For the last two weeks of the January Pioneer scheme, we once again joined the Azafady Conservation Programme (ACP), to help out with the research and other activities there. Always a popular placement with the volunteers, it’s also one of my favourite parts of Pioneer – spending time in the beautiful littoral forests of Sainte Luce, spying on geckos and stalking lemurs.
One afternoon I went on a lemur behaviour session with just a select few: ACP volunteer Simon, Pioneer team leader Eric, local guide Solo and myself. Small groups are ideal for this, as you can move through the forest with less noise and disruption to the animals normal routine. The first hour was very pedestrian as we trudged along the winding forest paths in near silence, with no sign of the lemurs, or of anything else either. We passed over small swamps, fallen tree trunks, over and under bush, and large pandanis. Mentally I had quite wandered off, and was daydreaming about steak frites or hammocks or something similarly irrelevant, shaken out of my reverie only when I stumbled on a root.
Fortunately, the others were paying more attention. Solo stopped abruptly, his head angled upwards at a tree 10 metres away. We (he) had found the droids we were looking for. A group of 8 red-collared brown lemurs, eulemur collaris, were clinging to the boughs in front of us, 5 males and 3 females. The focal male (whom we saw first and would be following), looked straight at us, scoping out our little band for signs of danger. Finding none, he turned back to the forest and I stopped anthropomorphising him. Next to me, Simon’s camera was clicking rapidly as he snapped shot after shot with a hefty lens, like a tabloid reporter following a drunken reality TV star. Though my own shutter-finger was itching, I resisted the urge to drop everything, and began recording data. For the first ten minutes the troop relaxed, eating leaves from a mapay tree, and shooting us the occasional curious glance. Then, one-by-one, they shimmied down the trees and carefully stepped onto the forest floor.
This was an extremely special moment, as it was our first time seeing wild lemurs walking along the ground. Strutting with their tails in the air, each looked like a particularly proud cat who has hidden a smelly offering in your shoes and knows you’ll find it later. Now a mere eight metres from us, they were totally at ease padding along, slowly moving away. Keeping a sterile distance, we followed, our shutters now flicking almost in concert. Not missing a chance to show off, the lemurs darted back into the trees, leaping from branch to branch with characteristic grace until they found a new tasty morsel.
A sudden crash hailed the arrival of a small branch on the floor next to us – had one of the lemurs deliberately dislodged it at us? Receiving aerial gifts from the animals is fairly common on lemur sessions, albeit usually in the form of a casual spray or a few lumps of poo. While we paused to take another GPS reading and log data, some of the younger members of the group descended to lower branches, surrounding us on all sides as close as six metres. Twisting their heads to examine us from all angles, they edged closer and closer, so that we actually had to back off to avoid cross-contamination. These lemurs were habituated.
The focal male moved off, first through the upper reaches of the trees, then briefly along the floor again, displaying his dexterous agility in an almost cocky way. About an hour into our pursuit, he decided we’d had enough of a show, and settled down in a rotry tree. After a spot of grooming, he sprawled along a branch and went to sleep. Following his example, the others settled down in neighbouring trees, and we distant relatives sat down on the floor to wait. It wasn’t a long doze by any account, as he was up again ten minutes later, and ambling around once more. After making a few pig-like calls into the trees, the troop moved off, meandering another 50 metres or so through the canopy. Our 90 minutes over, we turned away and began walking back to camp.
The forest however, is never finished, and contrived to provide one last treat before we left. Hearing once again the snorting call of a variky, we scanned the trees, and found another group crossing our path ahead. Amongst them a particularly young juvenile, the creatures briefly paused their procession to gaze at us with their keen eyes. Kodak moment.