees with their roots sticking up.
Baobabs look like upside–down trees with their roots sticking up. When we left the rain forest, we headed into the desert–like southwest where bare granite mountains protruded abruptly from the barren, rocky ground. Once these areas were forested with valuable rosewood, palisander, and ebony, but the trees were cut down and burned for charcoal. Now, because of the lack of trees, even less rain falls, and what soil was there has blown away. This land will never be productive again. Because much of the remaining soil is reddish like our red clay, Madagascar is known as the “red island.”

Our next destination was Isalo National Park, a wild–looking area with bare sandstone rocks eroded into dramatic shapes, and strange, spiny plants called Pachypodium growing in the rock crevices. These plants have a spiny stem (but are not related to cacti), leaves and flowers at the top, and many have a bulbous base for storage of water in this dry region.

Next, we drove through the “spiny bush” territory where octopus trees grew with long, skinny stems coming up from the base like a bunch of flowers in a vase. Each stem had tiny leaves and lots of spines. There were also baobabs with enormous trunks in weird shapes with branches only at the top that looked like upside–down trees with the roots sticking up. Baobabs do not have woody trunks but rather contain a spongy material that holds water; therefore they are not really trees but simply very large succulent plants.

Pachypodium are strange, spiny plants that grow in rock crevices.
Pachypodium are strange, spiny plants that grow in rock crevices. I had hoped to see a special pitcher plant that grows in swamps only in Madagascar and Borneo, on a vine with curled stalks supporting large, funnel–shaped pitchers. Our guide assured me we would see them. But when we arrived, the swamps had been cleared for a new town, and the pitcher plants were gone forever from that location.

A beach where there used to be three species of lemurs was our next destination, but most of the surrounding bushes had been cut down by the rapidly increasing people of the village, and no lemurs remained. We looked for birds instead.

Bare sandstone rock outcroppings abound in Isalo National Park.
Bare sandstone rock outcroppings abound in Isalo National Park. The remaining “forest” had many large baobabs, an exotic landscape. After tramping through the thorny bush all day, we were hot and tired. As we returned to our bus, someone spotted a rare bird. So off we ran, about a mile or two back through the spiny bushes, and found the bird sleeping.

It was dark when we finally returned to the bus, exhausted but happy.

(Next week: Destruction and tragedy)

Editors note: Janet Ciegler, a member of The Explorers Club, lives in West Columbia. She is a leading expert on beetles about which she has written a number of publications. Her articles are replacing Adventure Travel by Warner Montgomery who is on assignment in Africa.

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