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Travels in Madagascar: Wildlife in Ranomafana

Part two of my adventures travelling from Antananarivo to Fort Dauphin with my friends Emily and Tom. Catch part 1 here.

Leaving Andringitra and the mountains behind, we went on to Fiarantsoa by 4×4, then met our driver for the next few days, Mamy. A jovial, chatty guy, he was also a careful driver and a very knowledgeable guide, having spent some years as a guide in Ranomafana before becoming a tour operator and driver a while back. If you’re looking for somebody to organise a trip around Madagascar, he’s your man.

In Madagascar, June 26th is Vingt-Six, commemorating the anniversary of independence from France back in 1960. For many Malagasy this means a few nights of intense partying and a day or two off work. Arriving on the eve of independence day then, we were a little worried the park might not be accessible, or that we wouldn’t be able to get a guide. Mamy came to the rescue, offering to do any transfers we needed and to call his friend who would be happy to guide us in the park. In the end it all worked out fine, and we enjoyed a great stay in Ranomafana village.

Ranomafana National Park is a mix of primary and secondary rainforest, on and around a series of hills. Named after the famous hot springs that first drew tourists here, the park was established in 1991 after the discovery of the Golden Bamboo Lemur. It’s home to 11 more lemur species, over a hundred bird species, herps and more. Though the trails are often steep, they’re well maintained, so you can get around quite a lot of the park’s edge in one day (to see the deeper parts you need a few days, and will be camping overnight in the park).

Starting our first day in the park, we were rewarded almost immediately with a good sighting of the Golden Bamboo Lemur. Moving in a small group through their usual territory, they were easy to see though silhouetted against the morning sun, so photography proved difficult. Interestingly bamboo lemurs enjoy a highly toxic diet of cyanide-heavy bamboo stems, and though nobody is quite sure how they survive this, it seems to have something to do with eating mouthfuls of dirt to neutralise the poison.

Photo of a Golden Bamboo Lemur

Moving on, we just missed a couple of red-bellied lemurs, who it turned out were probably fleeing before the larger red-fronted brown lemurs we saw next. The smaller red-bellies live in pairs, whilst the red-fronted live in large groups like other brown lemurs, so they always win any territorial disputes.

Our next sighting was the highlight of the day, and one of my favourite moments all trip: a pair of Greater Bamboo Lemurs. Or rather, the pair. Incredibly rare, there are just two left in that area of Ranomafana, and they aren’t breeding. Elsewhere they are known at just a few sites, so some believe they may be the rarest of all lemurs. A shame for any species, let alone one as beautiful as this. The size of a 2-month child, they weigh about 2kg and have thick grey-brown fur. With powerful teeth for stripping and chewing thick bamboo, they are the largest of the bamboo lemurs, although they were recently reclassified into their own genus, prolemur. This pair was very habituated, totally uninterested in the crowd of ~25 tourists standing around taking photos. We were able to get very close and spend a while watching them happily munching on bamboo stalks, and it took quite an effort to eventually tear ourselves away.

Heading up to a viewing platform for a little break, we bumped into another mammal: the Malagasy Ring-Tailed Mongoose. Though traditionally hunters, some of the park’s population has discovered how much easier it is to scavenge the leavings of tourists – particularly at the platforms where people stop for a snack. A lovely reddish-brown colour, with a banded tail, it posed for a few photos from our group before scampering off.

The view from the platform was superb. Sited on top of one of the low hills, it gave a commanding view over the canopy of the nearby area, a thick carpet of rich green trees, unbroken but for a small cluster of research buildings in the distance. Sharing the view with us was a colony of Peacock Day Geckos, phelsuma quadriocellata, well camouflaged against the green paintwork – until they darted forward to snaffle bugs or exchange greetings.

Photo taken from the viewing platform, showing the forest of Ranomafana

Headed on through the fringe of primary forest, where the trees are even thicker and the atmosphere very still, reflecting the immense age of the environment. We scrambled down a wet, loamy hill in pursuit of a spotter, falling over several times though it turned out to be well worthwhile. Our eagle-eyed friend had found a sportive lemur sitting on a tree fork about 20 metres up. Though normally nocturnal, they can sometimes be seen lazily sunning themselves out of harm’s way.

Back on the path, our guide’s constant checking of leaves and bark along the way finally paid off, when he spotted a Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko hiding in a dead leaf. He had to point right at it before Tom and Emily saw, and I confess I didn’t see it even then, and only truly picked it out several days later from a photo! Sadly bereft of it’s namesake tail, it still looked fairly devilish with a sharp head and ridges above the eyes.

On our way out of the park we heard the call of a ruffed lemur, but it was too far off to track. We moved from primary forest to banana plantations as the park ended and community land began. Further on we reached the main waterfall, plunging 80 metres down the side of the hill. It’s also the site of a hydro-electric power station built by the Japanese in the ’70s, supplying the majority of the power needs of the area. We also passed the original thermal springs resort (for which the village and park are named – ranomafana means “hot water” in Malagasy), a large colonial-style building erected for the first president of Madagascar, who spent his holidays here. The springs emit water naturally heated to around 50°C, which is then used in the swimming pool, baths and steam rooms. To get back to the village (and our hotel) we then had to cross the river using a rather improvised-looking bridge – the previous one had been swept away in a cyclone five years ago!

I returned in the evening for a quick night walk. As the park borders the road, you don’t even have to go in to see various chameleons and frogs, who come to the warm road surface at night to bask in the residual heat. I played hide-and-seek with a few mouse lemurs (microcebus rufous) who were also hanging out on the forest edges, managing to get a few quick snaps of my favourite lemur genus before focusing on the herps. Saw a few blue-legged calumma crypticum chameleons, short-nosed chameleons, side-striped chameleons and a solitary tree frog.

Day two in the park was just me and our guide, Hery. My aim from the beginning was to see a few more lemurs – in particular, I was after the Black and white Ruffed Lemur. Almost as soon as we got into the park we had our first bit of luck, stumbling on another leaf-tailed gecko. Fascinating creatures. Besides their amazing camouflage, they have another defensive tactic to use in dire emergencies – shedding their tails. This can allow them to escape any predators that don’t have a proper grip, though it carries a slight risk of infection to the gecko until it’s tail is grown back.

Saw a few red-bellied lemurs quite clearly, then we carried on round the trails for a while, and I began to feel a little knackered – to tell the truth, we were all still tired from trekking in Andringitra a few days ago. Just as I was about to give up and go home though, Hery stopped and said “look up”. There they were, three Black and White Ruffed lemurs, high above our heads. As they were uncharacteristically quiet, we could have walked right under them without realising had it not been for Hery’s sharp eyes. It was an excellent sighting, the group calming resting, grooming and occasionally sparing us a glance. To add the icing on the cake, it was just three of us looking back – Hery, our spotter and myself, with nobody else nearby. A real privilege, and for me, another highlight of our travels.

To be concluded…

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