hide and seek with the lemurs
Lemurs are considered prosimians, an evolutionary detour in the primate family that predates monkeys and survives thanks to Madagascar’s isolated habitat. Diurnal lemurs are best seen in the early hours of the day, when they are most active. They tend to feed in the morning, seeking a shady spot to sleep when the afternoon becomes too warm. Since the largest lemur species is no bigger than a howler monkey, these creatures are difficult to spot once they’ve had their fill of tree leaves.
We had discussed a 7:30-8:00am departure time for our morning hike, but we’re not exactly morning people, especially on vacation. 7:30 found us still in bed and it was 8:30 by the time we had breakfasted and were ready to set out on our lemur hunt. Roland accompanied us, partly because the nature guide spoke mostly Malagasy and just a little bit of French, and partly because he too was excited to take pictures of lemurs, should we come upon any. After crossing a small river, we entered the forest and followed the guide up and down the narrow trail without seeing much of anything. For the most part this was a quiet walk, partly because we were on the lookout for lemurs and partly because the nature guide was unusually taciturn.
We took the Babakoto Circuit because it was rumored to be the territory of the indri indri (babakoto in Malagasy), the largest extant lemur species. After three quarters of an hour we arrived at a bench. The guide made a motion for us to wait and plunged into the forest. We wound up waiting almost as long as we had hiked before he reemerged, his blue plastic flip-flops glistening and his clothes sopping wet. He had clearly worked hard but had had no luck in finding lemurs. We went on, but after a few minutes the guide again motioned for us to stop and dove back into the forest.
This pattern repeated itself for the better part of the next two hours. We’d walk five minutes and wait ten while the guide explored the dense forest to either side of the trail, each time returning with an apologetic smile and the news that there were no lemurs to be seen. As the sun climbed towards its zenith and the day became noticeably warmer we began to despair of seeing any lemurs in the forest and, itching to use our camera, started paying attention to the little things – the vines, flowers, and mushrooms that often go overlooked when one is in search of more exciting wildlife.
We reached the midway point of the circuit and held a small conference. Roland said that no lemurs have ever been spotted on the back end and suggested that we retrace our steps in the hopes that the indri indri had returned to their favorite stomping grounds. We hiked back to the bench while the guide took a circuitous path through the woods. It was our last chance to see lemurs on this hike and this time fortune smiled on us.
The guide emerged out of the woods with a much greater sense of urgency than before, telling us that he had found a family of babakoto and that we had to hurry. We did not need to be told twice, bounding into the forest and crashing through the brush as we half-ran, half-slid downhill. Despite the commotion we made, the lemurs did not seem to be perturbed in the slightest. There were three of them and they barely gave us a passing glance in between mouthfuls of tree leaves.
After a while the lemurs tired of their trees, or perhaps we got too close in our attempts to photograph them, and they moved on. They leaped from tree to tree, moving with astonishing quickness. A handful of jumps sufficed to completely hide them from our view. As they ensconced themselves in the heart of the forest we turned to trudge back uphill to regain the trail, our excitement at our bit of good fortune matched by our guide’s relief at finding the lemurs at last.