No, I haven’t been ambushed by hungry mongooses or gnawed to death by gerbils.
I’ve been away on holiday: leering at lemurs in Madagascar!
For those of you harbouring secret dreams of one day visiting Madagascar’s wilderness, I’ve got bad news.
You’re too late.
Yeah, I know you’ve seen the documentaries, chockfull of weird and wonderful critters, all evolving bizarrely in splendid isolation, etc., etc.
But good ol’ Madagascar aint what she used to be.
Madagascar, accompanied by a co-dependent India, made her break from Africa 160 million years ago. Seventy million years later, tired of living out of a suitcase, she severed connections with India (who was determined to continue north) and settled down at her current domicile, 400 km (250 miles) off the coast of Mozambique in southern Africa. For 90 million years everything went swimmingly (or more precisely came swimmingly), and it wasn’t until around the time Jesus began promoting his new cult that humans were faced with the taxing question of whether to scramble or poach their elephant bird eggs. Amazingly, these first human colonists weren’t locals from Africa; they'd paddled in from the Indonesian Archipelago (someone was either VERY lost or VERY brave; and probably both).
|The ‘un-African’ houses (double storey and made of brick) favoured by the tribes people of northern and central Madagascar reveal their SE Asian roots.|
Madagascar’s own Dark Ages stretched from 500 to 1500 AD. During this period, humans exterminated every large vertebrate on the island (nothing over 12 kg/26 lbs survived). Among the 48 species lost, were three pygmy hippos, two aardvark-like creatures, a giant fossa, two massive tortoises, an out-sized crocodile, a whopping rat, 17 species of giant lemur and 21 bird species, including eight species of elephant bird. Based on tantalising skeletons and folkloric tales, the lost lemurs included a couple of baboon doppelgangers, three ‘koala lemurs’, an aye-aye four times bigger than today’s version, and a gorilla-like beast, weighing in at around 200 kg/440 lbs.
|Madagascar’s elephant birds arose from an adventurous member of the ostrich family who managed to cross 400 km (250 miles) of ocean, about 80 million years ago. Aepyornis (reconstructed here) was the heaviest bird the world has known, standing 3 m (10 ft) tall and weighing 450 kg (990 lbs). It met its maker around the 12th century and people are still stumbling upon its eggs. |
Photo borrowed from here.
Today, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its natural forests.
Of course this is not an unusual scenario, but in Madagascar the results are truly ghastly. You see, because the island was once completely wooded, the native birds and beasts aren’t designed for life out in the open. Remove the native vegetation and everyone just ups and goes (dies?). And thanks to all that ‘splendid isolation’, your bog-standard grassland species can’t move in to fill the vacuum, as happens elsewhere. So what you’re left with is a rural landscape that’s TOTALLY devoid of life.
This was a serious shock for me; I’ve never before experienced anything like it. You can travel hour after hour through the countryside without setting eyes on a single bird! If you’ve ever had nightmares about Silent Spring, well that’s Madagascar.
|Pied crows (above) and yellow-billed kites are happy to dine on human refuse. They’re the only bird species you'll see in many parts of southern Madagascar.|
|An opportunistic yellow-billed kite. Go bird, go!|
Now before you get as dismayed and distressed as I was for a good proportion of my holiday, let me reassure you that fragments of ‘real’ vegetation still remain. They’re small, they’re infested with enough invasive plants (e.g. prickly pear, sisal, lantana, eucalypts) to make a conservationist fall upon his/her weeding scythe, but they’re also – astoundingly - brimful with Madagascar’s iconic beasts. I scurried into these tiny oases with the utter desperation of wildlife-addict going cold turkey.
|An astonishing 101 lemur species (this one’s a white-footed sportive lemur, Lepilemur leucopus) still manage to frolic in the remnants of Madagascar’s bush.|
Now I’ve thoroughly depressed you with what isn’t in Madagascar any more, I’ll prepare some posts about the wildlife I did manage to encounter. I hope you like lemurs...
I mean what else am I going to do with 700 bad lemur photographs?
(This is a rhetorical question, just in case you're madly thinking up rude suggestions.)
|Lemurs: what’s not to love?|