The southeasterly tradewind buffeted our little ATR turbo prop aircraft on its approach to the tiny airport at Antsirinana (formerly Diego Suarez, hence the disturbing airport code on our baggage ‘DIE’) to the extent that our pilot had to abort our first landing attempt. We were thrown about a bit coming in from the northwest and just before we reached the runway he turned on the gas again and lifted the nose of the plane away from our target, before circling the large bay to the north and lining up properly next time for a text book landing into a strong headwind. There was some cheering from the passenger cabin when we finally touched down and drew to a halt. Outside we could see palms bent over in the wind and a few folks gathered outside the airport terminal and holding on to our hats we hurried inside to pick up bags and meet our 4WD drivers for the next few days. There are numerous adverts for kite surfing in the airport terminal, a clue to the reliability of strong winds here in northern Madagascar at this time of year. At least it was a warm wind, a bit like a hair dryer in fact. However, this was only the first minor hurdle involved in getting to the remote dry deciduous forests of northeastern Madagascar, which are home to some very special lemurs we were hoping to photograph.
Next came a 12.5 hours road journey. The road south from Antsirinana to Anbilobe is part of the main arterial route from the north of Madagascar to the capital Antananarivo but not that you can tell now. Along with the rest of northeast Madagascar it was battered in March earlier this year by Tropical Storm Eliakim, the system, which was also responsible for much loss of life as well as the destruction of 30% of the country’s precious vanilla crop. There is now only a thin strip of tarmac in places and deep ruts to either side of it as well as most bridges down and diverted, which made our progress very slow. If that wasn’t bad enough, the unmetalled 100km section from Anvilobe to Daraina had been mostly destroyed to the point that there were at least one million detours around impassable sections, administered by locals with small barriers demanding a toll for passage on the new route they had cut by hand through the adjacent bush in many cases. We saw one feeble attempt at road repairs taking place in one location, otherwise the road, if you can still call it that had been abandoned by the authorities. The result was that we could only average 16kmph on this section for hours on end and we arrived at our destination, the conservation NGO Fanamby’s Tattersalli Camp at Daraina well after midnight. The same journey had taken ‘only’ nine hours last autumn and the ride was not nearly as bumpy as this time. We had to grip the handles of the 4WDs constantly lest we be hurled around inside like in a washing machine. Fortunately we did not have anyone with a spinal condition and we were all quite pragmatic about the adventure we had embarked on. Our spirits were raised when we discovered that our wonderful camp hosts had waited up for us and served us an evening meal after 1am, the first time I have had two evening meals in the same day on a tour! Eventually we hooked up our mosquito nets and settled in to our wooden huts on stilts, which overlooked a lovely patch of dry deciduous forest, home to all the special animals we were hoping to find over the next few days.
Understandably, not everyone was up at first light next day. However, the Golden-crowned Sifakas were, taking the early morning sunshine in treetops not far from the camp and visible from our verandas. After a little figuring out which trail from the dry streambed would take us closer to them we enjoyed some very nice views in the low angle sunlight as they descended to feed. Fab-u-lous! There was a family of seven, one of which was a mum with a tiny 1-2 months old baby clinging to her side. There were a couple of other family groups further away in the forest that we could see from time to time and another family from the woodland behind the camp visited on one day. However, most of our encounters involved the streambed family. There were more evergreen trees in the bottom of the valley and this is probably the prime territory for the sifakas.
Golden-crowned Sifaka is listed as critically endangered by IUCN owing to a declining, fragmented population and a very small range. It is only to be found in the Daraina region of northeast Madagascar. Another major attraction is that it is thought by many to be the most beautiful of all the lemurs but I guess that depends what your favourite colour is. We initially visited Daraina in the hope of seeing a naturally occurring Aye-aye but with two blanks now we have to simply regard it as a pilgrimage to see the sifaka. Well worth the effort in its own right in my opinion. The area in which Golden-crowned Sifaka is found is so remote that it was not described as a separate species until as recently as 1974! We counted a minimum of 27 sifakas during our stay and enjoyed several encounters with streambed family, which visited the trees adjacent to the camp each afternoon. Recent studies have suggested that the formerly more extensive range of this lemur actually contracted before the appearance of man (the ‘anthropocene’), owing to drought events changing the forest landscape.
Crowned Lemur is ‘merely’ endangered and occurs sympatrically with the sifakas in the dry deciduous forests of Daraina. There is also a family of this lovely lemur, which visits the camp each day to drink water, as well as to feed on the seeds of nearby bushes. It has a larger range, which extends to Ankarana and Mount Amber in the north. They were also very confiding and approachable making them ideal photo subjects with their incredibly sweet little facial expressions. Like Golden-crowned Sifaka, its range is severely fragmented and they face numerous threats, the main ones being habitat loss to slash and burn agriculture as well as hunting for food and the pet trade. Recently the forest has been occupied by low-tech gold prospectors, who dig large pits that kill trees by undermining their roots.
‘Fanamby’ Fork-marked Lemur is potential new species of lemur, discovered in the forests of Daraina as recently as 2010. It occurs well outside the range of the four recognized forms of Fork-marked Lemur and will probably be named after the conservation NGO Fanamby, which has done much to protect remaining forest patches in this area. It will of course be instantly critically endangered. Fork-marked Lemurs’ diet consists mostly of tree gum rather than fruits. We could hear them calling in the forest surrounding the camp as soon as darkness fell and saw it in the spotlight a couple of times.
Daraina Sportive Lemur is another product of the recent trend to split lemur forms off as separate species and like those above it is listed as endangered by IUCN. It is subject to the same threats as the other lemurs too. Happily it was easy to see by day as well as by night during our stay and also a little more than the usual ‘jack-in-the-box’ view typical of roosting sportive lemurs, with their feet ready for a quick getaway.
Other interesting mammal species seen during our stay included Daraina Mouse Lemur and the introduced Common Palm Civet. Birds included Madagascar Harrier Hawk, which preys on small lemurs and its high-pitched screams could be heard regularly echoing across the forest. Madagascar Hoopoe could be seen regularly around our huts and both Rainforest Scops Owls and Madagascar Nightjars called around the camp when the sun went down.
It is easy to dwell on the desperate plight of the last remnants of the lovely forest in the Daraina region and blame the various factors for its demise but the main purpose of this post is to encourage more folks to make the journey to Daraina and thereby contribute to their conservation. It is important that the forests have a value to local people via eco-tourism instead of the one-off income from slash and burn agriculture or timber. Stays at Daraina can be arranged via Fanamby here or on our new Northern Madagascar tour itinerary from 2020 onwards.