Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Practical

Seeing a mouse lemur in the wild was one of my hopes and goals when I went to Madagascar. While I did see about four of them, I didn't get photos of any of them as they are nocturnal and very fast moving. The photo above is of a mouse lemur, but was taken at the Lemur Park, so it is not a wild mouse lemur. I did see them in the wild scampering about the trees, and they would pause long enough for a look at their unbelievable cuteness, but then they were off. As I wandered around both the rainforest and the spiny forest at night looking for them, avoiding branches, and trying not to wear down my flashlight batteries by using it, I wondered at times if I truly was crazy to travel the world in search of rare and endangered animals. But, when I saw the leaf tailed geckos and the mouse lemur and the other nocturnal species, there was no question it was all worth it. I have to admit though, in my other travels in Africa, walking at night though the forest would be a really dumb idea. In Madagascar, with no lions, leopards, hyenas, elephants to startle, etc., it is safe by comparison.

The other photo is of a zebu cart. The poor zebu truly are beasts of burden. I saw them kicked in the gut from behind, and beaten horribly. Most have punctured noses with very rough sisal rope through the delicate nose, as a means of controlling and harnessing the animal. They are often starving or have little to no water, and they pull carts all over Madagascar. Instead of valuing these animals for all they provide - meat, milk, transportation, a monetary asset/trade good, etc., the people seem to view them as things, and things which do not need to be treated well in any respect. Even children were mean to them. It was heartbreaking to see them and their conditions.

The people in Madagascar are so desperate for the basics and so focused on survival, they have no compassion, towards their fellow man or fellow animals. Although I have seen very poor tribes and people in mainland Africa, I never got the same sense of desperation or of lack of compassion. In part, perhaps it comes from the desperation of being born on an island you can never get off of. All the resources you are ever going to have are there, and they are scant. It is little surprise after meeting them that the Malagasy on the whole have no interest in conservation, the environment or species protection. They are far more concerned with creating a boat from a tree, a meal from an animal, or an advantage from absolutely anything they can.

It used to be that everywhere you went in Madagascar people would yell "Vazha!" which means foreigner. I only encountered this a few times, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. But, usually when traveling I am asked about my own home and country. No one in Madagascar seemed at all interested in learning about anywhere else. And, if you knew you could never go there, perhaps you wouldn't want to know what was out there.

On the practical side, if you do decide to visit Madagascar, you have a weight limit for domestic flights which is strict: 11lbs for carry-on and 44lbs for checked baggage. I took a sleeping bag, Thermarest, and mosquito net...all useful, though I recommend a light sleeping bag as it is HOT. Obviously a good first aid kit, including Cipro, Oral Rehydration Salts, Immodium, anti-malarials, anti-inflammatories, antihistamine cream, anti-fungal cream, antibiotic ointment, and over the counter medications like Benadryl in case you have an allergic reaction. Sting pads for insects are also recommended. Bring band aids and moleskin for blisters. Water purification tablets are not a bad idea either.

For bugs, I highly recommend Ultrathon, a great lotion which contains deet and works wonders. When I applied it to part of my leg I could see a clear avoidance by mosquitos of it and everywhere I neglected to apply it I was bitten. For example, one night I forgot the part of my feet covered by sandals when I was applying the Ultrathon, so I got four bites there overnight.

I love Neutrogena sunscreen as it is non-oily and doesn't feel slimy, and also dust doesn't tend to stick to it as much. Portable Charmin is a huge must as this is largely a toilet paper free country. Also, wet wipes are truly indispensable, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. I brought 3lbs of power bars and 4lbs of books and longed for more of each. The only item I didn't need to bring was my snorkel, though I would not have known that without bringing it to see there were no fish and little coral.

A headlamp and backup flashlight are essential, along with spare batteries and a spare bulb (as I learned the hard way). Plastic garbage bags and ties are needed to protect your stuff on boat rides, and bring ziplocs for all electronics. I always take the Wolverine for data storage and the digital camera with extra batteries and cards, and this is vital when there is no electricity for long periods of time to recharge. I carry a small contingency camera as well, which I did not regret, and binoculars. The night vision scope, though cool, was not worth carrying over there. The animals move too fast for it to be that useful and you can see them when they are sitting still with a flashlight as well as you can night vision scope. Also, you can't find the animals easily without the glow of their eyes in the flashlight.

A collapsible cup was something I wished I had. I brought vitamins, Emergen-C and Airborne, and took one per day, and I was very glad I did. I think that contributed to me not getting sick during the trip.

It was a grand adventure...one I am not sorry I undertook, but will likely never undertake again.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Anakao, and the End

The final stop on my trip before heading back to Antananarivo was Anakao. South of Tulear and on the west coast of Madagascar, Anakao is a nice place to relax if you aren't desperate to get off the island. I was told there was great snorkeling here - but this was not true. The coral is almost all dead and you're lucky to see a dozen fish.

I took a boat out to Nosy Ve, where I saw the endangered red-tailed tropic birds. They had chicks in the bushes - big fluffy black and white chicks. When the parents fed them, the chicks were very loud. The parents circled overhead, and it appeared they were pure white birds with yellow beaks and a red straw coming out of their tails. Apparently the birds only breed on this one island - therefore no surprise they are in trouble. Although the island is "protected" in reality it is not. There are fisherman on the island beaches. On the day I was there I saw at least 10 little boats, their owners laying in the sand or walking on the beach. One man was naked except for a T-shirt that did not cover his equipment. There were numerous piles of human excrement on the beach. There was a lot of trash, plastic, etc. strewn on the island. And, there was a domestic chicken.

How the chicken got there I don't know. There are some fire pits, so perhaps a fisherman brought the chicken for lunch and it got away. It seemed very thirsty, so I filled my snorkel mask with water three times and the chicken drank its fill. I knew it would probably be killed soon, but at least I could provide some comfort in the interim.

It was hard to enjoy snorkeling thinking about all the human excrement a few feet away on the beach...and frankly the only thing to see was a lot of sea urchins with very sharp spikes that need to be avoided at all costs.

I ate practically nothing here, and was horrified to see an enormous chunk of octopus leg on my guide's plate across the table. The vegetarian menu was rice, carrots and beans over and over again.

I rigged a mosquito net in my bungalow here that took engineering feats. I had to find a way to get a rope over a beam way too tall to reach and then devise a hook. I managed it after many tries and using some curtain rods and weights and a coat hanger.

Here I met two ENORMOUS hissing cockroaches and some giant nocturnal ants. The staff at the hotel tried to talk me out of my shoes, literally. By this point in the trip I wasn't surprised the "shower" was a bucket of salty water that I had to set in the sun to warm enough to use. I wanted desperately to get off the island. I was out of books and stuck reading a Hemingway book, the only thing I could find in English.

I'd write about the animals I saw here, if there were any...the only ones were two older rhodesian ridgebacks that belonged to the hotel owner. Sigh.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Gorgeous Place Among tthe Dust

Also in Tsimanampetsotse National Park I came across some very cool caves which collapsed, so they are like pits in the earth. Pictured here is one which has banyan tree roots growing way down into it, and shimmering aqua colored water at the bottom. This is like a green oasis in the middle of a completely dry, desert like area with no green vegetation. Overlooking this particular pit there was a parrot, also pictured, who cried out to me at great length. The parrots are black and grey - Madagascar has a lot of brightly colored things, but not parrots, apparently.

Other attractions at this park include baobab trees of various ages and types, lots of medicinal plants (all very unique), flamingos in a saline lake, and tortoises.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Madagascar's Oldest Tree

In Tsimanampetsotse National Park in southern Madagascar there is a baobab tree which is 3,000 years old. Known as "grandmother," the tree is still bearing fruit (which lo0ks like black peaches) and thriving. Grandmother is pictured here, along with a close up of her interestingly wrinkled skin. Six of the world's eight species of baobab are found in Madagascar, and many in this region of the island.

Also pictured is a blind cave fish endemic to Madagascar. The water in the cave has some salinity but the fish don't mind. The pools are small, the fish are few, and it seems very strange to have white, eyeless fish swimming in slow motion. It was a cool thing to see; if you click the fish photo it should enlarge for you to have a closer look.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Looking Ahead, and Back

I'll finish the Madagascar trip tales soon, but first, I interrupt. Although it has been a tough, tough week, I haven't felt up to writing about it at all until it has calmed down. This week, out of the blue, we almost lost Callie. She turns 5 next month.

Recovering from the shock and the emotional roller coaster will take a long time, but she is back home, and I hope she will be herself soon.

Monday night, we came home from work and Callie was fine. She had energy, she greeted us like always, she showed interest in everything as she always does. She bossed around the cats and Simon, she stole a sock to get my attention. Everything was normal.

About 7pm though, I heard her trying to get up. She couldn't get her hip under her. She couldn't stand - she tried and flopped down. Then a front leg acted like it too wouldn't work and was in a cramp. Then her head began to shake. I knew it had to be something neurological so we raced her to the emergency vet. As we sped across town, I held her in the back seat. She was scared - her eyes were wide, but focusing on me. She was trying to sit but she couldn't control her body. She tried to move and it was clear she had intention and couldn't carry it out. Her shaking became violent and I feared she wouldn't make it as far as the clinic. I didn't know if it was a seizure or what.

At first, they thought it was epilepsy and asked us to leave her overnight. Then around 2am we got a call they thought it was antifreeze poisoning and needed to give her a series of shots to have any chance of saving her. Since she was in fenced pasture all day with no access to antifreeze this seemed impossible, but of course we agreed to the treatment. We could tell from researching that if she encountered any toxin and it was in the neurological stage, her chances of survival were very small. The vet gave us 50/50 odds. All of a sudden, it seemed the world had stopped and the bottom had fallen out.

As time went on, Callie's liver and kidney functions remained good, and she had no crystals which would be expected with antifreeze consumption. Poison began to look less likely. Since her neurological symptoms persisted and she remained ataxic, a brain tumor became a strong possibility. She remained in the hospital day and night, and we visited, watching her fall into walls on her face, try to walk and wipe out, fall to the side, and keep trying. She was scheduled for an MRI and a spinal tap to try and determine the cause of the problem.

Then, remarkably, she was so much better that the internist decided that she did not need the MRI. A brain tumor should not have symptoms lessen and disappear like Callie's were. So, the most likely thing became a neurotoxin, in a sub-lethal dose. None of the other pets were sick. We searched the pastures and found nothing unusual.

After almost 100 hours in the hospital, Callie came home today. She acts like she's been through something. She's tired. She's happy to be home. She can't jump on the bed yet. Her back legs don't work quite right yet. Sitting seems a tad hard for her. We still see little tiny things that don't seem right. But she is so much better...and she is alive.

We are extremely grateful to the nursing staff and doctors at Westvet in Garden City. Their care was exceptional. We are lucky to have access to such a facility.

I can't describe the emotional roller coaster - but I did note that I went through shock and denial, a lot of fear, grief, anger, and I was willing to accept handicaps if she could just live. I couldn't bear the thought of her dying. I was okay with her being impaired, we could build her a handicapped agility course, we could compensate. But then, I couldn't help thinking how vibrant she was, and how could it be gone, and why? How could I not cry watching her not able to do puppy laps or play fetch anymore? I knew Callie could accept it; I didn't know how I would.

I'm afraid to leave her side even for a second. We don't understand what happened, or why. Maybe it will happen again. All I know tonight is that I feel time stopped, and everything warped, and for a time life was suspended. The house was empty; my daily life is wrapped around her in every way and I am never home when she is not. I regretted the days I've spent away from her. I regretted all the things we hadn't done yet.

While I like to think I spoil all the kids, Callie will no doubt be getting extra. I have another chance. Whatever time she has left - which I hope is a good ten years plus, I don't want to take one second of it for granted. She came back from the brink somehow. I still don't know how I feel other than so relieved she is still alive and she can walk again. My empathy for parents who have to deal with life threatening situations with their kids has gone up dramatically. The world keeps going when all you can do is sit and stare numbly at it. And without your best dog, that is a lonely, hard thing to do.

If your dog has gone through something similar, please comment. I want to learn all I can. It's frustrating not to know what happened. Whatever you do, after you read this, go hug your dog.

The Lemur Park

Outside Antananarivo there is a Lemur Park. It's privately owned and admission is about $6.50 U.S. I thought it was fairly well managed and provides an opportunity to see some lemurs up close. While you do not feed them or interact with them, you can watch their feedings. The lemurs seem very happy. They are not in cages and around feeding time they line up waiting eagerly for their fruit plates. Bamboo lemurs, sifaka, brown lemurs, white ruffed lemurs, and mouse lemurs all reside there. The ringtail lemurs are caged, apparently because they were fighting and killed a baby sifaka. There are a number of interesting plant species here as well. While you shouldn't feel deprived if you miss Lemur Park, if you are trying to kill some time in and about the capital it is not a bad way to pass the time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Lemur One Night Stand - and Heartbreak

From Beza Mafaly we were heading to an almost unpronounceable saline lake where flamingos hang out. Rather than camp again in the hot tents, my guide decided we should stay at a hotel. The only one nearby was the Hotel D'Ambola, which was pricey for Madagascar but had a lovely setting on the beach overlooking gorgeous blue waters. I was really starving and the chef took vegetables we'd brought and made a wonderful vegetable soup, plus had spaghetti for lunch. In the evening we watched humpback whales playing from our chairs on the deck.

This hotel also offered me the high point and the low point of the trip emotionally.

There were four ringtailed lemurs on the property. Three of them were bonded in a group but the fourth was a young female, maybe 9 months to a year old. She was the "newest arrival" and was being picked on by the others. The chef gave them some cassavas and carrot tops but the three lemurs got them, leaving the little girl out. Some of the lemurs jumped on my head or climbed onto my shoulders. I knew they were "wild" and I shouldn't touch them, but I sure didn't mind letting them touch me! Everyone else shooed them off.

The lemurs also came to visit me in my room, and as there were no window screens, they did play throughout the room and sit on the windowsill. Throughout the afternoon I couldn't really tell the lemurs apart. That evening though, two of them were begging at dinner, and then one went off to bed with the others and the little girl stayed. She was begging for food. Since I knew the cook fed them sometimes, I knew it wouldn't further disrupt their already non-natural life if I fed the small hungry one. I gave her some bread and then some bread soaked in veggie soup. She loved that and wanted more, expressing herself with excited chirps and climbing up onto my lap. I knew she shouldn't be allowed on the table so I lifted her down. I hadn't thought about it - it was a perfect setup for her to bite me, but she didn't. So I grew more bold and I stroked her as she ate spoonfuls of soup I held out for her. She quickly learned that she was not to get on the table but could sit on my lap.

After I fed her her fill of soup (as the entire hotel staff looked at me like I was a total insane idiot) I thought she would leave. To my surprise, she climbed me, and felt my face all over with her tiny fingers. She stroked my eyes and nose and then kissed my lips. She then groomed me by licking my chin and neck. Her tongue was a bit rough like a cat's. Then she snuggled down in my arms on the table, gave out a big sigh, and took a nap. I held her, stroking her chin, her ears, rubbing her all over. She purred like a happy kitten. My guide took a photo of her curled in my arms, above.

After an hour or so, I needed to get to bed. I stood up and she awoke. I thought for sure she would leave, but she rode my shoulder as I went into my room. The windows were open so she could leave anytime. But instead, she curled up on me and tucked her chin under mine. She curled her little ringed tail around herself, and went to sleep. All night long we stayed together. She always lay on me or curled against me. She never got up to go to the bathroom. She didn't mind the mosquito net. She awoke when I did, licked me a little, and went back to sleep. She was obviously lonely and happy to be with someone warm and kind.

I knew it was a one night stand, and there was no way I could take her with me. But I also knew we could give each other a night of comfort. She was lonely and so was I. I missed my cats, and having this lemur curled on my shoulder I felt like I was cheating on my cat, Lizzie, who usually occupies that position. It was bizarre to spend a night with an endangered species. I knew I would fall in love with her and that in the morning I would hate to leave her.

In fact, she loved having breakfast with me, and supervising me pack my bag and brush my teeth. She kept hugging me. The last photo I took of her she was on a post next to me, and right after I took the picture she jumped onto me and began to play with the camera. The last photo of her is above. When I had to leave, hey had to chase her off my back, which I hated. They didn't speak English but I kept trying to tell them to be nice to her. There was no way I could take her with me, but no one there was going to care for her, and if I gave them money to do so I knew it would not be used that way. I couldn't look back at her but I heard her cries. And, I cried too, for the next day and a half. I looked out the window at the hot, dusty, barren land and thought about how cruel it was that this lovely little lemur would not be accepted by the other lemurs or by man. How did she get there? Was she purchased as an illegal pet, as my guide suggested? If so, why didn't anyone care - any wildlife group or the government? Why was he allowed to buy lemurs? The Malagasy said the rich could break all the rules.

But why buy a lemur and not love her? This lemur was alone in the world and so desperate for kindness that when she found some, her whole body expressed her happiness and relief. I wanted so much to get her safely to a zoo in the U.S., or even better, to bring her home with me where I knew she would have a proper diet and enough affection. I was struck by her incredibly gentle human hands and her very cat-like sounds and tongue.

I love all creatures and give away my heart too easily. I had it broken because I had to leave her. I wonder if she will make it or if she is already starved or chased off. I couldn't believe that none of the maids at the hotel had a bit of compassion for the lemurs. How anyone can turn away a lonely little lemur I will never know.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sportive Lemurs

While they are nocturnal, I saw sportive lemurs sometimes during the day, sleeping or sunning themselves. In a dead tree with a hole I saw a family of three one morning in Beza Mafaly. Pictured here are two of the three. With their big eyes and tiny hands, they were really cute. I watched them for some time and they didn't move, just seemed to be resting in the morning sun.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ringtails of Beza Mafaly

There are several troops of ring-tailed lemurs at Beza Mafaly also. Two of the groups I saw had collars for research and two did not. One of the troops came through the campsite often, raiding the kitchen trash heap. Pictured above is a lemur sitting on the campsite sign and one with a small baby hanging on walking through the camp.

I was shocked by the fact that although this is a research station, and these lemurs in camp are supposed to be research subjects, they are certainly not living natural lives. They have abandoned scavenging in the trees for scavenging in the trash, and you would think that scientists would not want to upset the balance and would take care not to feed the lemurs or alter their behavior. While lemurs are supposed to be vegetarians, I found them gnawing on chicken bones. When I expressed surprise, the local Malagasy told me that ring-tails eat "anything" once domesticated and cited several examples of them being given beer by people to make them drunk. A revolting thought on many levels.

This campsite was filthy, as I have mentioned, and there were several trash heaps of partially burned trash, as well as a lot of debris - plastic, paper, etc. Certainly not the environment I would want to foster for protecting endangered lemurs. There was a group of lemurs that had several babies. I counted at least four. The lemurs came within two feet of me and were not afraid. They were shooed out of camp now and then half-heartedly by hand waving or things being tossed at them, but of course they returned, since there was always trash of some type not properly disposed of.

There were two American student researchers here researching sifaka. However, the entire time I was there one of them never stopped talking. She talked on the satellite phone, she talked to everyone in camp, she talked to her fellow researcher, she talked all through every meal. The inane conversation focused on teenage type subjects, rumors, people back home, what so and so is doing, general gossip. Certainly, she didn't appear to be getting any research done. She told me she loved being there because the people were "so nice." I thought, the same people who can't be bothered to clean up or properly dispose of trash? The same people who mercilessly beat their burdened zebu? The same people who keep cutting down "protected" trees in "protected forests"? The same people who throw things at the lemurs to make them move so tourists can see them better, or who make annoying, inane sounds all the time to get the lemurs to look at them? The same people who bring radios to the middle of the forest and blare them into the wee hours of the morning, with no consideration for the wildlife, or the humans nearby? Clearly, we have different definitions of "nice people." I couldn't have survived in that research station more than a week without gagging that woman into silence.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sifaka of Beza Mafaly

After a night in Ifaty, we made the long trip to Beza Mafaly, a park often used by researchers. There are no hotels at the park or nearby, so we were camping out. However, at the park there is a "research station" with a cookhouse and an outhouse and a small building used for "showers" (with a bucket). I hate campgrounds to begin with; I like to set up camp in the woods where there are no facilities other than possibly a fire pit made with rocks by campers before me. So, staying at Beza Mafaly was not appealing in the sense that there were lots of other people there, some researchers, some guides, some tourists (all students). Not once was I able to escape the sound of human voices or activity in camp - highly annoying. Particularly so because there was singing, yelling, chanting, etc. until about 4am. Also, the outhouse is by far the most repulsive facility imaginable and the only purpose it is good for is providing cover while you pee behind it. Yuk, yuk and yuk. The cookhouse is full of flies (I counted 30 on the table at once during a meal). And, my driver and cook told me they had trouble sleeping in the quarters provided because of the rats and ticks.

If you are getting the sense this is a dirty, not well maintained campsite you are getting part of the picture down. Now add in a dead rodent laying in a walking path (clearly no one bothered to dispose of it for some time), and a lot of dust and grime since the area is very dry. There are zillions of flies and HUGE wasps (1-2 inches big). The tents provided were too hot to use as they had zero ventilation other than a 4 inch hole with netting in the very top. They were also so small I could only fit me and my bag in them by hugging the bag all night. You couldn't use them before 8pm as it was so hot you would bake to death. (Changing clothes, laying down, for 5 minutes caused me to almost pass out from heat exhaustion the tents were so stiflingly hot inside during the day). You go for an early morning and an early evening walk - the rest of the day it is too hot and the guide won't go out (at least, mine wouldn't) so you sit there, outside the tent, sweating and fending off huge ants, wasps and flies all day.

To make things worse, I asked my guide to tell the cook to bring NO MEAT. I was served sausage and chicken - which I declined to eat, leaving me with nothing but some rice, which was cold and gross. I could only gag down a few bites. I had been hungry all trip but here I had to struggle to get even 600 calories per day and my hunger had been so bad it sort of went away, replaced by a strong desire NOT to eat at all. (Anything made me feel a little ill). This was the trip low point for me on all levels.

Now, aside from the fact the place was hell in terms of living conditions, there was good wildlife viewing. The trees and vegetation all looked dead, but wasn't. There were a few new leaves here and there and lots of dormancy waiting for the rains. Sifaka, the dancing lemurs who jump sideways when on the ground and leap horizontally through the trees, were everywhere. I saw at least 8 groups of them. There were also many ringtails, sportive lemurs, and mouse lemurs here. Due to the researchers, some groups have radio collared individuals, but not all. Also, there are metal mouse lemur traps (live traps) around, which was not nice to think about. But - the animals were plentiful.

Above are photos of an adult sifaka and a baby sifaka. These creatures have hugely intense eyes and I love watching them move. They are really, really cool to see. I had seen footage on television of their sideways jumps, but it was even better in person, plus I thought "How the HECK did they photograph it??" It was so fast! These largish, gentle, vegetarian lemurs travel in medium sized family groups and often stared down at me while I craned up at them in the trees. I spent several hours watching them and regretted having to leave them to return to camp - the pit.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On the South-western Coast: Ifaty

After leaving Masoala and taking the boat back to the mainland, the plane back to Antananarivo, and spending the night in the capital, I flew to Tulear. Tulear is on the west coast of Madagascar, so I left the eastern rainforests to head to the dry, spiny forests down south. This was a complete change of not only habitats, but living conditions.

In the eastern part of Madagascar, there were very good roads, and the people for the most part seemed to have the basics - food, clothing, water, housing, etc. In the south, that is not the case. The high plateau people of the east are considered the most well off in Madagascar, and the roads in that area are good as the political leaders live and come from that area. In the south, there are no real roads - there are areas used as roads by zebu carts (like ox carts), but they are in terrible conditions. Having traveled in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda I have seen some bad roads before, but the roads in southern Madagascar are the worst I have ever seen.

In some places, the sand forms drifts so you have to plow your way through. There are big rocks, washouts, and the terrain is so uneven you often think the car will flip over. As there is only room for one to pass, zebu carts pull over for cars and cars pull over for trucks. There is no semblance of pavement whatsoever, and the roads are dry, dusty and constantly reshaped in the wet season.

The people are also not as well off in the south. There is very little precipitation and therefore no crops to speak of. The people have goats and sheep, which I never saw in the east, and rely heavily on zebu for transportation as well as food. Many on the coast are fishermen. Accommodations for tourists in this area are few and far between, so we did a lot of camping.

The first night here I stayed on the coast in Ifaty at Le Paradisier Hotel. For some reason, I got the honeymoon suite, which was on the coast 4 feet from the ocean. There was a huge windstorm that day, and it was hard to even walk around, but I explored the hotel grounds marveling at the baobab trees and the weird vegetation. Pictured above are spiny trees - not cacti - and a tree that is like a succulent. All the plants look totally dead except or a few green leaves here and there; they are in fact not dead but sort of dormant until it rains. It's like visiting another planet - nothing at all was familiar.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More Life on Masoala

Another tree frog - I couldn't resist. The frogs were just a lot of fun to find and try to photograph. On the Masoala peninsula they were also much easier to find than the mammals.

There is a variety of HUGE spiders in Madagascar. Frankly I didn't even know spiders came that big! You can click the photo to get some perspective - there is a normal sized spider on the left and a giant female spider in the right (probably 6 to 8 inches across). You can also see the huge fern leaves in the background. It's a whopping spider and her web was about 4 or 5 feet across.

Throughout the trip when walking in the forest I would come across (or sometimes, unfortunately, through) enormous spider webs. They would sometimes stretch between trees and be strung like a hammock, with anchoring ends with strands 2-3 feet long on each end and then in the center a huge web 3 to 4 feet across. Also of note, they have "crab spiders" which are diamond shaped spiders in a variety of colors. You have to stop and take a closer look even if you are not a spider fan (and I am not). Why this island evolved such big arachnids, and why the females are so much larger than the males, is a question I have no idea how to answer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Masoala Peninsula

The Masoala Peninsula in north eastern Madagascar is considered a bio-diversity hotspot, as more than 80% of the plants and animals there are found no where else on earth. Most of the peninsula is a protected forest, and it remains largely because it is a bit hard to get to. However, you can fly to Maroansetra and then take a boat over to the peninsula, or a boat from nearby Nosy Mangabe. On the way you will pass two small round islands which are uninhabited by people. They are home to the world's largest bats, the Madagascar flying foxes. These very large (wing span 5') bats can be seen sometimes hanging from the trees. The day I passed by, I saw a tree full of them hanging upside down, as well as a swirling circle of them above the tree. As it was mid-day, it was unusual for them to be awake, and I don't know why they were. I am glad I got the chance to see them.

We also saw dolphins and tuna on the way to the peninsula, and certain times of the year you can see humpback whales there too. I stayed at a lovely place called Masola Forest Camp. The couple who own it have taken great care to be environmentally responsible, yet create a relatively luxurious haven in Madagascar for travelers. They have safari-style large canvas tents pemanently erected on wood platforms. Each has its own hammock and plenty of windows for ventilation. There is a small separate shack containing a shower for each tent, and yet another small shack housing a flush toilet and sink. While there is no hot water, it is warm enough that you won't miss it - and if you do they will heat some for you. The staff is excellent and laundry is included, always a plus on long journeys. In addition, they have several dogs who are well treated and are family pets, and some feral cats who are doing alright on leftovers. (It was nice to see animals valued and treated well in this country where they are usually treated so horribly). The food is good, and I highly recommend this as a place to stay.

The forest here is home to red-ruffed lemurs (pictured here) as well as white-ruffed brown lemurs. The forest is so large that the animals are not habituated and you will not get as close to them as other places. One drawback is that to access the trails in the forest you have to hike about 2km along the beach. This is hard work as the beach sand is tough to walk in, and there is no shade...and you have to do the same 2k on the way back, in addition to your upward hike in the forest.

There is an awesome waterfall you can hike to if you are willing to make a number of river crossings on foot. It is tricky as there are places with no trails and vegetation so high and thick you can't see anything around you, but it's worth it. I enjoyed the hike very much, even though the only mammal we saw was a brown lemur from quite a distance. The unusual plants, frogs and bugs were interesting, and just the experience of hiking in the rainforest is great. I am shocked how photos COMPLETELY fail to portray things...but here is a photo of part of the waterfall. In person it is way more impressive, as there are enormously tall trees on top and about 4 layers of waterfalls and huge rocks below. The water is cool and clear. The surrounding forest is lush and green. Truly a place worth seeing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

White Ruffed Lemurs & Spiked Caterpillars

White-ruffed lemurs are also on Nosy Mangabe. It can be quite a hike to get to them, but since hiking is so pleasant on Nosy Mangabe, this is not an issue. "What?!?" my friends are saying to themselves, "Did you just describe HIKING as pleasant?? YOU?!" It's true that I generally resist physical activity. I just hate it - the sweating, the effort, pretty much everything about it. It's always felt like a huge waste of time to me. But somehow, beyond my comprehension, that all changed on Nosy Mangabe. Usually I will hike to see mammals, but hiking is a means to an end. On this island, I no longer cared what we found, or even if we found anything at all. I loved the rainforest, the rocks, the climbing and the negotiating for the next step. I even had a three hour hike in the rain and loved every second of it.

Hopefully, this new found enjoyment of hiking will persist. I've only done one hike since I got back, and it was quite different terrain and not nearly as interesting...but I didn't hate it. So this is progress. Although every trip to Africa changes me somehow, I never would have expected that my lifelong hatred of exercise would alter. I can't deny that it has though.

One of my minor injuries this trip was that I grabbed a tree to keep from sliding downhill in the mud and I felt an immediate and sharp pain. When I looked at my hand, it was turning white and swelling in a certain region, and there was a strong stinging sensation. I went back and looked at the tree and I found a caterpillar like the one pictured here. The sharp spines on the caterpillar had pierced my hand. (Click on the photo to enlarge it and clearly see the spines). The guide told me it wasn't poisonous. I used a sting relief swipe I keep on hand in my first aid kit for wasp stings, and that helped immensely. I would never in a million years have thought I would get injured by a caterpillar. Unfortunately he got hurt worse and I feel sorry to say that I might have inflicted a casualty - accidentally.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nosy Mangabe

Getting there is a little tricky. To reach Nosy Mangabe and see the many treasures found on this gorgeous island, you have to deal with some transportation hassles. You take a plane from Antananarivo to Maroansetra. You can overnight at the Hotel Coco Beach (highly recommended, and they have a pet cat who is well treated, outgoing, and great to cuddle with if you are missing your own).

To reach the hotel you have to take a little boat across the river because the bridge collapsed last year. Then, to reach the island, you take the little boat to a bigger boat (transferring from one boat to the other in the middle of the river I was sure I was going to get wet, but I made it). The bigger boat takes you to Nosy Mangabe (about an hour) and then you wade from the boat to the island, and hope that someone will come pick you up in a few days as arranged. You can camp on the island in relative comfort because there is a guard house with a kitchen and tent platforms and some tables and chairs, as well as showers and flush toilets. My package included transport to the island and the services of a cook and a local guide. The cook was excellent and this was some of the best food I had in Madagascar. I believe the camping was arranged through a hotel located on the Masoala Peninsula, but not one I was staying at so I don't know the name.

Although it is a bit hard to get to, the island is well worth the effort and was the highlight of my trip. Oddly enough, the lemurs on the island were not...it was the island itself. The hiking is great, the rainforest is stunning, and the myriad of frogs and other creatures is awesome.

The first night I was here it was quiet. The second night was a bit of a letdown as the ocean was rough and a large group of South Africans headed for the Masoala Peninsula stopped over at Nosy Mangabe instead. Therefore, every campsite was full and there was a lot of noise - people yelling and screaming in the waterfall, a radio playing, people talking, laughing, getting loud over too much beer, shining lights into my tent in the middle of the night, etc. That was a bummer, and there is no system of reservation to know if you are going to be on the island with only a few other people or with a rowdy group of 50. But take your chances, it's worth it.

You can do nocturnal walks as well as day time hikes. There is a hike up to some ancient tombs, which are under a huge rock and have been there for centuries. They are pictured above. The other photo is of one of the waterfalls on the island. Sadly, photos do not BEGIN to do any justice to the beauty of this island.

White Ruffed Brown Lemurs

Nosy Mangabe is home to white-ruffed brown lemurs. The males have white around their faces, while the females do not. There is a small group of these lemurs who hang around the campsite. Apparently they have been fed before, or at the very least, learned how to steal. It's a shame - lemurs do much better on a natural diet than one containing food provided by man. While I did not feed them, this didn't prevent them from begging and coming very, very, very close to try and steal some food (especially when we were eating fruit).

They also liked to sit above my tent or on the roof of the picnic areas. Pictured here is a couple, a male and a female. Because they came very close, I was able to observe them at close range. They are still "wild" technically, but clearly they are habituated to humans and they are hoping for handouts.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Hard to Find, Teeny Chameleon

Brookesia chameleons, also known as stump-tailed chameleons, are very, very small and therefore hard to find. They hang out on the ground in leaf litter. I found one (rather, my guide did) in the rainforest on Nosy Mangabe. Here is a photo of me holding it, as well as the leaf he (or she) was on. These chameleons play dead when frightened, a trick this one demonstrated for me after awhile when I was returning him/her to the forest floor. This was a very cool find, and one of the smallest chameleons I saw, if not the smallest. For more about brookesias, see here.

Also pictured is a third rainforest frog photo. As you can tell, I was very enthused by the frogs. You may even have to put up with future posts about them, because there were more cool ones before the trip was over and some of them I got decent photos of.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Rainforest Frogs

The variety of frogs on Nosy Mangabe, and on the Masoala Peninsula, was dazzling. They come in various sizes but most of them are teeny tiny. The camouflage is ASTOUNDING. My personal favorite was a frog I did not get a photo of who looked like a dirt clod. His skin was bumpy like the wet mud/dirt and you literally couldn't see him unless he moved.

I was able to catch several frogs just by having them jump into my hand. I never tried to pick them up as they are just too delicate. I held them just to examine them closely and then set them all back where I found them.

There were many frogs with pointed noses designed to look like the tip of a leaf. One was mostly black with a tan stripe down his back which precisely matched the black leaves and tan twigs he was hopping on. Without the aid of my local guides I would not have seen 99% of these frogs. Looking closely I was able to notice only about 10 of them on my own.

I've never been an amphibian person, rather, mammal centric. But, these Madagascar frogs really changed my mind. I was thrilled to come across each and every one of them. Photos were hard because the camera has a hard time between the darkness of the forest, the humidity and the camouflage, but I got a few decent photos. Above see a tiny frog in my guide's hand for size comparison, and one camouflaged on some forest leaf litter.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Cute Skink

Skinks are related to lizards but generally have no real neck and shorter legs. I find it interesting that whenever I have seen one, I'm interested, as I am in all animals, and whoever I'm with says "Oh, it's just a skink" dismissively and shows

zero interest...but the same person might show excitement over a lizard two minutes later. I don't see a huge distinction between these and lizards; they are both interesting to watch (though not as good as mammals).

At my Nosy Mangabe campsite I had one looking over my tent platform at me for a long time, so I decided to try and take a picture of him (or her) peeking over the platform at me. After about a dozen tries I finally got an in focus shot I am very happy with. I also took a view from behind so the body can be seen. Here are both, for your viewing pleasure.

Leaf-Tailed Geckos

Definately one of the coolest and most interesting creatures I saw in Madagascar was the leaf-tailed gecko. They are nocturnal, and during the day they sleep on a tree, head down, and perfectly camouflage themselves against the tree bark. This is easier said than done because every tree has a lot of various colored lichen on it and the bark colors vary also.

During the day these geckos are very hard to spot. There is a photo of one plastered against a tree trunk above. The second photo is taken at night, when the gecko is awake and going hunting. You can see that the color of the animal changes.

The head of the leaf-tailed gecko has a little ridge around it that looks like its serrated. The ridges help the gecko blend against the tree, so there is no hard outline. The tail is very flat and can look perfectly like part of the tree bark. The toes are little suction cups that are glued on to whatever surface the gecko is against. The top of the gecko extends almost like a shell, so the body is sort of tucked underneath. At night their eyes glow red in a light.

On my nocturnal walks I really enjoyed watching these geckos. One even let me lightly stroke his back, so I could feel the cool, smooth surface. They are pretty fast when they want to be. During the day it is also fun to see them, but much, much harder! Although I didn't get superb photos of them, I immensely enjoyed my time with these marvelous little creatures. I am normally a mammal person, but these geckos, the frogs and the chameleons were all so much fun that I have to admit my interest base expanded during the trip.

I saw leaf-tailed geckos in the rain forest up north on the east coast, on the island of Nosy Mangabe and on the Masoala Peninsula. After Andasibe, we drove east to the coast to Tamatave (which was a dive of a town, extremely noisy and not at all pleasant to spend time in). We caught a plane from Tamatave north to Maronsetra, stayed in the lovely Coco Beach Hotel, and then took a boat to Nosy Mangabe and another boat to the Masoala Peninsula. More about those destinations in future posts, but Nosy Mangabe was the highlight of the trip.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Just a few photos of the chameleons I saw around Andasibe. It's great to watch them move, in a slow motion back and forth sway. Supposedly they always do it 17 times but I didn't count. The tiny gripping hands are very cool.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"Croc Farm" of Vakona Hotel

The Vakona Hotel near Andasibe, Madagascar, has a "Croc Farm," in addition to "Lemur Island" of the last post. This "farm" contains many Nile crocodiles of various ages and sizes, as well as cages with a variety of other animals, including wild ducks, other birds, endangered tortoises, and perhaps saddest of all, fossa. The fossa is one of the islands only predators. Neither a cat and or a dog, it's related to the mongoose and is about the size of a medium dog, with a longer tail and a reddish coat. (See picture above). Fossa are highly endangered. While active in both day and night, they do a lot of hunting nocturnally. Unfortunately, at Vakona, they are kept in a small cage with a concrete floor and no enrichment (no toys, things to climb, etc.), and are fed a steady diet of zebu meat, not a nutritionally balanced meal. Once again, the animals' needs are not being met. The male had a spot on his back that was hairless, near the tail, and looked almost like he had some sort of mange. Supposedly this pair of fossa had a litter of babies and the owner has taken those on as personal pets.

I have a harder time feeling bad for the crocodiles, but then any animal in captivity has my sympathy. There are over 30 crocodiles, sorted into enclosures by age and size. They are fed zebu meat once a week, and I happened to be there after a feeding, so some of the blood was still dripping off the jaws of the crocodiles lounging on the banks. One nerve-wracking part of visiting the 'Croc Farm" is that you have to cross a bridge which is extremely rickety and made of ropes and boards - nothing anchored to the ground at all. It is strung like a very, very, very long hammock across an area about 75 - 100 feet long. When you walk across it there is a lot of movement and you are hanging over water teeming with crocodiles. I did not have any confidence it was properly engineered so I walked quickly.

I have no idea why anyone would want to have this many crocodiles, and I couldn't find out from the guide whether their meat or skin was being harvested and sold; he said no but then couldn't tell me why there were so many.

I was just over the fence from the resting crocs so I got a few good photos. My favorite, a close up of a crocodile eye, is posted above. Overall, the "Croc Farm" appears to be like a private zoo, again without animal nutrition or health care, or any enrichment programs. There are boa constrictors and a variety of other small animals in cages. At the end there is a strange and very small museum of sorts with some information about the graphite mine that operates next door to the hotel (no idea if it has the same owner).

"Lemur Island" of Hotel Vakona

There is a hotel near Andasibe called Vakona Forest Lodge, owned by a French man who apparently has little regard for nature or the environment (as is evident from the flower pots all over the premises made of the root base of endangered tree ferns, for one thing), and possibly even less for animal welfare. He has set up at the hotel 'Lemur Island," which is a small area surrounded by water. Lemurs do not cross water, so they are effectively trapped on the island without being in cages. The bad news is, the man-made island contains only non-native eucalyptus trees, which the lemurs do not eat, so they are entirely dependent on man for food and they can't forage or live naturally.

In a zoo, with animal nutritionists and people interested in animal enrichment programs for the lemurs, this may not be too bad a set up, but in Madagascar at this hotel, it's a very bad situation. First of all, the place is only a few years old, and those lemurs came from the wild, which means they were taken from their natural habitat and stuck there, which is horrible. Second, they are fed bananas, NOT a healthy or well rounded diet at all, and this shows in the condition of their coats and tails. Third, there are two species of brown lemurs there which have interbred (not ideal for endangered species!). Fourth, there is one sad, lone sifaka (a sideways jumping lemur, pictured above) who is clearly very depressed, has no social interaction with members of his own kind, and is in poor condition, being extremely small for his species. The physical, mental and social/emotional needs of these lemurs are clearly not being met.

While in some ways it was a nice experience to see the lemurs up close on this island, it is certainly not worth harming the animals to achieve, and it was disturbing in more ways than it was pleasant. If it could be done with animal welfare in mind, and without taking any animals from the wild, i.e. to provide a sanctuary for wounded lemurs or pets that have been taken from poor conditions, that would be one thing. However, it appears to be a for-profit rather than a for-animal-welfare endeavor. Therefore, I do not recommend staying at this hotel (I did not), and it's too bad this place appears to be operating unregulated instead of under the protection of a conservation organization.

The island contains several black and white ruffed lemurs, and many brown lemurs (both common and white ruffed), as well as the lone sifaka. There were two babies belonging to brown lemurs, and the babies were just a few days old. The brown lemurs liked to jump on people's heads and shoulders and generally try to coax bananas out of visitors, so I was in the position of having the babies REALLY, REALLY close to me, basically on my shoulder. (One is pictured above) While they were adorable, I can't help feeling bad for them since their fate is to live on this island rather than as they would naturally in the wild.

When I asked how the hotel was able to have this private island full of endangered species when the lemurs are all "protected" by the government, I was told that the laws are not evenly applied, there is a lot of corruption, and with enough money you can basically do whatever you want in Madagascar. While I have no way of knowing whether this is true, I would think it is perfectly obvious to anyone who sees 'Lemur Island" that something is amiss when it comes to animal care.

The "guides" take you across the water in a small canoe and bring some bananas. They give you some photo ops with the lemurs and answer questions (though they are quite vague on where the lemurs came from). I found the black and white ruffed lemurs to be extremely soft, like silky rabbit's fur. The hands of all the lemurs were non-stick, almost rubberized, but not sticky. They all have tiny fingers and tiny fingernails, and even when competing for food the lemurs never caused any harm, snapped or tried to bite. When offered a piece of banana each lemur would reach out, take my hand, and pull it towards him or her, then gently take the fruit off and eat it. The sifaka came to eye level with me and looking into his eyes I saw a very sad creature, who has no hope of escape. As is probably obvious, I found my visit to "Lemur Island" to be very mixed, and for the sake of the lemurs, I wish it wasn't there.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Common Brown Lemurs

Here is a common brown lemur, and a mother and baby. The babies hang on to the mothers until they are old enough to climb around on their own, and like all mammals, they nurse. I was there at a good time of year to see lemur babies of several types.

Although their name is "common," they are no longer common, they are endangered like all lemurs. There were several troops of brown lemurs in Andasibe, and the family groups are led by a female. A troop can have up to thirty or so, or as few as just a couple. They move through the forest to gather food rather than stay in established territories.

These lemurs make a grunting sound like a tiny pig. I heard them before I saw them, and it was very strange to see the sound was coming not from a bush pig, as I initially thought, but from lemurs. I was surprised how close these lemurs got to me. When I was out on an afternoon walk, a family of four with a baby climbed down a branch and crossed the path I was on about 5 feet from me. Another day I was looking at a brown lemur who was traveling alone and he climbed within two feet of me, looked at me carefully, then dropped to the ground literally just inches away and walked off down the path, jumping into a tree maybe 50 feet later. (I didn't move to take a picture or make any other movement that might startle him away).

In addition to their little grunts they make several other sounds, but none as distinctive. They move quickly through the trees and stop to feed only for a little while in each place. Mid-morning they seem to take a little rest and can be found sunbathing in the trees, their tails curled up over their shoulders.

Brown lemurs have long, narrow, almost fox-like faces. Other lemurs, like the bamboo and the sifaka, have very flat faces. The evolutionary differences are really interesting to observe. Lemurs are early primates who did not evolve into monkeys or great apes, but instead into very specialized primates (all lemurs) which took advantage of different niches in the environment of Madagascar. As a result, each is very specialized in what they eat and the areas in which they live. Common brown lemurs had a larger range of habitat than most other lemurs, when habitat was still left, probably leading to the designation "common."