by Roderick Eime
Madagascar’s tourism industry is counting on a lemur-led recovery. When the vast island continent of Madagascar wrenched itself free from the mighty Gondwanaland tens of millions of years ago, it took with it a veritable Noah’s Ark of plant and animal species, and established itself as a unique ecosystem that remains so to this day. But only just. The planet’s eighth continent has remained largely undisturbed for the majority of its existence and has only felt the influence of man in the last two thousand years. In this short time, hungry humans have deforested 85% of the landmass, felled huge baobab, tamarind and ebony stands, remodeled vast tracts for agriculture and placed most of the endemic flora and fauna on the endangered and threatened lists.

Yet even as a developing country with some of the poorest people in the world, Madagascar retains a unique beauty and charm that attracts tourists, adventurers and scientists from all over the globe. But as an evolving nation still struggling to distance itself from a hectic colonial past, the population’s priorities are not necessarily focused on environmental conservation and preservation.

A healthy recovery in tourist traffic was rudely interrupted in mid-2002 by a bout of internal strife that saw bridges destroyed, roads blocked and the already delicate infrastructure further upset. That behind them, the now legitimized government can get on with resurrecting the economy and protecting the remaining valuable biodiversity.

What little the world knows about Madagascar is thanks to people like Sir David Attenborough whose amazing BBC television series featured the highly engaging and animated lemurs, chameleons and birds. John Cleese’s self-confessed love affair with the ring-tailed lemur also helped put these delightful creatures on the screen and in the hearts of the world.

Consequently, ask any recent or prospective visitor to Madagascar what first comes to mind and they’ll almost certainly answer; “the lemurs.”

Despite their cute, cuddly teddy-bear looks, lemurs are primates, albeit an early incarnation that predates the apes of neighboring Africa. Madagascar has fifty surviving varieties (five families and fourteen genera) ranging from the 25g mouse-sized Pygmy Mouse Lemur to the very vocal Indri Indri which would, if it could, stand over a meter tall.

There are several locations dotted around the island where visitors can get a true up-close-and-personal experience with lemurs. Berenty in the south is famous for its Ring-Tailed Lemurs, PĂ©rinet in the east has both the Black and White Ruffed as well as the Brown Lemurs, while Lokobe and Nosy Komba on the northwest island of Nosy Be have semi-tame groups of Black Lemurs.

Probably the best known of these locations is Berenty Reserve near the historic southern port and tourist town of Fort Dauphin. Visited as much by bona fide researchers as tourists, the lodge-style accommodation is roomy, clean and comfortable even if some find it pricey by Madagascan standards. The reserve itself was established in 1936 as something of a concession to the burgeoning sisal industry that is responsible for over thirty thousand hectares of cleared land around Berenty. The lodge’s owner and local sisal baron, Jean de Heaulme, maintains the reserve as much out of pragmatism as philanthropy and has even received a WWF award for his efforts.

The 260 preserved hectares of endemic tamarind and spiny forest around Berenty are but a fraction of what once existed. Certainly, a completely profit-driven enterprise could have destroyed it all, so perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies. The forests provide a valuable compliment to any visit with both day and evening guided strolls enhancing the visitors’ understanding of the important role played by the remaining native vegetation.

Tourists were not introduced to Berenty until the 1980s and their impact was immediate. The ravenous bands of tame Ring-Tailed Lemurs that now patrol the grounds around the bungalows are the result of unmonitored hand-feeding. These animals have become reliant on tourist-supplied bananas, and now that this practice has been greatly reduced, they are suffering from as yet undiagnosed, but probably diet-related maladies that include weight loss and patchy fur. In contrast, their siblings who live exclusively in the forest are in excellent condition.

Acknowledged lemur expert, Alison Jolly, who has studied these animals closely for decades believes a strict rationing of bananas could bridge the gap between visitor satisfaction and interference in this case. Experts are, however, unanimous in their verdict that no supplementary feeding should take place in the forest.
This debate aside, any guest at Berenty is sure to be delighted with simple observation of these exquisite animals. In late afternoon, small bands of White Sifakas skip merrily across the open ground between trees in a curious upright fashion that is a distinct visual highlight. These attractive, if sometimes ungainly, creatures are completely disinterested in tourist offered food, preferring instead their usual diet of leaves, buds and flowers.
This originally appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of Travelsearcher

Rod describes himself as “a compulsive traveler and adventurer” and currently works as a travel writer, photographer and media consultant. Born and raised in Adelaide, South Australia, he holds tertiary qualifications in journalism from the University of Queensland and is happiest scouring the globe for stories, scribbling notes, snapping pictures and sending postcards home.