Comfortable boots, insect repellent, and a love of adventure are three things you don’t want to be without in Madagascar. This I learned while tracking wildlife through the forests of this lush, mountainous, underdeveloped island nation some 250 miles off the eastern coast of Africa. Because of its geographic isolation, Madagascar is a kind of time capsule. Ninety-eight percent of the land mammals and nearly 70 percent of the plants are native to its ecosystem, making the island, as the 18th-century French botanist Philibert Commerson dubbed it, “the naturalist’s promised land.”
No, there aren’t any penguins, surely dashing the expectations of millions of kids who associate Madagascar with the popular 2005 animated movie. But this is the only place on earth (along with a few nearby islands) where you find lemurs in the wild. Predominantly tree-dwelling primates with bulging eyes and often long tails, these shy creatures are also pretty adorable. There are 100 species and subspecies here, ranging from the tiny brown mouse lemur to the black-and-white, long-legged indri, which can exceed two feet in length and is known for its heart-stoppingly beautiful song, which echoes through the morning air.
It was for the lemurs that I traveled to Madagascar in December with my companion, Alexis Rockman, a painter who has spent his career exploring man’s relationship with nature. Here on the world’s fourth-largest island, the environment is being severely tested by a fast-growing human population, a history of slash-and-burn agriculture, aggressive mining, and often illegal logging of precious hardwoods. All these factors—exacerbated by last year’s presidential coup, which resulted in a loss of foreign aid and worsening economic conditions—are contributing to the destruction of lemur habitats. And the animals are disappearing at alarming rates.
So it was with a sense of urgency that Penelope Bodry-Sanders, founder of the Lemur Conservation Foundation in Myakka City, Florida, invited us to join her on a 12-day journey through Madagascar’s forests. She hoped the trip would inspire Alexis to make a painting for the foundation to help raise awareness about the threats facing lemurs. Our itinerary took us through three rainforests, allowing us to witness an amazing diversity of wildlife. Along the way, Alexis documented our journey in photographs and sketches, which he used to create the watercolors presented here.
Our first destination was the massif of Marojejy, a 150,000-acre national park in northeastern Madagascar graced with spectacular peaks and waterfalls. Reached after a grueling four-hour hike from the park entrance, our camp consisted of a few cabins with bunk beds, a picnic table, a shared latrine with a toilet that didn’t always flush, and a spigot with a bucket for a shower. But it was here that we had our first up-close encounter with the silky sifaka, a species of lemur nicknamed “the angel of the forest” and one of the world’s most endangered primates.
Later, in Tampolo, a protected area along Madagascar’s eastern coast, we took night walks by flashlight to see nocturnal species such as the mouse and dwarf lemurs and the larger avahi. Local Malagasy elders took us to a village school and to their ancestral tombs near the sea, providing an unforgettable glimpse of their culture. And at our final stop, the Analamazaotra Special Reserve in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park (a three-hour drive from the capital, Antananarivo), we were introduced to the haunting song of the indri.
But at the park’s edge, we saw a reminder of the conflicts consuming Madagascar: Just outside the protected area, a team of laborers was clear-cutting the forest to make way for a nickel mine. While the political situation remains fragile, visitors can play a stabilizing role. “Ecotourists not only provide the Malagasy people with a source of income but also bear witness to the injustices being inflicted upon the island’s wildlife,” says Bodry-Sanders. “They serve as citizen reporters to the rest of the world.”
It’s generally easiest to reach Madagascar from the United States by flying via Paris or Johannesburg. Air France and South African Airways offer flights to the capital, Antananarivo.
When organizing off-the-beaten-track excursions in Madagascar, working with a quality tour operator is essential. Explore (888-596-6377; exploreafrica.net) offers creative itineraries focusing on nature and will tailor trips for individuals. Terra Incognita Ecotours (877-463-9756; ecotours.com), run by Ged Caddick, arranges photography-focused trips.
Experts on the Ground
Guides, trackers, and cooks for hikes into Marojejy National Park can be arranged through tour operators such as Explore or through local specialist Eric Mathieu (email@example.com). Among the top guides to request are Rabary Désiré, a former chief of the Marojejy Guide Association, and Mosesy (one name only), the association’s current chief.
If you spend any nights in Antananarivo, La Varangue ($ from $90; 261-20/222-7397), a nine-room hotel decorated with colonial-era relics, has an excellent restaurant. Just outside the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, the Vakôna Forest Lodge ($ from $70; 261-20/226-2480; hotelvakona.com), with 28 well-appointed bungalows, a first-rate restaurant, a pool, a private zoo, and picturesque stone paths and bridges, offers a dose of luxury in the mountains. And though quite far from the parks discussed here, the island’s western coast has a few high-end resorts, most notably the stylish Anjajavy L’Hôtel (from $600; 33-1/4469-1503; anjajavy.com).
A full survey of Alexis Rockman’s work debuts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., from November 19 through May 8, 2011.
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