4. Among the Lemurs of Southern Madagascar

My initial search for lemurs went unrewarded when we first drove into Berenty Private Reserve. Later, I learned that lemurs like certain vegetation for protection and food, and they have routes and territories that do not include the drive into the reserve. However, when we stepped off our bus into the magical world of Berenty Private Reserve, we discovered Ring-tailed Lemurs everywhere! They wandered around the private reserve and its small collection of buildings and open-air dining facilities, as well as around the bungalows where we stayed. Unabashed, the lemurs were going about their business without a care, almost oblivious to our human presence.

Awed by the sight of lemurs, I just stood still and drank it all in. My impulse to hug one passed quickly— fortunately for me and for the lemur passing by me in that moment.

Safik Lemur at Berenty

I almost couldn’t believe we were there in the middle of this incredible place. The Berenty Private Reserve receives worldwide publicity for the owners’ efforts to preserve lemurs and all the wildlife that lives in the same environment.

The part of the Berenty plantation we would explore for the next three days is located along the Mandrare River, about 75 miles inland from the southern coast of Madagascar. The vegetation is a gallery forest, a type of forest that forms along a river or other body of water where, without the water, there are few trees. Surrounding this habitat is the spiny forest of southern Madagascar, which we would see more of when we traveled further north.

Berenty Reserve is part of a 2,500-acre concession granted to the de Heaulme family in 1936 for sisal hemp production at a time when sisal fiber was still used for ropes. Years ago, the family recognized the amazing diversity of wildlife on the land they owned and eventually dedicated 1,500 acres as a preserve where scientists and tourists are welcomed. The de Heaulme family’s story is well recorded in Lords and Lemurs, a delightful book by Alison Jolly, a zoologist who studied the Berenty lemurs for 25 years.

Berenty welcoming sign

Scientists have worked at Berenty since the 1960s, so the lemurs are well habituated to people. The 101 remaining species and subspecies of lemurs are descendants of the same pre-primate as monkeys. Lemurs range in size from the 25-gram Pygmy Lemur to the 25-pound Indri Lemur. They survive by adapting over time to ecological niches filled by other wildlife living outside of Madagascar. As an example of the niche specificity of lemurs, the small nocturnal lemur called the Aye-Aye lives in rainforests and uses a long, slender, middle finger to dig out grubs and small insects deep in the bark of trees, similar to what woodpeckers do in other ecosystems. Bamboo lemurs eat cyanide-laced bamboo, a niche filled by pandas in China. Learning about these lemurs’ amazing adaptations was fascinating, and I hoped to see some of those particular lemurs during our tour.


The “Dancing” Lemurs

With Mark’s promise of more lemurs and birds, I pulled myself away from the magnetic presence of the ring-tailed lemurs, found my bungalow, and tossed my bag inside. Then I joined the others in my tour group for a walk along a ten-foot-wide cattle trail lined with prickly brush, tamarind, and eucalyptus trees.

Verreaux’s Safika Lemur     Mark Smith photo

Before long, we heard the vigorous rustle of leaves to the side of the path. Then something started jerking bushes from side to side. Peering into the dry underbrush, we hoped to see another kind of Berenty lemur. We were not disappointed. A slim white animal the size of a small cat burst from the ground-level shrubs and galloped onto the path on springy hind legs with long arms waving. She had a baby glued to her back. The lemur paused in the path’s center and her bright yellow eyes widened as she scanned the area, pricking her ears, alert for predators.

We stood perfectly still fascinated by this lemur and her baby. My body tingled as I stared, unable to even blink. They were so close!

The mother lemur looked our way and then back to the brush behind her. She made a quick series of tsk, tsk, tsk sounds to her family and then romped across the path and up a tree. Grasping the trunk with her hands and her powerful hand-shaped feet, the lemur shinnied rapidly into the protection of the limbs and leaves. In quick succession, five more adult Sifaka Lemurs bounced and flailed across the open ground and leapt into the same tree, expertly climbing the trunks and moving along tree branches to join the lead lemur and her baby in the canopy’s safety.

After the lemurs disappeared, Mark explained that a natural predator of lemurs is the Fossa, a cat-like carnivore endemic to Madagascar. Fossas are compared to small cougars and they can climb up and down trees, as well as jump from tree to tree as the lemurs do. Fossas live in the Berenty Preserve along with the lemurs and this is one of the last places on earth where the fossa, an aggressive and solitary predator, can be found. About 50 percent of the fossa’s food is lemurs—and the lemurs know it.

We later learned the cat-like lemur we saw is called Verreaux’s Sifaka. These lemurs are fuzzy and mostly white with black, heart-shaped faces, black hands and feet, and a brown cap with a white brow band. Their black-tufted ears prick forward when curious or back when threatened. Tourists find them to be one of the most charming of the lemurs, and humans feel compelled, as we were, to photograph them because they are so animated, waving their arms and springing lightly with an effortless bounce. Tourists call them the “dancing lemurs” of Berenty, but these lemurs do not dance as we understand that term. To our delight, they use this bouncy gallop to move across open ground when they are out of their comfort zone high in the trees.

We found that photographing these lemurs “dancing” was easy. When we saw one in motion, we could prepare our cameras because we knew more would follow. These lemurs move quickly across potentially dangerous stretches of open ground. Verreaux’s sifaka lemurs live in family groups of four to eight individuals. The dominant female leads the group on a daily route through the 64-foot-high tamarind canopy, searching for tasty leaves until naptime. When a road or a roof breaks the forest’s canopy, she will lead the troop at full speed across the open space to the next safe tree, which is what we observed.

At the end of our first day observing several Verreaux’s sifakas bounce across our path, we were inspired to try to emulate their wild thrashing movements. We laughed a lot in our attempts, but sadly, our human bodies were too heavy and our legs not springy enough to even approximate the lemurs’ leaping grace.


Birds, Of Course!

Everywhere we explored in the reserve we observed so many birds—new to all of us—as they flew, strolled, and perched. Along a shaded trail by a small gully, I climbed the few steps up the bank to come face-to-face with a Madagascar (Malagasy) Paradise Flycatcher. His sky-blue eye-ring and fluttering white tail feathers, as long again as his seven-inch body, made a profound impression on me, as the first sighting of a particular species will do. We also spotted a Madagascar Sandgrouse, a Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk, and a Hook-billed Vanga. After dismissing the other vanga at Ankarafantsike National Park south of Majunga, I made a point of carefully studying the hook-billed vanga, even though it was a different species and a more common one.


Ringtails on the Trail

On another Berenty plantation path, we heard a meow sound from the bushes. A young ring-tailed lemur sat alone on a branch, which Mark said was an unusual sight. The lemur had yet to develop adult coloring except for his tail, which was barred like a raccoon’s tail. We looked around for his family but the trees were quiet. He seemed to be pleading, perhaps calling for his mother, and meowed again. We approached, our cameras clicking. His eyes widened as he looked frantically from us to the trees and back. When we got too close, the youth warned us off with a little growl, then turned and scampered up the tree limb into the forest’s canopy where we then heard the rustling of a larger animal.

Ring-tailed lemurs are one of the more familiar lemur species at Berenty and are affectionately called ringtails by the staff and scientists who study them. These lemurs look like slim raccoons, gray with black masks, and ringed tails that are not as fluffy as a raccoon’s. Early the first morning, we found a family of ringtails sitting in the path with their white bellies exposed to the warmth of the rising sun. Their legs were splayed, arms limp at their sides, eyes drooping. Though languid, they were alert. At the slightest sound of a foot-scrape, their eyes snapped open and they dashed off to a safe tree.

Every day at Berenty we watched troops of ringtails swagger along the roads, their rumps held high over extra-long hind legs. It all looked rather rude if they were walking away from us, which they usually were, but the gay wave of their long tails jerking side-to-side with each step was a delightful statement of their ease in their environment and proof enough of their benign attitude toward us.

Male ring-tailed lemurs engage in what are called stink fights to ward off potential rivals. We watched several males stroking their tails over their wrists where one of the stink glands is located, ready to wave them in the air and release their scent to threaten their opponents. A male will mark his territory by backing up to a branch or tree trunk, tail erect, and rub the branch with another scent gland located at the base of the tail. A female will do the same when she is in estrous and looking for a mate, and the male will rub his scent over the top of hers to mask it from other males.

Restaurant Ringtails waiting to snatch food

We stayed for three days at Berenty where the ringtails were tame to the point of being pesky. They lurked in the rafters over the open-air dining area, waiting for a chance to swoop down and snatch whatever food had been left unguarded. With new visitors arriving every day, they had many opportunities to grab a snack. The staff discouraged that behavior because the bread they often managed to grab is not a nourishing diet for lemurs. Rivo coached us on lemur protocol in the dining area so we remained vigilant.

During a post-lunch break, I heard a yell from the cabin next to mine.

“What is it? Are you OK?” I yelled over.

“A lemur was in my cabin—right inside!” someone said. “It grabbed my banana. I guess I shouldn’t have left the windows open, but it’s so warm I just had to.”

“Put away anything else they might find interesting, or you’ll have another lemur in there,” I warned.

I had just closed my eyes for a quick snooze when I heard a loud crash from the direction of another cabin, followed by light galloping sounds and then someone swearing. I looked over to see a troop of ringtails galumphing along the tin roof, single file, tails high, and hands waving. The lead lemur jumped for the limb of a tree and they all followed. Tree or roof—it all looks the same to a lemur. Fortunately, their route did not include my cabin so I could delight in the action without as much disturbance.

I loved Berenty Reserve, but we had more of Madagascar to see. Besides, I asked myself, How could it get any better?

I would soon find out.