Leaping Lemurs

There are no Malagasy monkeys, and the 32 lemur species fill the primate ecological niche. We were fortunate to see many lemur varieties.

In the semi-arid dry forest of southern Madagascar, we are walking on a ten-foot wide cattle trail lined with prickly brush and tamarind and eucalyptus trees. We hear the vigorous rustle of leaves, limbs being jerked from side to side-by lemurs, we hope. We stop and peer into the dry underbrush. We are not disappointed.

Verreaux’s Safika Lemur Mark Smith photo

A slim white animal the size of a small cat bursts from the ground level shrubs and gallops onto the path on springy legs, arms waving. The female lemur, with a baby glued to her back, pauses in the path’s center, her bright yellow eyes wide scanning, and ears alert for predators.

We are fascinated.

The lemur looks our way and then into the brush behind her. She makes a clicking call to her family and then gallops on to a tree across the path. Grasping the trunk with her hands and her powerful hand-shaped feet, she shinnies rapidly into the protection of the limbs and leaves. In quick succession, five more Sifakas bounce and flail across the open ground and join her in the canopy’s safety.

These are Verreaux’s Sifaka, the “dancing lemurs” of Berenty, an old southern sisal plantation. Standing tall with arms extended, they could almost grab my shoulders. They are white and fuzzy 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. They live in family groups of four to eight individuals. The dominant female leads the group on a daily route through the sixty foot tamarind canopy. They search for tasty leaves until nap time. When a road or a roof breaks the canopy, she will gallop across the open space to the next safe tree. It is easy to get photos of them dancing. If you see one, the rest will follow. Yes, we did try to emulate them, but our human bodies are too heavy and our legs not springy enough to even approximate their leaping grace and altitude.

On another Berenty path, we hear a meow from the bushes. A young Ring-tailed Lemur sits alone on a branch, an unusual sight. We look around for his family but the trees are quiet. He seems to be pleading, perhaps calling for his mother, and meows again. We approach, cameras clicking, and his eyes widen as he looks frantically from us to the trees and back. When we get too close, the youth warns us off with a little growl, then turns and scampers up the tree limb into the canopy where we can now hear the rustling of a larger animal.

Ring-tailed Lemurs are one of the more familiar lemur species. They look like skinny raccoons, gray with black masks and ringed tails not as fluffy as a raccoon’s. Early the first morning, we found a Ring-tail family sitting in the path with their darker bellies exposed to the rising sun’s warmth. Their legs were splayed, arms limp at their sides, eyes drooping. Though languid, they were alert and at a sudden noise their eyes snapped open, and they dashed off to a safe tree.

Restaurant Ringtails

Every day at Berenty we watched groups of Ring-tails swagger along the roads, rumps held high over extra-long hind legs. It all looked rather rude if they were walking away, but the gay wave of their tails, jerked side to side with each step, was proof enough of their benign attitude toward us.

Ring-tails engage in stink fights to ward off potential rivals. A male will rub his fuzzy black and white tail across scent glands on his wrists and then wave it in the air to threaten his opponents. He will mark his territory by backing up to a branch or tree trunk, tail erect, to rub the branch with another scent gland. A female will do the same when she is in estrous, and the male will rub his scent over the top of hers to mask it from other males.

We stayed for three days at Berenty, where the Ring-tails are tame to the point of being pesky. They helped clean off the tables if the waiters were not attentive, and almost climbed in a cabin window for a banana they could smell. Several times during each day, guests near my cabin were be startled by a loud bang, followed by others. as lemurs landed on the roof. The cabin was on one lemur family’s feeding route. After landing on the corrugated metal roof, they strolled over the top, tails high, and leapt into the next tree. Tree, roof. It must all look the same to a lemur.

Fortunately, my cabin was not on their route.

The Golden Bamboo Lemur, first described in 1987, can chew through a two-inch bamboo stalk as easily as a sugar cane stalk, and while eating, did not mind my close presence.

Golden Bamboo Lemur

Bamboo lemurs can eat the cyanide filled bamboo shoots and stem, poisonous to most animals. There are several varieties, including the endangered Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, the largest living lemur. Their natural habitat is shrinking and they are hunted for food, so protective measures are imperative for their survival.

We are birding  in a clearing near Perinet in northern Madagascar when I notice movement in some distant tamarind trees. They approach us and we can see that it is a troop of the Black and White Ruffed Lemurs. Mar gasps. In his many trips to Madagascar, he has never seen this lemur variety. Their raucous vocalizations allow us follow them as they race through the trees. They pause right above us and we can see the black and white bodies, black tail and white fluffy ruff around the neck and ears. They easily outdistance us, and soon we lose them but not the thrill of the encounter.

The staged visit to see the well-studied mouse lemur at Ranomafana was a bit contrived, but we would not have seen any nocturnal lemurs in action without them.

>We are near the Ranomafana viewpoint. It is nearly dusk and we are awaiting the tiny mouse lemur in an opening carved out of the thick rainforest. Some people escape the drizzle under a picnic shelter complete with table and benches. There are eight of us and a few people from other groups, and several guides. One of the guides picks a ripe banana out of his box, and smears the smashed pulp onto a nearby branch. Then he cuts another banana in half and impales it on a pointed stick next to the entry trail.

Then we wait, whispering softly among ourselves.

Someone says, “Here he comes.” A chipmunk-sized animal with thick gray-brown fur and twitching ears creeps out of the bushes for his nightly gorge on the smashed banana. It looks at us with huge eyes and sniffs the fragrant offering. His tail hangs limp. As he licks the banana pulp he is unperturbed by our flashing cameras.

Mouse Lemur

Then, a new guide turns off the path with a young couple and he points behind him. A second mouse lemur is sitting on his haunches next to the speared banana, his tiny paws propped on the peel’s cut edge. He nibbles leisurely on the sweet pulp and watches us when he chews. I wonder why the flashes do not bother his night-sensitive eyes, but he does not flinch as they go off. Someone says he is worth millions to the country’s economy and the big eyes sweep across our adoring faces, as if he is acknowledging his own popularity.

Suddenly, he turns, flicks his tail and springs onto another branch three feet away and disappears into the bushes again. The length of his leap is hard to comprehend, a huge distance covered by such a tiny creature.

We were privileged to watch several lemur-family scenes. In some areas, researches have been studying them for years and, while not tame, they are accustomed to people, and go about their daily routines undisturbed.

At Perinet, a family of Indri Indri, one of the larger lemur species, rests in the trees above us after a morning of browsing on leaves and flowers. The tailless black and white female sits on a sturdy branch, her feet gripping the tree trunk. She looks our way with her triangular black face, teddy bear ears and bright yellow eyes, but she has been studied for years, and people are not a novelty. A baby a few months old rests on her belly. At first, all we can see is the baby’s tiny arm reaching around her back.

Indri Indri and Baby

Other family members begin feeding again. An older sibling ambles to the end of a nearby branch. He delicately pulls the flower to his mouth and nibbles the petals. The baby awakens and squirms. We can see his little head and his bright, curious eyes find us. He crawls up his mother’s belly and at first, it looks like he might slide off her side and drop, but he holds onto her fur and squirms to drape his little bottom clear of her side. Then he lets loose a golden stream. When he is done urinating, he climbs back up her chest and begins some practice leaps to the next vertical limb no more than two feet away. Leap, look back at mom, who is watching, dare I say, proudly? Leap, back to the safety of her lap, then another leap away and return, gaining confidence as he explores the world beyond his mother’s embrace.

We hear a distant, eerie call, reminding me of a whale’s song. The female hears it as well. She lifts her head and forms her mouth in a wide “O” and I can see the ruby red inside her cheeks. She tenses and, with a piercing wail that slides down, pauses at the bottom and lifts at the end, replies, claiming her territory.

After calling for several minutes, the female shinnies up the trunk of the tree, her baby glued to her back. She pauses briefly, springs in a high arc, limbs spread wide to snag nearby tree branches as she plummets. She clutches the trunk with her strong legs and then bounces confidently from tree to tree with the speed and agility of a rubber ball.

This is what I love about this place.