Tuesday, October 9, 2007
"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.