The Rain Forest and the Research Center
It was largely due to the grit and determination of primatologist Dr. Patricia Wright that Ranomafana National Park was established in 1991. She had discovered a new species of lemur in 1986, the golden bamboo lemur, in the Ranomafana rain forest and had confirmed the continued existence in the same area of the greater bamboo lemur, previously thought to have become extinct. Within its roughly 250 square miles the park has a wealth of creatures and plant life that only exist here. According to Dr. Wright, it wasn’t that difficult to get the Malagasy central government to declare the area a national park, but that only made it a “paper park.” No money came with the declaration. So, that same year, she started the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments (ICTE) affiliated with Stony Brook University to advance scientific research, training and conservation in the tropics and to serve as a conduit for funds to make Ranomafana a reality on the ground.
As Drs. Wright and Jonah said over and over again, it’s not enough to declare an area a national park and even raise funding for it. There are also human needs that must be integrated into the mission of a national park. There are over 100 villages and over 25,000 indigenous people that live around the park and depend on the natural resources of the forest to support themselves.
In 2003 in response to unmet human needs she set up Centre ValBio (CVB), a research center located just outside the park’s entrance. In addition to advancing scientific research on tropical ecosystems, CVB’s mission is “to encourage environmental conservation by developing ecologically sustainable economic development programs with local villages . . . and to provide the local villagers with the knowledge and tools to improve their quality of life through projects focused on sanitation, diet, and education, and ultimately reduce poverty in the area.” In brief, the mission is to integrate the needs of the people with that of the plants and animals.
There is no doubt that the struggle to integrate human needs with environmental preservation is not over in Ranomafana. One step forward for the golden bamboo lemur can mean two steps backward for the local farmer who practices tavy or slash-and-burn agriculture to feed his family.
Scientists like Dr. Wright seek to work with local communities to find solutions. That might mean introducing new agricultural techniques like agroforestry or creating income generating jobs. It also means learning from the local people who have intimate knowledge about the forest. For example, the Tanala tribe, also known as “the forest people” who live adjacent to the park, know a great deal about the medicinal herbs and plants indigenous to the area. Dr. Wright’s team is incorporating that knowledge into marketing the floral assets of the forest, thereby not only raising money for Centre ValBio but also providing income to the Tanala.
Dr. Wright has her critics who believe her approach is destroying the traditional culture of the indigenous people. Tavy is a very efficient way to clear the forests to make farm and pasture land and has been used for centuries by indigenous Malagasy farmers. It was probably not a problem 200 years ago when there was a lot of forest and a much smaller population, but it is a problem now. Conditions change and so must traditions. And “there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet.”
We did spend two days hiking in Ranomafana National Park, some quite challenging hikes, especially when we went off trail to see lemurs asleep high in the tree tops. My legs are stronger than ever, but my balance is not what it was.
In short, I have a well-founded fear of falling. Generally, we could only see some furry backsides high up in the trees, “a long run for a short slide” as we say in Chicago. We did see several large black and white ruffed lemurs which are particularly endangered. Amazing creatures, but also good eating which adds to their precarious status.
The Tour Recommences
We left Ranomafana on the third day for another long rattling journey on the bus to our next stop Isalo National Park. I should mention that Natural Habitat Adventures (affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund) also offers tours of Madagascar without the long days of driving that we experienced. Nat Hab charters private planes to cover the distances that we traveled by bus. We have traveled with Nat Hab before and can vouch for the quality of its tours. However, the Nat Hab Madagascar tour is roughly 30% more expensive than the National Geo tour we opted for.
There are experiences we had traveling by bus that we would have missed on chartered flights. We got to see a lot of the countryside that included villages that seriously reminded Noel and me of the HBO series “Deadwood.” We passed through one village that specializes in illegally brewing what we would call “moonshine” from sugar cane in 55-gallon steel drums.
We also saw large fields outside another village with hundreds of small individual sapphire mines that look like elaborate fox holes. The acres of mining fox holes are punctuated by gauche upscale shops selling jewelry made from precious stones like the locally mined sapphires and gold mined elsewhere on the island. Herilala told us there are many mining areas like this throughout the country.
We made one stop to view a beautiful waterfall and were sweetly serenaded by school children singing the Malagasy national anthem. At another stop we saw ancient Baobab trees, a preview of what we would see later during a hike through a spiny forest.
After lunch time one day we stopped at a small silk weaving factory where most of the silk is made from wild silk worm cocoons, a process quite different from silk weaving we had seen in Turkey and India. We made another visit to a nearby handmade paper facility.
As we got closer to our destination at Isalo Rock Lodge, the countryside reminded me of west Texas with large zebu herds and a flat dry rocky landscape punctuated by interesting rock formations. Per Herilala, most of the zebu are sold to the Chinese. We actually drove past a large slaughter house run by the Chinese. Interestingly, we rarely saw female zebu. Herilala told us that is because cows are more valuable than bulls and are in constant danger of being rustled. Therefore, cows are kept locked up under close supervision.
The people look much more African than the people around Ranomafana. The Bara tribe dominates the area. The Bara are related to the Maasai and Bantu of East Africa and are credited with bringing the zebu to Madagascar.
We finally arrived at Isalo Rock Lodge, an absolutely stunning property built about eight years ago and blending beautifully into the arid landscape. Salama! The limestone formations that surround the lodge are gorgeous especially when the sun is rising or setting. The xerographic landscaping around the lodge is as terrific as the lodge itself. I was particularly taken with the pachypodia or elephant foot plants that were in full bloom while we were there. I wished that we were staying more than two nights.
As well as being a physically beautiful place to stay, Isalo Rock Lodge takes Visa unlike some of the other lodges. That took the pressure off our cash flow when we ordered drinks at the bar. However, we could not change our US dollars into the local currency. The front desk could only change euros. That is something we will keep in mind before our next overseas adventure. The ever resourceful Herilala was actually able to arrange for a fellow guide to meet us to change our American money.
We did have two good opportunities to see ringtail lemurs during this part of our journey. The first was at a small reserve the afternoon before arriving at Isalo. Many of the females there had babies, always a wonderful thing to see. Lemurs are female dominated. Adult males have to leave the matrilineal birth group to join another group to mate.
The second was the next day in a picnic area at Isalo National Park where dozens of ringtail lemurs hang out around a creek no doubt attracted by folks who might feed them. In a weird way, the number and behavior of the ringtails reminded me of being in our small urban backyard with its “wild kingdom” (as one of our neighbors describes it) of habituated squirrels, possums, rabbits and raccoons. Maybe we were the ones becoming “habituated.”
Most of our party continued on a steep hike up a canyon trail to a couple of water basins. We opted out and watched the lemurs and then some local folks prepare a zebu barbeque for us. It turned out to be a wise decision, as most of our companions didn’t look particularly happy when they returned. Another “long run for a short slide.”
We spend part of the evening back at our beautiful lodge reluctantly repacking for a two-day trip to Anakao Ocean Lodge and Spa. We had an 4:30 am departure and had to reduce our luggage to one small bag each, as we were taking a small boat from the port town of Toliara to Anakao.
Although Anakao is not on an island, taking the boat saved us 4-6 hours of driving time. Definitely worth the hassle. Our excess bags were loaded onto the reliable rattletrap of a bus and transported back to Tana for us to pick up later. There is no pier on the beach at Anakao, so we experienced what is called “a wet landing,” that is, we waded in the water to reach the beach with our shoes hung round our necks and our small bags over our shoulders.
The beaches at Anakao are fabulous and the eco-lodge is quite a nice property with comfortable individual palapa cottages. There is only electricity for a few hours in the morning and from 5-11 pm. Fresh water comes from a desalination plant on the property with bottled water available for drinking. Lunch and dinner feature seafood furnished by local fishermen from a nearby village. The lodge’s bar offered a nice tasting of infused rums. Salama! And, Herilala actually let us have the afternoon off to enjoy the beaches.
The next day we boarded four-wheel drive vehicles to visit the spiney forest in the Tsimanampetsotsa Nature Reserve. Although we didn’t see the white sifaka lemurs as we had hoped, we did have the opportunity to see and touch baobab trees that are over 1000 years old. We all posed in front of the “grandmother” of the baobabs, a living specimen that is 3000 years old. Salama! It was almost a religious experience to see and feel something that old and still living. There are eight species of baobabs – one in Africa, one in South America and six in Madagascar.
We also descended into a sacred grotto where blind fish live but ironically the blind fish were hard for us to see. Some folks hiked up to a viewing site to look at a soda lake with flamingos. Flamingos migrate back and forth between Tanzania and Madagascar. Noel and I abstained because we had seen better in Tanzania.
I should mention that at the reserve entrance we saw a life-size reproduction of the extinct elephant bird. It is the cut marks on the bones of this enormous bird that caused archeologists to revise the human habitation date for Madagascar. The flightless bird was close to ten feet tall and weighed possibly as much as 2000 pounds. It resembled an ostrich but was actually related to the kiwi. It’s unclear when and how it became extinct. It may have survived as late as the 17th century AD. And you can bet human beings had much to do with its extinction.
I was surprised to find a reassembled elephant bird egg for sale in a shop in the port city of Toliara before we boarded the boat to Anakao. Apparently, there are enough egg shell fragments around to recreate the eggs. I was a bit dubious, but Dr. Jonah assured me it is so.
The next morning, we boarded the boat again for the return trip to Toliara where we caught a commercial flight back to Tana. That night we stayed at a hotel near the airport, as most of our companions were scheduled to fly back to the US.
Noel and I and our friends Richard and Jan had signed on for the five-day extension to Tsara Komba Lodge, one of National Geo’s Unique Lodges of the World collection, located on the island of Nosy Be off the northwest coast of Madagascar. We suffered through our last pre-dawn departure to catch the 6:30 am flight to Nosy Be where we were driven to the city of Hell-Ville (named for Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell, a 19th century French admiral) to catch the speed boat to Tsara Komba and another wet landing.
Stay tuned for Part Three, Tsara Komba