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Lemurs were definitely on the list of animals to see before old age managed to dissuade further wildlife watching, and of course there is only one place to see this enigmatic family - Madagascar. One major problem when planning a two week (only) trip to this very large island is that they are distributed widely, and so a certain amount of planning needs to be had just to narrow down the few locations which can be covered. A known concern within the island is the amount of logging which has taken place, leaving more and more remnants only for the wildlife to live within. A close look at distribution maps for many of the species is frightening and worrying. There is a patchwork distribution for many of the 100+ species to begin with, since they do have many varied and specific habitats, with a general divide of wet and hot forests in the East, and dry in the West. The removal of the majority of the forests has further exacerbated this, leaving numerous species with remnant and localised distributions.
Another concern we had was the unstable nature of the country, specifically since the coup of 2009. Two of the main outcomes of this were the lack of control on illegal logging, which had been bad before this anyway, and the presence of some now much more dangerous areas. We checked up on the FCO website when planning, and found that this was mainly in specific locations in the South, which we would be avoiding. However, it is worth noting that the capital of Tana remains volatile, particularly at night, when apparently it is even dangerous for many of the locals to wander about.
We had an idea of where we wanted to head by looking at one or two of the travel sites. This seemed to include the Andasibe/Mantadia location as a must, and this was certainly borne out, and then to move further East to a place called Ankaniníny Nofy, staying at the Palmarium Hotel which can only be reached by boat. We enlisted the employ of Gane & Marshall, since they seemed to have a lot of experience in organising tailor made holidays, and also Madagascar "experts" in their staff. All seemed very well organised until we reached the Palmarium. Andasibe and its environs (the Andasibe Hotel was excellent in all respects, with a brilliant offering of lemurs, birds, reptiles and even insects on the doorstep) were superb, but we had left much of the description of the latter hotel to the travel company. Highlighted was the lemurs being "not tame", but in practice they had all been imported on to the island, were then free roaming, but tended mainly to hang around the accommodation, with staff enticing them down with bananas and encouraging them to "perform", with a favourite being taking food from the mouth of the guide. For various reasons, we decided to cut the holiday short, since this was not what we had paid for, and found Gane & Marshall to be sadly abrasive, with an email which stated "We have not yet put through your card payment and we will only do so on receiving email confirmation from you that you will not be seeking any refund of these flight costs". I could NOT recommend anyone to use them based on this attitude, and also not delivering on a WILDlife experience. Even worse, there were one or two interesting birds (literally) in the area, but numbered even less than the total I enjoyed when watching from the windows of Nairobi airport. A big recommendation for binoculars here by the way, the list of birds specifically seen within the airport at the end of the report is a huge bonus, and that is not to mention the Giraffe and Zebra which can be seen from the taxiing plane and the terminal (although they are in a park and can't be counted as truly wild).
Our transportation around the island was prearranged and varied. We were driven by 4x4 from Tana to Andasibe, and then to a boat dock for water transport to Ankaniníny Nofy. The 4x4 was useful, since even the main East West road was poor in places, and the driver also a benefit since some of the directions weren't easy, and with more or less non existent road signs . . ! The people we met were as one extremely helpful and friendly, with only small signs of the dreaded tipping plague! Electricity was usually available, although there was the odd outage, and the plugs were of standard European style. We were told to take Euros as currency, but did the right thing by changing to Malagasy Ariaria the morning after we landed. Best rates are supposed to be at banks in town, but we were there on a Sunday, and worst rates at the hotels. Getting used to an exchange rate of 2850 to the £GB isn't easy - even carrying around a few £'s worth looks like a fortune! Insect pests are also present, as is the threat of malaria, so prevention is necessary. Mosquitoes are more prevalent in the forests, and we did come across leaches in one part of Mantadia.
Andasibe Nocturnal Walk
The first real wildlife excursion was to be a nocturnal jaunt near to the Andasibe Hotel, but the morning journey from Tana was punctuated by a stop at a "reserve" for reptiles. This was predictably a mini zoo, but it has to be admitted that seeing chameleons at very close quarters was something of a treat. They even had a couple of snakes to keep me happy.
The real business began with the nocturnal walk - an hour or so with the guide who was to be with us for the duration of our stay in this area. We were all loaded up with torches, and searched through the forest. Her skills at locating wildlife were excellent, shown by the first find of a tiny Short-horned Chameleon perched at the end of a branch over the path. This was quickly followed by a Boophis Tree Frog, and then the small and nippy Goodman's Mouse Lemur. Picked up by eye shine, it was difficult to pin down at first, but then was followed as it zipped up and down tree trunks. Another Chameleon, a Nose-horned, followed shortly after, pale in colour for evening wear and with tail tucked in a tight spiral. A second species of Tree Frog was also found, although a calling Madagascar Scops Owl was just too far into the depth of the forest for any hope of a view. Aside from the wildlife, the still in the air, apart from the sounds of some of the nocturnal inhabitants, such as Scops Owl, was noticeable, and the number of stars in the light free sky seemed so many more than back home.
The whole of the morning and almost a couple of hours into the afternoon were all about the lemurs in the Andasibe reserve. Even as we were climbing out of the car, distant Indri could be heard over the sound of the chatter and engines. Quite a few tourist groups were assembled at the entrance, but most of the time we managed to avoid them in the forest - apart from at the occasional "lemur jam". There are three trails in the park, lasting 2, 3 and 4 hours, and our guide told us we were going to follow the latter. Excellent! The initial format seemed to be to follow the decent built trails, but much of the walking then went off piste into the thicker forest, albeit on feint trails. Three species of lemur were seen during the morning, of a potential 6 diurnal ones in the park. Not a bad return!
Indri were heard regularly, and often sounded close, although the sound is loud and carries far in the forest. The beauty of searching for these is that they have small well defined territories, so can be located by the guides, who are essential in the park, quite easily. We were shown to both of the groups which were allowed to be found (many others are off limits for conservation reasons). The first were right over our heads on a decent trail, and lounged for some time quite contentedly. Then for some reason they started to call - this was as loud as a claxon - seriously! We watched them for some time, along with a group of mixed lemur watchers, before we were ushered by our guide to find the other group. A deal of wading through denser vegetation ensued, but was well worth the effort, with a group of 4 adults and a playful youngster, which didn't stray far from mother.
By the time we saw the Indri, we had already chalked up two other species of lemur. The Grey Bamboo Lemur was not far along the track from the entrance, and in a dense bamboo thicket beside the track. It took some time to get good views, but was worth the effort. A pair of Red-bellied Lemurs had to be worked for. They were down a muddy trail in the forest, and above us in thicker canopy. One was glimpsed regularly for some time, before the pair were located and seen snuggling up for a kip.
Birds were seen at regular intervals, the main obstacle being the thick vegetation. A pair of mating Coucals, Blue Pigeons at the top of trees, and a Turtle Dove on the track were early and easy. Later in the morning, a mixed flock of Paradise Flycatchers, Red-tailed Vanga, and White-eyes were in the lower trees around us. Harder birds to pin down were Blue Coua flying through, Spectacled Tetraka and 2 separate Common Newtonias keeping to the foliage, and a Blue Vanga showing briefly but well. Thankfully, at the end of the walk, Souimanga Sunbird and Crested Drongo were much easier. In addition to the birds, our guide pointed out some incredible Giraffe-necked Weevils on their favourite type of tree, and a nocturnal Tree Boa lazing beside a wall.
After a well earned lunch at a restaurant overlooking the river, we were taken to Lemur Island, which is a private "reserve" owned by the Vakona Lodge, the usual accommodation for tour groups visiting the area. I am usually very anti any captive animals, and this visit had been laid on by the tour company, but I stretched this for our visit, since the animals present had once been captive in homes across the island, and then shipped here, where they roam free on a small water locked enclave. While still not free in the true sense of the word, the small group of mixed Lemurs (we saw Black and White Ruffed, Grey Bamboo, Red-fronted and Common Brown), were not only apparently content with their lot, but you had to question who was playing with who as they voluntarily clambered over various types of foreigner eager to take their souvenir pics (ok, a couple also snapped by yours truly, but only because the Lemurs made me!). If you can put up with a group of tourists cooing and salivating over some conversely terrific animals up close for an hour or so, it's not such a bad place should your itinerary bring you here, although it adds nothing to the wild experience we were after for the most of the trip.
The second nocturnal walk seemed at first to potentially look much poorer than the previous evening. It was to be along the main road, which was busy with traffic, and also busy with quite a few tour groups intent on the same idea as us. However, the flip side of many eyes worked, with an even better array of wildlife than the previous evevning. Three species of lemur were spotted, with a Hairy-eared Dwarf Lemur busily scurring amongst fruits, preceding a much more somnolescent and obliging Goodman's Mouse Lemur. A trio of Eastern Woolly Lemurs, one carrying a baby, were darting around further along the road, with a second Hairy-eared Dwarf Lemur in tow.
Only one chameleon tonight, another Nose-horned, but pride of place amongst the reptiles was a Malagasy Cat Snake, showing off its arboreal prowess in the same tree. Green tree frogs were again present and numerous, with a couple of stick insects and one or two other insects for backing to the show.
Just when you thought you had had the best day for wildlife the day before - granted it was the first day with no yardstick for comparison - along comes another one to challenge the notion. The second of the two full days in the Andasibe area was planned to be a morning at Mantadia. This is a huge reserve, dwarfing Andasibe by many fold. It is also more difficult to see the wildlife here, due to the size and spread of the groups. The drive from Andasibe takes well over an hour, due in whole to the very rough road linking the two. We were lucky to be in a 4x4, which soaked up some of the ruts. When we arrived at the entrance, there were a couple of mini buses pulled up alongside deep mud with a job on of turning. The "facilities" are also interesting, consisting of no more than a hole in the wall for a toilet surrounded by three walls and a roof. No door of course.
There are some well laid out tracks to follow from here, but as with yesterday, some of the wildlife had to be searched for off piste. The forest is fairly thick, but not impenetrable, which leads to some interesting detours. Things started well, after finally pinning down a Cuckoo-roller through a window in the canopy, and a Tylas Vanga while waiting for the guide to return from searching for a nightjar. Thus led to a small climb and the reward of a small group of Common Brown Lemurs. They were unperturbed by our presence, feeding peacefully on the trees in front of us.
We descended back down to the main track, with the guide hoping for a glimpse of Sifakas. These are also quite difficult to track down, but progress was good with various good birds in the menu. A Pygmy Kingfisher was at eye height for some time over the main track, and a short diversion found a stunning Blue Coua. The only real bird party we came across was predictably led by White-eyes, but added Paradise-flycatchers and a couple of Nuthatch Vangas which had been missed yesterday. A white male Paradise-flycatcher was seen much later in the morning. Before reaching an open track and direct sunlight, a small group of Lesser Vasa Parrots was generally very approachable. The open track passed almost hidden Brush Warblers in the undergrowth, and ended at a small pool, which had a pair of Madagascar Grebes at the rear. A single Common Brown Lemur was in trees to the side, and Madagascar Spine-tailed Swifts and single Madagascar Bee-eater over head.
Returning to the forest was a brilliant move. We should have been heading for the vehicle by now, but we then came across another guide who had seen Sifaka further down the tracks. Passing a Blue Vanga on the way, we went up smaller tracks and were lucky enough to find the small group of 8 Diademed Sifakas. We were the only observers in the half an hour or so that we followed them in the forest, even coming across our first few leaches. A dose of 50% deet soon sorted them out! The Sifakas entertained throughout, including a very young baby trying its climbing skills. They were often either just above us or only metres away. A real treat.
The return to the vehicle found a few Magpie Robins, a Long-billed Bernieria, and finally a Madagascar Cuckoo which could be located finally. They had been calling regularly throughout the trek, and only poked out of the canopy this once. When near the entrance, the guide spotted a Fosa just off the track. A little too quick for me at the back, but seen briefly by my wife. She now has the stick to beat me with!
The second part of the trip was disappointing in many ways. We had an extended stay from 3 to 4 nights at the hotel, which is on the island of Ankaniníny Nofy in Lake Ampetabe, with the plan of looking for more lemurs, and some birding in the down time. The bad news was that the lemurs on the island had all been imported from elsewhere on the island, and while now free roaming on the "reserve", they were anything but the WILDlife we were looking for. It was so bad that the staff would coerce them down with bananas, and even on to people's shoulders and arms. In addition, the close community of different species, which would normally occupy different habitats and usually not meet, had even interbred to form hybrids. Pretty, but not natural. For anyone who wants down time with some touchable lemurs thrown in, this would be as well accepted as with the tourists around who seemed to lap it up.
Some birding should have compensated to a degree, but was also disappointing. The hotel is backed by a small and fairly thick forest, with some more open land once out of the tree boundary. There were some birds present, but not in the numbers which could have been expected. The most common species by sight and sound was Sourimanga Sunbird, with lesser numbers of Madagascar Bulbul. Outside of these, birds were hard to come by. Madagascar Coucals could often be heard, but were seen only once when venturing beyond the forest. 2 separate Crested Coucals were seen well, one in the vicinity of the accommodation, the other within the forest. Separate Madagascar Green Sunbirds were seen on the last morning, but pride of place for experience must go to the France's Sparrowhawk. It was spotted by one of the staff who saw it land on a branch to take a chameleon almost above us. It was hanging upside down in the air for some time, with one foot grasping the stricken reptile, with the prey clinging on to the branch. Once standing, the tugging and probing with the hooked beak went on for several minutes, before the bird flew off with its prize.
The exit from here was by boat, on a 3 hour long journey across the lake to Tamatave. This was on both open water and through channels. There were surprisingly few water birds during the whole journey, with only Madagascar Bee-eaters and Crested Drongos for much of the way. Nearing Tamatave, there were many more channels, with the additional bonus of 6 Madagascar Kingfishers perched occasionally. An even bigger surprise was the sound of Madagascar Nightjars around the airport, with one on the ground in front of the perimeter fence.