Experts' Guide to Madagascar
Home to around 200,000 species – 80% of which are endemic – this Indian Ocean isle is animal heaven, with plenty of culture and beaches too. Here’s the lowdown from our specialists.
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Ring-tailed lemurs are simply the icons of Madagascar. Instantly recognisable by their striped tails, these animals are gregarious and highly entertaining to watch. During the mating months (April to June) the males engage in ‘stink wars’ by rubbing their tails with glands on their wrists and waing the scent in the direction of competitors. The best time to see these animals is late September when the young are just old enough to climb on their mothers’ backs.
Although they occur in pockets throughout southern Madagascar, I have found the best place to view them up close is at the Betsileo-community-run Anja Reserve near Ambalavao. This is park is often skipped by visitors in their rush to travel between Ranomafana and Isalo but the scenery around here is spectacular.
These beautiful lemurs are distinctively marked, their bright-white fur topped with striking russet patches on the thighs and shoulders. Also known as the ‘dancing lemur’, these animals are perfectly evolved for leaping through lianas and trees, only coming to the ground in order to cross open areas in the forest. Their characteristic sideways leap, complete with flailing arms, is a sight to behold.
The best place to see these beautiful creatures is at the Anjajavy Private Nature Reserve in northwestern Madagascar where they often venture into the grounds of the lodge.
The aye-aye is one of the most bizarre-looking creatures found on Madagascar. With huge eyes and ears, curved claws and an elongated and oddly skeletal index finger, it’s not hard to imagine why some locals believed them to be evil harbingers of death and disease. Conversely, there are other tribes who thought the aye-aye were their ancestors’ spirits and, as such, protected and revered them.
Aye-ayes are incredibly rare, nocturnal and largely solitary, making viewings exceptionally difficult. The best place to see them is on the island of Nosy Mangabe, close to Masoala, but you need to be very lucky to find them. I haven’t been lucky enough – yet – although some of my clients have managed to spot one.
Madagascar’s shallow warm waters offer a safe haven to hundreds of humpback whales, which migrate annually to calve and raise their young. They are entertaining to watch as they herd their prey by creating bubble ‘nets’ and often breach the water in impressive displays.
They are best seen between the months of July and October, Madagascar’s humpback whales are particularly numerous in the channel between the mainland and Île Sainte-Marie. They can also be spotted from Masoala and occasionally on the western islands around Nosy Be. Early or late in the season they can be spotted passing Manafiafy Lodge, near Fort Dauphin in the south.
These small but beautifully formed chameleons are tiny enough to sit on the tip of a match. There are 31 species of which Brookesia micra (only discovered in 2012) is the most diminutive at just 16mm from tip to toe. They display the surprising tactic of feigning death when threatened, literally keeling over.
Found in Amber Mountain, they spend most of their time on the rainforest floor. They are well camouflaged so you need a good guide. I saw one by torchlight on a night walk when they are usually more visible as they climb to the lower branches to sleep.
Madagascar’s largest carnivore, the fossa, resembles an elongated dog with a cat-like face and long, muscular tail. Although usually solitary, during the breeding season (October to December) they can be found in larger numbers as they compete for a single female in oestrus. She will pick a tree and climb to the highest branches while the males fight it out at the bottom for the opportunity to climb up and mate with her.
Although they are nocturnal, secretive and solitary, I’ve found the best place to find them is at Kirindy, near to Morondava in the west of the country. Here I found one making its home right under my room! In addition, Kirindy happens to be the best place to see the giant jumping rat and the beautiful Avenue of Baobabs.
Did you know?
Madagascar is paradise for the wildlife enthusiast. There are an estimated 200,000 species of which over 80% are endemic, lemurs being the most iconic. However, the island is home to more endangered species of mammal than any other country in the world. The mainland, which is larger than France, is surrounded by a halo of small islands scattered in the Indian Ocean. The beaches are long, white and sandy, and provide a relaxing end to a wildlife vacation.
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