Saturday, February 18, 2012

An embarrassing confession...

We all make mistakes, right?
There’s no call for embarrassment.
But some mistakes make you feel sillier than others...

Now I’m not talking about those absent-minded slip ups that everyone makes (they do, don’t they?).
You know, like realising in the supermarket that your shirt’s on inside out or that you’ve forgotten to change out of your mismatched trainers (the red pair’s left shoe is raggedy and the blue pair’s right shoe... Well, the mongooses don’t mind!).

No, the kind of blunder I’m talking about springs from ignorance, pure and simple uncouth and ugly.

I remember my sister discovering that her rural high-school pupils didn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed. They thought that these prehistoric beasts – along with King Kong, Godzilla and the Muppets – were creations of the media.
Well that’s the sort of mistake that I’m guilty of.

It all started when I was pottering about the local newsagent and noticed a stack of glossy, movie-spinoff booklets.
A sweat-streaked Harry Potter glared up from the cover of the top one, below that peeped the earnest blue face of a Na’vi from Avatar, and on a third, two CGI aliens stared nonchalantly off into space. They were lankily humanoid but clothed in a stylised uniform of fur: pure white with chocolate brown insets on their arms, chest and thighs. Disconcertingly golden eyes stared from their smooth black faces, and black elf-like ears peeped from the fur on their heads.
‘What will they come up with next’, I wondered before sauntering on.

But that image kept haunting me; there was something disquieting about it. They were so humanlike, but...
It was as if the artist had melded human facial features with those of a llama or guanaco. It was uncanny. And unnerving.

So you can imagine my shock - on my very first day in Madagascar – when I rounded a bend on a forest trail and found myself face to face with just such an alien. In fact, two real, living, breathing aliens.
Oh, and did I mention the excruciating embarrassment?

Extraterrestrials assessing the chemical composition of Earth’s flora? No, Coquerel’s sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) contemplating lunch. But you can see how one could be mistaken, can’t you? Oh sure you can.  Please...
When not impersonating computer-generated aliens, Coquerel’s sifakas hang out in groups of 2-10, in the dry forests of NW Madagascar. Like all sifakas, they're strictly vegan and the ladies rule the roost.

Named after their explosive, hissing alarm call (shee-fark!), sifakas are the bounders of the lemur world. I’m not being judgemental here; I mean it literally. They’re made to hop. With legs 35% lankier than their arms (the figure for people is 65%), these lemurs leap frog-like from tree trunk to tree trunk, and cling there vertically with their knees pressed against their chests. They’ve artistically long fingers, and utterly outrageous big toes, to clamp vice-like around tree trunks.

A toe of note.

Now if my first encounter with sifakas made me feel like Bridget Jones at the launch of Kafka’s Motorbike, my second interaction was almost as disquieting.

We’d just arrived at Berenty Private Reserve in southern Madagascar after a long, hot morning jolting over crumbling tarmac (last road mending, the 1950s). Trudging through the heat and dust towards the promise of lunch, I glanced up into a huge tamarind tree that overhung the tourist cabins.
There, almost within arm’s reach, was a fluffy white tangle of Verreaux’s sifakas. Pristine white, apart from a Santa’s cap of chestnut brown, they lounged along the tree’s massive branches or hung languidly upside down from the branch tips like an angelic manifestation of spider monkeys. As I gasped, they gazed down at me interestedly, golden eyes bright in their intelligent sooty faces. I can’t begin to describe the emotional impact of their unexpected and incongruous appearance; try to imagine the warmth invoked by fluffy white bath-towels coupled with the enchantment of snow.
Needless to say, I was very late for lunch.

Of the nine sifaka species bouncing around Madagascar, only the Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreaux) is not endangered (it’s considered vulnerable). It’s also my favourite (why court heartbreak?).

The Verreaux's sifaka groups at Berenty hold territories of only 2-3 ha (5-7 acres); that means 15 groups of sifaka could ricochet around happily within the territory of one dwarf mongoose group! 

Hanging loose. Verreaux's sifakas live in mixed-sex groups where love is free. However, the reigning honcho fathers most of the kids because he dogs the steps of any female on heat.
Now if, like me, your enthusiasm for wildlife is tainted by vices (laziness, for example, or voyeurism), Berenty Reserve is the place to be.
Protected since 1936, this tiny pocket (250 ha /620 acres) of gallery forest is set within a vast sisal plantation (the spiky aloe used to make ‘green’ shopping bags) and is chockfull of lemurs. Alison Jolly began studying ring-tailed lemurs here in 1963, so the furred inhabitants are enchantingly blasé about non-furred primates. You can lounge on your veranda and happily spy on three species of lemur as they blithely scent-mark, squabble or snooze. And of course you can also potter at leisure in the forest, blissfully unchivvied by zealous park guides.
It was certainly a highlight of my trip. 

No, not a sifaka, but a typical Berenty scene. Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and red-fronted brown lemurs also smooch around camp.

High density living is the norm for sifakas. Groups of crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus) claim ownership to just 1.5 ha (3.7 acres) of dry deciduous forest (in NW Madagascar) and they advertise possession by smearing around goo from their chest and anal glands.

Sifakas, of course, are famous for another trait. Designed to leap, tree to tree, they aren’t well equipped to negotiate flat land. Bizarrely, they stand up on their lanky hind legs and skip along sideways, twisting their torsos back and forth and holding their arms up effeminately for balance. If you haven’t seen footage of these guys ‘dancing’, treat yourself by clicking here or here.
Leaping lemurs!

'No, I've never heard of the Ministry of Funny Walks.
Why do you ask?'

Let's move it, move it, move it!
Strutting their stuff by day, sifakas kip in the tree tops after dark. But despite this safety measure, being eaten is still a serious problem for them (well for anyone, I guess). Fosas, who specialise in chomping mammals, cunningly clamber up and nab them in the night. Raptors also won't say no to an occassional lemur. 
In an effort to evade these lemur-eaters, sifakas employ the usual arsenal of ‘functionally referential’ alarm calls (i.e. they shriek ‘Run!’ or ‘Hide!’ or ‘Get down!’ rather than ‘Harrier-at-10 o’clock!’ or ‘Bloody fosa!’).

What’s interesting is that different populations use the standard calls in different ways. While everyone seems to know that roaring barks warn of raptors (the lemurs look up and climb down), researchers found that playbacks of the iconic shee-fark cry invoked mixed responses.
Coquerel’s sifakas, and Verreaux’s sifakas who lived within fosa territory, believed it warned of ground predators (they looked down and climbed up), but Verreaux’s sifakas living in a fosa-free local just ran away. Growls were even more personalised. Coquerel's sifakas living in places with many birds of prey interpreted a growl as warning of aerial predators, while Verreaux's sifakas residing in fosa-rich habitat thought a growl meant prowling carnivores. The other populations, of both species, associated growls with minor disturbances.
Now this shows that the sifakas learn the meaning of their calls from others, and it lets them adapt calls to meet local needs. But what happens when we come along and translocate animals from one population to another?
'What? He's growling?! It's all Greek to me.'
The diademed sifakas (Propithecus diadema) living in Analamazoatra Special Reserve (aka Perinet) were translocated into the park in 2006 from three different sites (the original inhabitants were hunted to extinction in 1973). They appear to be prospering despite any language barriers.   

Like all the larger lemurs, Milne Edward's sifakas (Propithecus edwardsi) are hunted by humans as well as fosas. Although 'fady' (taboo) prevents certain tribes from consuming particular species, it often doesn't prohibit them from catching and selling the animals to people who do. Lemur is a delicacy in city restuarants.

Fossa snack food. Milne Edward’s sifakas bear only a single sprog every second year. 40% of their ankle-biters don’t make it to their first birthday, and only a third reach puberty.

A Milne Edward's sifaka (in Ranomafana National Park) awaiting the arrival of a Hollywood talent scout.


  1. I would also have thought that they were 'man made'!! Never the less they are gorgeous and your photos are stunning. They really look as if they have a great character. Have a good weekend Diane

  2. Aha, clearly you do not have a child who watched Zoboomafoo. Allow me to introduce you:

  3. I can see your confusion! I've just had to go back and look and look at your photos of the Coquerel's sifaka. It's the muzzle that makes them look odd. And the feet. And the hands are a bit weird too. In fact, that third photo looks like someone dressed up in a lemur suit, waiting for his cue. It's Andy Serkis, I expect.

    This post is wonderful.

    [Oh. Word verification is Aleket Salvation, which is, I believe, the name of the film those sifakas are starring in.]

  4. Diane,
    Good to hear from you again. Thank you for your support (it makes me feel less of a complete klutz). Sifakas are certainly strange-looking critters, but at least they'll sit still and let inept photographers take snaps!

    Thank you for broadening my education. Clearly one suffers serious disadvantages living pathetically TV-less, out in the wilds.

    Can't wait for the release of Aleket Salvation. Andy Serkis is doing so well, I'm very surprised he hasn't released a fragrance of his own or become the face of a fashion label.


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