Other than in zoos and research centers, lemurs are found only in Madagascar; there are dozens of species of different colors, behaviors and sizes. ANN GERACIMOS • Washington Post

ANN GERACIMOS • Washington Post,

Madagascar achieved its independence from France in 1960. Here, a decrepit building in the capital city dates back to colonial times.

ANN GERACIMOS • Washington Post,

In Madagascar, land of lemurs

  • Article by: Ann Geracimos
  • Washington Post
  • July 12, 2013 - 2:34 PM

What’s this lemur doing?

He’s not exactly in my lap, but close enough for me to wonder about its next move.

I’m at Camp Amoureux near Madagascar’s Kirindy dry rain-forest reserve, where I’ve come to explore the country’s flora and fauna. The pesky creature is poised to grab my mango.

He isn’t the only greedy one. Lured by the scent of fresh fruit, a bunch of lemurs have sprung out of the forest during our breakfast hour. They’re aggressive, but not threatening, these furry brown primates with the irresistible bug eyes.

I hold out a piece of mango to one. The animal reaches over with a thin, leathery-fingered hand and snatches it away.

Such intimacy is thrilling, even if animal protectors might protest that getting too close could accustom our visitors to handouts. In the distance, black-and-white sifaka lemurs dance like circus performers around an unusual baobab specimen.

Madagascar boasts more baobab species than anyplace else in the world, but they aren’t the only natural phenomena of note in a country where 80 percent or more of the plants and animals are indigenous. Endemic birds and reptiles are plentiful. But lemurs are the main draw. There are dozens of species of different colors, behaviors and sizes, ranging from 1 ounce to 15 pounds. Most are tree-climbing creatures with sensitive snouts and agile hands and feet. The rarest — and strangest — is the aye-aye, with its rabbity teeth, batlike ears, bushy tail and a long, sharp middle finger.

We can’t expect to see all the bird and animal species that abound here, but we’ll increase our chances by spending time in three varied forested areas. Of the three, Kirindy definitely is the biggest challenge.

We camp two nights in relative luxury, in tents on platforms with bathrooms open to the woods. Cold drinks, including good beer, are possible thanks to solar-generated power. It’s the mid-November heat and humidity that nearly does us in. It’s fierce enough to turn some of my tiny prescription pills to dust. Nevertheless, we head out in the afternoon and evening with our guides.

A few — very few — lemurs dash about in the forest canopy. A giant jumping rat, a relatively small creature resembling a baby kangaroo, is caught in our van lights as it crosses a road. The birds are colorful. Our guide can’t resist confiding that the vanilla plant, a relative of the orchid family, has an ingredient he describes as being “like the blue pill.” Its seed pods, he suggests, contain a Viagra-like stimulant.

Ready for visitors?

A former French colony that achieved independence in 1960, Madagascar is full of surprises, medicinal and otherwise.

In the opinion of some in our group, the country isn’t quite ready for prime time, however worthy the attractions and accommodations. The infrastructure is sadly underfunded.

Lemur love can be a trying sport when there are few good roads and only a single (expensive and not entirely reliable) airline, Air Madagascar. In addition, the country has been under sanctions from such international bodies as the European Union and the United Nations since a 2009 coup put an undemocratically elected president in charge. Plus, the economy of one of the world’s poorest countries is in some disarray.

Our trip is waylaid on the coast by a last-minute Air Madagascar cancellation. When we finally reach our next destination, the Masoala Forest Lodge, I feel as if I’ve reached nirvana. Antongil Bay, outside the lodge, is where humpback whales come from Antarctica each summer to give birth. Empty beaches stretch for miles, and the only traffic on the water is fishermen in pirogues and occasional motorboats bringing fresh supplies.

The terrain is mountainous, the weather mostly dry and sunny, and Masoala’s dense green woodland is full of magnificent trees, ferns and vines.

The area is also favored by red-ruffed lemurs, which we spot during our daily walks.

Hide-and-seek with lemurs

“This isn’t a vacation, it’s an expedition,” remarks a British tourist disappointed by the scarcity of lemurs.

Our group treats the search as a game of hide-and-seek. Between walks, we swim, kayak and paddle on a slow-moving river past plentiful mangroves. Scores of lichees line the path to the nearest village of Tampolo, where women sit braiding crafts that they’ll later offer to sell us, along with black pepper, cinnamon and vanilla — Madagascar staples.

Vakona Forest Lodge, our last stop, lies in a misty green valley near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, an area that’s home to the indri. This diurnal lemur is known for its loud, eerie cry, frightening to the uninitiated. A park guide leads us into the forest.

Eventually, we chance upon a group of large black-and-white indri singing and swinging together in the trees, their song echoing overhead.

Bushwhacking farther, we discover golden bamboo lemurs — a flash of brown-gold fur — and well-camouflaged mouse and dwarf lemurs.

A guard takes us by canoe to an island and unpeels a banana. Almost at once, lemurs jump onto our heads and shoulders, where they inspect hair and ears for insects.

We remain captive and obliging, thrilled and amazed. No matter that the lure is the banana, and not our pliant selves. We have had a close-up experience of the wild creature that was our lure to Madagascar.

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