It's no walk in the park, but tracking these peculiar primates through Madagascar's steep, slippery, leech-filled rainforest could be the most rewarding vacation you ever take.
Standing there eyeball to eyeball with the lemur, I was not entirely certain what was going to happen next. He seemed to have come from nowhere, sailing over my head and landing on the tree in front of my face.
We stood transfixed. Slowly he leaned forward and gave me a few curious sniffs, our noses almost touching, before he bounced away through the trees. I was ecstatic.
As the photo editor for Audubon, I've seen pictures of just about every kind of animal. But something about lemurs long ago captured my fancy. Maybe it's because they don't get the recognition monkeys and other primates do. Whatever the reason, I knew I wouldn't be happy until I had seen them in the wild.
But I didn't just want to go on a vacation and see the lemurs; I wanted to help them. I had heard about Earthwatch projects, which give everyday people the chance to work with world-class scientists on their field research. When I learned of a two-week lemur research project in Madagascar, I jumped at the opportunity.
Earthwatch projects are not for the faint of heart. It took two days just to get from New York City to Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo. From there, Ranomafana, the national park where the research takes place, was still a day's drive away on one of the windiest, narrowest roads I've ever been on. Cars are relatively new to Madagascar, and Dede, our driver, didn't seem the least bit concerned about speeding through the mountains. As we got closer to the park, the road became a giant muddy gulch. Upon arrival at the project site, it started to rain, and it didn't stop for nearly a week. I wasn't sure that I was going to make it.
The volunteers (each of us had paid our airfare plus a $1,695 project fee) were a diverse group. Our team included everything from an accountant to a zookeeper. None of us had ever been to Madagascar, and a couple of people in the group had never even been outside their own country. Phil, a 19-year-old Canadian, had used his entire life savings to come on the project. Susan, an architect from New York City, and Roger, a Canadian science teacher, were both Earthwatching for the third time.
For the next two weeks we slept in tents, had cold-water showers, and used toilets that flushed only occasionally. Every night, I found myself coating my cold, clammy feet with Odor Eaters foot powder to soak up some of the moisture and fend off a fungus. I watched with fascination--and horror--as my wrist bled freely after my first leech; a week later my legs, ankles, and wrists were speckled with scabs.
The good news was that Ranomafana is literally leaping with lemurs, and Earthwatch volunteers have access to the pristine, trail-less areas of the park that are off-limits to regular tourists. Our project leader, Patricia Wright, had been instrumental in raising $8.2 million to establish the park in 1991. A primatologist from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Wright fought to preserve Ranomafana's forest after she and her colleagues discovered the golden bamboo lemur there, in 1987; until then the species had been unknown to science.
Madagascar is the only place in the world where you'll find lemurs--all 32 species of them, half of which are highly endangered. But there are more than lemurs on this extraordinary island off the east coast of Africa. Madagascar, a living museum of Eocene animals and plants, is home to more endemic species than almost any other place on earth. In fact, if you don't count the bats, every one of the island's native mammals is found here exclusively.
This makes the habitat destruction caused by logging and slash-and-burn farming all the more disturbing, and as a result, Madagascar has become a top conservation priority. With 90 percent of its natural vegetation gone, Madagascar's red soil is literally bleeding into the ocean, and from the air the island slightly resembles Mars. Since the arrival of people about 2,000 years ago, 16 species of lemurs and 7 other mammal species here have become extinct; many others are dangerously close. Mere patches of virgin forest remain, some protected, some not. Nature reserves cover less than 2 percent of the island. Ranomafana, at more than 100,000 acres, is one of the largest protected areas in the country.
After we arrived at the park, we hiked the half-mile to the research lab. Along with the dining hall, it was the only walled building we would encounter during our stay in the jungle. Here, Wright gave us an introduction to the research techniques used for observing lemurs. We would work from dawn to dusk, situating ourselves in the forest before the lemurs woke up in the morning and staying until they settled down for the night. Anything that happened in between would be meticulously recorded, at five-minute intervals, in our Rite in the Rain notebooks. "Each person follows their own lemur all day long," Wright explained. "Some days you'll follow the old red male, who's always lagging behind and doesn't seem to know what's going on, and some days you'll follow the female that has been leading for years and really is a very savvy person--or lemur, I should say."
A lemur called the Milne-Edwards' sifaka, which Wright refers to in shorthand as a "prop" (for its Latin name, Propithecus), was the main reason we were here. This lemur is being studied from head to toe, with Wright and her students focusing on its social behavior and genetics, and on the development of dominant behavior. It is a beautiful animal, with chocolate-brown fur and legs built for leaping. "They have very strong legs, so they can go from trunk to trunk," said Wright. "They just bounce off the trunks of the trees. They're like acrobats. It's amazing to see." Despite the fact that they look like exotic stuffed animals from FAO Schwarz, their innocent appearance is deceptive. The sifakas have sordid liaisons that are every bit as complex as anything you'd see on Melrose Place. Just trying to keep track of who was currently with whom, coupled with the fact that the lemurs all had names that corresponded to the colors on their collars, was confusing, to say the least. Twenty-seven-year-old female Blue-Blue mating with seven-year-old male Blue-Purple was definitely an eyebrow-raiser. But father Yellow-Green and son Blue-Purple sharing and swapping No-Collar and Green-Orange was downright scandalous.
After we were briefed on these amorous alliances, George, one of the project's Malagasy research assistants, gave a dead-on performance of lemur calls, which consist of sneezes, barks, whistles, and moans. To finish off, we were assigned to one of the four groups that would observe the study group of 34 sifakas. Now we were ready to set off in search of lemurs.
In theory, the project was easy: track an assigned lemur through the forest and record its behavior, whether it was grooming itself or foraging through the trees for food. The reality was hard. Lemurs leap from tree to tree in this mountainous rainforest terrain. We earthbound humans had to scramble after them, up and down the slippery, nearly vertical slopes, clinging to anything that looked halfway stable but taking care not to grasp anything too hard because it might be covered with thorns or who knows what else. Invariably, by the time we finally caught up with the lemurs, they would decide to relocate again.
After several trips up and down the mountainside each morning, the lemurs would settle down for their afternoon siesta, giving us a much-needed break. Often, we stood almost motionless for more than an hour as the lemurs slept above our heads, curled up together into little lemur balls. The cold rain chilled us to the bone, but we duly recorded an R with a circle around it in our notebooks, signifying that our lemur was resting. Soon they would awaken and be off in a flash. The hunt was on again.
Listen for the crunching," wright instructed as we squished along through the mud, pausing to remove the occasional leech and to disentangle ourselves from the overhanging vines. Sure enough, the sound of greater bamboo lemurs eating their dinner could be heard distinctly. We watched as one greedy young lemur eagerly snatched a bamboo stalk from its mother's hands. The behavior was all the more fascinating considering that this bamboo is full of cyanide, and that the amount the lemur was ingesting would kill a human. This is yet another puzzle that researchers are trying to figure out. Even though most lemurs spend their time in trees, it was fairly common to stumble across, almost literally, these bamboo lemurs feeding on the ground. I was amazed that we could get within a couple feet of them without disturbing them. According to Wright, most of Ranomafana's lemurs have never known life without humans in close proximity. They have been completely habituated, but they are still wild. It's an ecotourist's dream.
Our work wasn't limited to the daylight hours. Donning our headlamps, we went looking for nocturnal lemurs such as the mouse lemur, the world's smallest primate, as well as chameleons, which turn white at night. We formed a single-file line of bouncing lights and wound our way up the muddy trail, which was even more treacherous in the dark. At one point we thought we had spotted the elusive aye-aye, which is probably the oddest-looking of all lemurs; its skeletonlike middle finger, used to dig grubs out of trees, is more than a little creepy.
Wright was particularly excited because the aye-aye is not common in Ranomafana. We huddled under a tree, straining our eyes and developing "primatologist neck" while trying to spot the lemur through binoculars with the aid of a flashlight. Voices came out of the darkness: "I can see the tail. Oh, yeah, I can see the eyes!" "He has a white belly, and he's definitely going vertical. How high is he--20 meters?" In the pitch-darkness, all we could truly see was a pair of orange eyes reflecting back at us. The lemur--whatever kind it was--won the battle of wills, and we went back to camp, cold and without an answer.
When I signed up for earthwatch's Madagascar lemur project, I knew it wouldn't be easy. Still, I never expected it to be one of the hardest, most amazing things I've ever done. Most of the team members came for the adventure, and many, including me, had a hard time explaining to family members why we were traveling halfway around the world to chase a furry little animal through the rain. Armed for the trip with vaccinations for hepatitis A, yellow fever, tetanus, diphtheria, and typhoid, not to mention a heaping supply of malaria pills, I was ready. (Or so I thought; although I brushed my teeth with bottled water, I still got giardia.) I lived on a diet of beans, rice, and zebu meat, and listened to the rain pound so hard each night that I thought the tent would wash away.
I also sat at eye level with a lemur while we ate our respective breakfasts, and I watched a fellow team member become one of the only people in the world to hand-feed an injured wild sifaka, which had been hurt during a scuffle with another lemur. Many times I found myself close to tears, both from overwhelming joy and from sheer frustration. And there were times when I cursed the mud, cursed the rain, and even cursed the lemurs. It seemed as if they were laughing at me as I chased them through the forest, with my bulky camera equipment in tow, only to have them leap away when I reached their location and began to photograph. Despite my frustration, there was something very comforting about this. These animals were wild, in their own territory, and I couldn't catch them. That was the way it should be.
Kim Hubbard is Audubon's photography editor.