Intrepid travellers who visit Madagascar can soon find out just how unique the island’s wildlife and tribal ceremonies are…
Don’t let a map fool you: Madagascar might be situated off the eastern flank of Africa but its animals, plants and people make it about as different to Africa as Australia is!
The island can be best-described as Africa’s ‘Galapagos’; an Eden which, since it broke from mainland Africa (the Gondwanaland) about 150 million years ago, and India some 120 million years ago, has enjoyed a splendid isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation means that the island has lots of wildlife, flora and fauna which can be classified as ‘endemic’ since they are found nowhere else on Earth.
The lemur is the most famous animal unique to Madagascar and it was these fascinating creatures which drew Martin Clunes to the island to film the recent ITV documentary The Lemurs of Madagascar. The programme contained much fascinating information about lemurs; for instance, did you know that it is now widely believed that lemurs arrived from Africa around 60 million years ago on rafts of matted vegetation? What a dramatic journey that must have been!
With no major predators to threaten their early existence, 100 different species evolved. The varying sizes of lemurs, illustrate their diversity as they can weigh between an ounce to 20lb. One fossil was even found on the island of a lemur which weighed 400lb and was the size of a silver-back gorilla! The wondrous indri, while not nearly as big as the 400lb fossil, is the biggest species of lemur still in existence – don’t pass up the opportunity to see one when you’re in Madagascar.
The edge of the eastern rainforest near the small town of Andasibe, 80 miles from the capital Antananarivo, is sure to become an even busier place for lemur-lovers to travel to as this is where Clunes journeyed to see the indri.
Seeing a lemur up-close for the first time is clearly a memorable experience. Clunes’ wonder at seeing his first lemur was expressed beautifully when he described the animal as “looking like a small child in a panda suit”.
The best times of year to visit Madagascar
Half the species of birds in Madagascar, and 90 per cent of the reptiles are endemic so there is plenty of other unique wildlife to see. However, it is important to time your trip to Madagascar so that you can maximise your chance of seeing the abundant wildlife which lives there.
Safari Consultants organise holidays to Madagascar and stress to their customers that May to October are months when wildlife-viewing opportunities in Madagascar are excellent. April and November are also good times to visit and wildlife-viewing is still possible in December. January to March might be months to avoid Madagascar as this is when the cyclone season occurs. Whales visit Madagascar’s coast from June to October.
Madagascan belief in the after-life
Any article about Madagascar has to make mention of the people who live there; their culture and belief systems make them as unique as the animals they share the island with.
Many Madagascan tribes have a great belief in the afterlife and place much store in holding ceremonies to worship the dead. David Attenborough in his excellent book Journeys to the Past describes witnessing a joyful bone-turning ceremony in 1960s Madagascar which involved people dancing beside an open tomb and communing with the dead. Attenborough later describes watching tribesmen sacrifice cows to crocodiles – a ritual which he says has the same purpose as the bone-turning; to guarantee good health and wealth among the living.
By all accounts, Madagascar is still a land of intricate taboos and ancestor worship – maybe Martin Clunes could examine these subjects next time he returns to the island with a film crew!