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DARAINA REVISITED

Golden-crowned Sifaka, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

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.

Golden-crowned Sifakas at Tattersalli Camp, Daraina. Over-grazed and eroded cleared hillsides contrasting with pristine dry deciduous forest.

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.

Camp Tattersalli, Daraina

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, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

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, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

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, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

‘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, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

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.

Golden-crowned Sifaka, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

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.

Crowned Lemur, Tattersalli Camp, Daraina

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OCELOT

AN OCELOT AT SOUTHWILD SANTA TERESA WAS THE HIGHLIGHT of my Wild Images Brazil's Pantanal tour. At the hide (or rather open air theatre) of the same name we gathered after dark sitting on the small bandstand opposite a tangle of vines baited with piranha steaks. Happily it did not take too long for the hoped for cat to appear, creeping in furtively from the forest to our right. It took some time to pluck up courage to make its way to the food but when it did our local guide turned on the other two of the three floodlights lighting up the ‘stage’. This is certainly the most sophisticated set up of its kind I’ve seen so far and most folks were able to get reasonable high ISO photos at slow shutter speeds. I opted instead for flash synced at 1/250th second, ISO 1000 and an aperture of f/8, which captured a couple of nice eye-level portraits when the Ocelot stood in a position up on the vines that I was happy with. Interesting that my effective focal length was 280mm too. Generally 400mm is recommended but if you want some background at all then this is too long for me. The shorter and faster lens also aids shooting in the low light of the floodlight if you don’t want to use flash and burn out the cat’s eyes. Not all of the set up is photogenic so it is important to figure out where you want to shoot it, position yourself for that angle and hope that the Ocelot obliges, which lucky for me it did. The Ocelot show was so efficient that we were even back at Rio Claro for evening meal. I am very grateful to Southwild for their kind hospitality!

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GOLDEN-CROWNED SIFAKAS OF DARAINA

Golden-crowned Sifakas at Tattersalli Camp, Daraina.

When researching a new destination there is always something special that catches my eye. In the case of Madagascar it was undoubtedly Golden-crowned Sifaka. It is the cover star of Nick Garbutt’s ‘Mammals of Madagascar’ and is regarded by some to be the most beautiful of all the lemurs. After watching them feeding quietly close by in the late afternoon in their dry deciduous forest home at Daraina in remote northeast Madagascar I can't disagree. They positively glowed in the last golden rays of sunshine coming through the bare tree canopy. A mother with baby clinging to her side carefully smelled the forest floor, selecting nuts to eat, only a couple of metres away from me while the rest of her family group of five foraged nearby. The rest of the day they could often be found higher in the canopy, eating leaves and resting but this late afternoon descent seemed to be part of their daily routine. Golden-crowned Sifaka is a small and delicate indrid lemur and its appeal is enhanced by the fact that it is critically endangered. Only discovered as recently as 1974 by Ian Tattersall, it was finally described in 1988 and more recent genetic studies have established it as a separate species from the Verreaux’s group of western Sifakas. In fact it may actually be more closely related to the Diademed group instead. It has an incredibly small range and occurs only in the vicinity of Daraina where it faces a number of threats, all of them associated with the activities of man. Forest clearance for agriculture and fuel as well as gold mining is the biggest threat but they have also been hunted periodically for bush meat, particularly during the economic chaos that ensued after the 2009 coup d’état. The recent influx of gold miners to the area has also damaged the forest itself, leaving deep pits everywhere, which undermine tree roots and ultimately kill them.

It is actually quite straightforward to see Golden-crowned Sifaka, they are common and easy to find in the forest patches around Daraina, although the road journey to get there, from whichever direction you approach, is something of an ordeal. In fact my friend Terry Chambers reminded me that it took longer to get from Antsirinana to Daraina by road than it did from Paris to Antananarivo! The road was not repaired after the last rainy season and is a nine hours bumpy ordeal each way from Antsirinana with not much to look at along the way in the rather degraded countryside. We didn’t see a single bird of any species for almost an hour after we set out from Antsirinana for instance. The Madagascar conservation NGO Fanamby has established an eco lodge at Daraina, Tattersalli Camp and although its wooden huts are very simple, it is clean and wonderfully located right on the edge of some really beautiful forest away from the gold digging areas. The sifaka (and also the merely endangered Crowned Lemur) can even be seen in the trees around the camp itself, including from the bathroom! The forest immediately adjacent to the camp had a couple of families of Golden-crowned Sifakas at the time of our visit and it also produced some interesting birds like spectacular Sickle-billed and Hook-billed Vangas. A large roost of Greater Vasa Parrots coming and going was another memorable sight (and sound). At night the forest comes to life and although we did not manage to find an Aye-aye this time, there were some signs of their feeding activity. Worryingly some dead Aye-ayes were found recently, by our guides, having been killed by locals who regard them as evil spirits and harbingers of death. We saw plenty of other lemurs, all of them unique to this area including Daraina Mouse Lemur, Daraina Sportive Lemur and the putative ‘Daraina’ Fork-marked Lemur.

I am hoping that this post will encourage you to make a wildlife pilgrimage to Daraina and maybe help persuade the local people that the lemurs and their forest home here are worth more alive than dead.  The long journey is well worthwhile and was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Madagascar. You can either join my next Wild Images tour to Madagascar or contact the NGO Fanamby directly.

'I believe I can fly! A Golden-crowned Sifaka takes to the air.

Crowned Lemur, from the bathroom!

'Daraina" Fork-marked Lemur is sure to be another separate species of lemur.

Late afternoon sun at Tattersalli Camp, Daraina.

Panning for gold at Daraina, a hard life attempting to find some fragments of poor quality precious metal.

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FOSAS OF KIRINDY FOREST

A female Fosa approaches at Kirindy Forest Station. [CLICK PHOTOS FOR LIGHTBOX]

When I planned my recent Wild Images photo tour of Madagascar I asked myself, if I could only visit once, on a ‘Best of’ tour, which of its amazing animals would I want to include in my itinerary? Starting in the unique spiny forest of the southwest near Ifaty, itself an un-missable attraction, Long-tailed Ground Roller must be one of the most enigmatic birds of the ‘Eighth Continent’ and then there was Ring-tailed Lemur. Having seen this beautiful creature so many times on Johnny Morris’s ‘Animal Magic’ TV programme as a child no wildlife tour of Madagascar would be complete without it. We can see it easily at Isalo National Park, a few hours drive from Ifaty. Including these two locations would automatically pick up some other good lemurs like the outrageous Verreaux’s Sifaka as well as more birds and reptiles but where to next? The eastern rainforest for Indri, the largest extant lemur, as well as Diademed Sifaka (some say it is the most beautiful of all the lemurs) and Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur, another cracker, is another not-to-be-missed destination, particularly as it does not involve a flight with the notoriously changeable Air Madagascar. That still left some time to go both west and north and I wanted to do something different to simply following the main birding drag, which would have taken us to Mahajunga on another notoriously unreliable flight.

So what next? Fosa of course! I’d long admired Nick Garbutt’s amazing photos of Fosa, a unique carnivore, that shares traits with cats, dogs and mongeese and is the only predator in Madagascar capable of preying on adults of any of the lemurs. It is thought to have evolved from a single mammalian ancestor (along with the other Madagascan carnivore members of the family Eupleridae), which made the crossing of the Mozambique Channel on floating vegetation, long after Madagascar had split from Africa c.150 million years ago, at a time before mammals had evolved of course. [Such an event is thought to have produced all of the lemurs, tenrecs and Madagascar rodents, each family deriving from a single refugee. This might sound an unlikely way to have produced the present set of mammals in Madagascar but even one million years is a long time for a random event like this to happen! Remember that a primate has now managed to reach the moon (probably). Faced with a vast unexploited area of habitat the colonists radiated into an array of specialists, each finding their own niche.] The Fosa is a hunter of the other mammal groups, particularly lemurs. Imagine an animal so sleek and fast that it can hunt down an agile primate, which is capable of making 10 metre leaps between trees in its efforts to evade capture. It has flexible ankles, which allow it to jump from tree to tree and descend them headfirst, semi-retractable claws like a cat, a super long tail to aid balance during chases and a fearsome set of teeth. It is certainly the lemurs’ nemesis.

Although it is the most widely distributed of Madagascar’s carnivores, the Fosa is very thinly spread and usually very elusive. However, there is a reliable place to see it, Kirindy Forest, just north of Morondava on Madagascar’s west coast where they are more or less habituated. In fact, they are so at home around the Forest Research Station that it is a challenge to photograph them with natural-looking backgrounds away from the rubbish (‘fako’) dump, where they scavenge leftovers. I spent hours following them around and enjoyed a few superb encounters when they simply sat down in the forest and allowed me to do the same only a couple of metres away. We saw at least four different animals, two gnarly males, both with damaged left eyes but also a perfect young male and female. We even saw one at night hunting along one of the forest tracks. It almost bounded right up to us before realizing its mistake. While watching the tourists come and go I couldn't understand why they would all just take a few snaps at the rubbish dump and then go back to the restaurant, thinking ‘job’s a good un’? One of my mottos springs to mind ‘why go off and do something else badly?’ I had Nick’s superb photos and some other ideas in my mind’s eye and here are a few of my efforts.

The old alpha male Fosa of Kirindy Forest Research Station, showing his best side.

A young male Fosa yawns after a long afternoon nap under the chalets.

The same animal on the prowl in the nearby forest.

Eventually he sat down for a rest and allowed some very close approach.

The female Fosa again.

Fosas co-exist with the hordes of vahaza (white tourists) at Kirindy.

They make themselves completely at home at Kirindy Forest Research Station!

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