3. Traveling to Southern Madagascar and the Lemurs

After one more night in Majunga, we were back on the plane headed for Fort Dauphin, 620 miles to the southeastern coast of Madagascar. Three days at Berenty Wildlife Reserve promised a good dose of lemurs habituated to people, plus an introduction to birds of the dry southern climate.


Rice fields outside of Antananarivo

When we changed planes in Tana, the common name for Antananarivo where we first landed in the central highlands, I noticed that green rice paddies filled the bottomlands in the middle of the city. Small rectangular houses built with the traditional mud bricks, some two or three stories tall, climbed the steep hillsides. The more modern and taller buildings constructed of concrete, clustered in one lowland area. Together, all of these structures accommodated a population of nearly one-and-a-half million people.

In contrast, my heart broke as we flew over hundreds of miles of barren red clay, the result of extreme deforestation. In Madagascar as in many tropical countries, the tropical forest soil is nutrient-poor to begin with and when humans cut down the trees and plant crops, the soil’s limited fertility is depleted after only a few years. The Malagasies call this slash-and-burn agriculture tavy and it is the primary cause of the naked red soil. When farmers plow these thin soils, the under soil is exposed to the hot sun and releases the soil’s organic matter as CO2, which contributes to global warming.

Before long, the soil’s surface becomes so hard that any rain runs right off, eroding the land and flowing into the sea. There is not enough time to change the traditional ways of farming in a country whose population has increased fourfold in the past 50 years. Rebuilding the soil is possible due to new technologies emerging, but the process is slow.

From the air, I could see that the further south we traveled the land grew drier and gray scrub replaced the few scattered fields planted in the creases of the ruined mounds of red soil. This was the environmental collapse I feared I would witness—and experiencing it was sickening.


Fort Dauphin

As we neared the end of our two-hour flight from Tana, I could see the Indian Ocean, an indicator that we were close to Fort Dauphin, the southern most town in Madagascar. In 2004, Fort Dauphin had about 43,000 residents.

In 1648, Erienne de Flacourt of the French East India Company arrived in Fort Dauphin to quell discontent among the French soldiers posted there. He was the first naturalist to record sightings of many plant and animal species in Madagascar that are now extinct. The ten-foot-tall bird that de Flacourt called the “elephant bird” fascinated him. This flightless bird roamed the land near Fort Dauphin, weighed up to 1,100 pounds, and laid 20-pound eggs! Unfortunately, the local people hunted the large and slow elephant bird to extinction.

De Flacourt also described many lemurs, some of which still live in southern Madagascar. When I read some of his accounts, I couldn’t wait to see my first lemurs up close—an animal that immediately captured my imagination as a youngster when I first learned about them in National Geographic.

Fort Dauphin beach

The plane swung over the brilliant turquoise water of the Indian Ocean and turned back toward the land. We descended and glided over the pristine beach. Just as the runway zipped under us the plane’s engines revved up and the plane pulled up to regain altitude. My heart jumped and my blood pressure must’ve shot up. Yikes! What’s going on here? I wondered.

The plane was a middle-aged Boeing 737 with six seats across, common on commuter routes at home, but not an aircraft I would expect to be doing aerial acrobatics. The plane skirted the blocky hills, turned back toward the ocean, and repeated the approach. This time I noticed a rusty ship carcass balanced on the offshore reef. As it turned out, I saw it on the third pass as well. The Malagasies on the flight chuckled indulgently when the plane’s wheels finally smacked down on the runway and the plane bounced to a stop. Apparently, this was a familiar occurrence for them.

Outside the terminal, the uniformed airline crew gathered around a man much younger than the rest, also in uniform and wearing a sheepish smile. The older men took turns slapping the young pilot on the back and shaking his hand. I wondered, How many more of our planes will be piloted by trainees?


A Roadside Glimpse of Life

Houses of Ifaty

During the four-hour drive west to our next birding site, the Berenty Private Reserve, we had the opportunity to see how people lived in the spiny forest region in the arid southeastern third of Madagascar. We passed small houses made of thumb-sized strips of wood, sometimes finished with mud. Inside I could see a bed, a small fire ring for the evening smudge fire, and an occasional shelf in the shadows. In the intense heat, I imagined the mud-covered houses had to be stifling inside. The structures seemed tiny until we saw how much of the family and village life took place outside. There were times I felt as if we were driving through someone’s home because the outdoor scenes were so intimate: a man sitting on the ground and playing with his toddlers; a young woman bathing in a water trough dressed only in a light wrap; a woman sweeping her dirt yard with a handful of twigs. Outside one home, a small charcoal cooker sat on the bare earth supporting a bubbling rice pot.

Girl with sun protection, photo by Mark Smith

Everywhere, women and girls carried water from the river or the roadside water taps, each container appropriate for the size of the bearer. No need for books on their heads to teach posture here, I mused. A few younger women strolled around with a paste of manioc flour on their faces for sun-protection. It reminded me of mudpacks women in the United States use for moisturizing their skin.


We stopped next to a wide riverbed where women filled their water containers and washed their clothes in the ankle deep water. People carrying loads on their heads or pushing bikes meandered across the two-lane bridge. We had to let our little blue bus cross the bridge without us because the approach had crumbled and looked rather dangerous. Once we all got off the bus, the driver urged the reluctant vehicle up six-inch steps to the bridge itself, mindful to protect the underbody with each lurch. To my relief, he made it across the bridge safely and the bus was still intact.

Several tombs next to the road reminded me of the ones we had seen at Royal Hill. They were ornate, but smaller and a bit different. Chest-high plastered walls surrounded a central space where a small structure with a sloped roof held the ancestor. Rocks often filled the courtyard around the tomb. From the road, we could see figures and symbols that celebrate the deceased’s life painted on the white walls. Though traditional practices differ in some ways from those we saw in the highlands near Antananarivo, people here also build the tombs near their homes and villages, believing the spirits of their ancestors can guide descendants’ lives. The permanence of the tombs made clear the strong link the Malagasy people feel for their land. It would be difficult for them to consider leaving their ancestral lands should environmental or economic changes become dire.

Tomb in southern Madagascar

On some tombs zebu skulls with elegant horns rested on top to honor the ancestor’s status. Zebus are a species of cattle that originated in India and spread across to the east coast of Africa. Other common names for zebu include humped cattle or Brahman. Researchers believe the first cattle were shipped to Madagascar from the east coast of Africa. These animals are well adapted to a hot, dry climate, although some varieties also do well in the rainforest.

The Malagasy people consider zebus a form of wealth. The more zebus a man owns, the higher his status, and it is the number of zebus, not their condition, that is important. Sadly, we saw many scrawny zebus desperately searching for a blade of grass on the stark landscape that they themselves created.


Zebus are used as sacred food for the feasts that mark major life passages and are often used as ceremonial gifts and religious sacrifices. Traditionally, when a wealthy owner of a zebu herd dies, all of the owner’s animals, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are killed for the feast. The family of the deceased saves the finest skulls for the tomb. Recently, as more Malagasies have been converting to Christianity, fewer zebus have been killed for the funeral feast—at least not the whole herd.

We approached our destination, Berenty Reserve, and my excitement rose. I was about to realize another lifetime dream of observing lemurs firsthand in their natural habitats. When we drove under the sign that said Berenty Reserve Naturelle H. A. H., I scanned the trees and shrubs that lined the road for lemurs. I knew they were close.