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,
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.
|No, not a sifaka, but a typical Berenty scene. Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and red-fronted brown lemurs also smooch around camp.|
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.
|'No, I've never heard of the Ministry of Funny Walks.|
Why do you ask?'
|A Milne Edward's sifaka (in Ranomafana National Park) awaiting the arrival of a Hollywood talent scout.|