“The natural world is precious, more precious than Rembrandt or the Hope Diamond, but is being destroyed every day. We can band together to value nature with all its treasures. To value, respect and save the natural world, especially the tropics, should be the top priority of all humans.”
Patricia Wright, world lemur expert
“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
To hear the indri, the largest lemur in Madagascar, is to hear one of the most haunting sounds on Earth, their chorus almost reminiscent of a terrestrial version of a humpback whale song. Their family the prosimians go back over 50 million years, a good 20 million years before monkeys starting developing. To see the black and white face of the indri is to look at a specter, at a moment’s notice capable of disappearing into the increasingly tenuous forests of the 4th largest island on Earth.
We had come to see these most exquisite and rarefied of beings, creatures that define the island of Madagascar along with the entire lemur family, chameleons, fantastic rock formations and Jurassic Park landscapes that were once part of Gondwanaland, cradled between Africa, India and Antarctica several hundred million years ago. Madagascar’s fauna is unique on Earth and for that alone needs worldwide support, and fast. The word lemur comes from the Latin Lemures, which means ghosts, and considering that 90 percent of the 111 lemur species face extinction, humanity needs to act before the increasing deforestation and sorely lacking tourist and international funding renders a once forested primeval island into a parched wasteland.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
We headed south and chanced upon a wild, wild south kind of town where dozens of claims on sapphires and rubies had been made, where holes had been dug so fast and without support beams that the walls had collapsed in on themselves burying prospectors alive. In the late 1990s only a few houses dotted the landscape. Then the town exploded. Merchants from Russia, Eastern Europe, Burma and Sri Lanka had come to make deals for the most exciting new gem site on Earth. People were stashing wads of Malagasy ariary bills under their mattresses. This boom town, where it seemed half the island and a good part of the gem experts on Earth were converging, was ironically called Gogogogo. Where there used to be superstitions and sorcery now there was banditry. After the coup of 2009, a kind of Sacramento fever of 1848 that ran amuck in California ignited all over the south. But then foreign aid, 40 percent of the state budget was slashed. Foreign capital dissolved and poverty blossomed and with it many of Madagascar’s inimitable forests.
It was in Berenty Reserve with its sweeping rocks of the Mandrare River with baobab trees efflorescing like giant cathedrals of wood that was our ultimate destination. The ring-tailed lemurs. Perhaps the most famous species because of the film series “Madagascar,” they were being as playful as any mammal one would wish to meet. But as we learned, the uncanny spiny forests and succulent woodlands of Madagascar, like so much of its land mass, were fast becoming casualties of critically poor farmers looking to make charcoal from trees, especially since the political upheaval of 2009 and the ensuing droughts and locust invasions. There may be no more than 2,000 of these exquisite species left. With their habitat being slowly burnt, how long will they hold on? Rosewood and rare tortoises are the other casualties caught between ensuing political infighting and the corruption that has skyrocketed overt the last decade.
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The lemurs are the true gems of Madagascar. Their ancestors came from Africa 70 million years ago. Their very specialized niches make the preservation of Madagascar’s remaining tree cover its highest priority, along with sustainability and poverty reduction. Community-based tourism that would allow foreigners to stay with locals is one way the wildlife of the island could get much needed revenue. A team of scientists has initiated a three-year emergency plan to salvage the remaining lemur population. The mouse lemur, only 30 grams, is the smallest primate on Earth. Another species the size of the gorilla is long gone.
The local people recognize lemurs have souls and that some enact revenge if one of theirs is killed. Some locals say the lemurs are their ancestors, and being mostly nocturnal, some species have taken a reputation for being supernatural. There is an aura around lemurs that few primates on Earth embody. There is a fady (cultural taboo) against killing lemurs and even eating them but there are rumors that some are being served in restaurants in urban centers. The demands of the market are exacting an enormous social and environmental toll on some of the most fragile mammals on the planet. Stories abound that weave the sacredness of lemurs and royalty, and man’s relation to nature as a whole. The aye aye with its spectral dark face and uncannily long middle finger is hunted and used in sorcery as it is considered malevolent. But it cannot be eaten. And sleeping in the forest with an aye aye can bring evil spirits. Initiates in the dark arts have sacrificed lemurs to the ancestors to balance society for fertility.
Today, when riches are seen in the form of forests and these are being cut down at an alarming rate, the allegiance to the lemurs is nowhere as it once was. The relation to the ancestors is dying and money has become the standard by which wealth is measured.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
In past seasons, when life was more sustainable, animals were invoked to mark the passing of time, to stop a drought, a plague or bad luck. A man called Ibananikoto and his wife once abandoned their field to live in the forest to avoid famine and learned to lives on leaves and roots. After the soil became more fertile, they decided to cultivate the earth once more. But some refused to cultivate the earth and burn the soil and so stayed in the forest gathering leaves and roots. Over time some changed appearance and became the Babakoto, the indri whose people are the Ibananikoto, the father of Koto, the first man to be raised in the forest.
The indri can neither be eaten nor hunted by the Betsimisaraka people. If an individual indri is found dead in the forest it is honored and covered by a shroud before being properly buried. The people of the south in the Tandroy district, honor the sifaka in a similar way. On the West coast, a prince, Ampanjaka, inherited the power of healing, supposedly thanks to the sifaka after having been healed and saved by a pair of sifakas after a serious wound to the leg. His healing power was transferred to all Zafindrasifakas, the “descendants of the sifaka.” The land and territory on which most lemurs live was therefore considered sacred and encouraged the protection of different biomes in Madagascar. But now the forests are in trouble. Social norms and poverty are exacting a toll that could silence many of the lemurs forever. It would be one of the most calamitous losses for Africa and humanity, not just for their unique ecological place in the world, but also for the space they occupy in the soul of the Malagasy people. Both revered and feared the lemurs have elicited a constellation of myths, taboos and cultural practices as very few animal families on earth. Climate change could also pose a serious problem to the forests by delaying the rains by as much as two months by 2070.
What will remain of an island unlike any other on the planet? Patricia Wright, distinguished professor at Stony Brook, Long Island, and her seminal work highlighted in the documentary “Islands of the Lemurs: Madagascar” (2014), is working hard to create corridors for the golden bamboo lemur she discovered in 1986 and making sure COVID-19 does not overwhelm the overall lemur population. As with the great apes on the mainland of Africa, the government is keeping visitors from the parks and not taking any chances lemurs become casualties to the coronavirus pandemic. CentreVal Bio and BeLocal are working to distribute masks and soap for the local communities to help prevent the spread of infection.
The prosimians and the lemurs were here long before mankind took center stage on Earth and their continued survival on the planet now necessitates that we, so called higher apes, act to salvage the remaining forests worldwide. The uncanny life forms of Madagascar are like a fable and the mystifyingly haunting and exquisitely endearing primates called lemurs must be able to continue to haunt the forests of that inimitable island. If we should lose this fantastic primordial line of beings, it will be a hammer blow to our own fledgling species. It will verify what Melville once expressed, “We are beasts from the dark wood. We will never be anything else. We are not to be trusted. Never on this Earth." The forests of Madagascar are some of the last great organic cathedrals on Earth and its sentinel lemurs, if we can save them, will continue to be messengers of light and hope reaching back from the deepest recesses of time.
Please consider donating to the Lemur Conservation Foundation.
“Man, I concluded, may have come to the end of that wild being who had mastered fire and the lightning. He can create the web but not hold it together, not save himself except by transcending his own image.”
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.