Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Okay, maybe not quite, but pretty close—as close, in fact, as one can really get in Madagascar. I write to you fresh from our visit to Ranomafana National Park, arguably Madagascar’s most renowned federal protected area. The Malagasy word, “Ranomafana,”means literally ‘hot water,’ and it was the area’s natural hot springs that attracted visitors in colonial days. There are still hot springs in Ranomafana, but we must have missed the memo somewhere because the shower in the room that Kuni and I shared was definitely as cold—“refreshing,”she says—as it gets...

Never mind that, however; it is the animals and not the water that draws the crowds to Ranomafana today. First established in 1991, Ranomafana National Park commemorates the discovery of the critically endangered golden bamboo lemur, which Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University first found in the region in the mid 1980s. Twenty years after its establishment, this highland rainforest rich in widlife is one of Madagascar’s most visited national parks and home to a world-class ecological research station, the Centre Valbio.

We’ve been in Madagascar for many a week now, and yet, our wildlife sightings have been few and far between. We’ve been focused on activities and camping within the villages, but now the program is shifting in favor of fewer people and more nature. Highlights of our past séjour au terrain were one white owl that flew overhead in Amboangy—probably carrying a letter from Sirius Black to Harry Potter—and a dead and bloated tenrec we found next to the trail in Vohilava. Christa turned this spiny hedgehog relative over with a stick and snapped a few photos. “Do you think anyone will notice it’s dead?” she asked, showing me the playback on her Canon.

We left Vondrozo last weekend for part two of our internship field component, and our animal count—of the living sort, this time—has been on the rise ever since. We spent three days in the coastal commerce town of Farafangana resting and rejeuventating ourselves, and on Sunday, we were delighted by a pair of brilliant blue kingfishers on the beach. Then, on the morning of our departure, Christa and Kuni spotted whales—humpback whales!—splashing off the coast in the Indian Ocean.

The whales were an omen of all that was—and still is, I hope—to come. We arrived in Ranomafana late last night, and though my tired eyes longed for sleep, we went straight into the forest. In the dark and misty damp of the rainforest, I felt myself come alive again to the varied song of the frogs—so many frogs! We spent several minutes trying to hunt down the source of one croak that sounded like the gentle swing of a hinged door. And then there were chameleons, too—big and small and yellow and green and brown. We know the Parson’s chameleon, a Ranomafana favorite, was among them, but there were other species, too—we saw eight specimens in just one hour of wandering. Madagascar is home to over 80 distinct species of chameleon, representing half of the world’s total chameleon biodiversity.

And then today Ranomafana by light was, if possible, just as delightful as Ranomafana by night.The park is a true jungle with lianas and epiphytes and dense understory and towering canopy and birds and insects and spiders. We saw a brightly colored thorn spider and also came eye-to-eye with the ring-tailed mongoose, one of several mongoose species common in Madagascar. And then we saw what everyone comes to Ranomafana to see, for, if there is any place in Madagascar—besides the zoo, of course—where you can be essentially guaranteed to see a lemur, it is here. Hallelujah and pass the mashed potatoes, but Ranomafana didn’t disappoint today. We saw the celebrated golden bamboo lemur asleep in a treetop and filmed a family of three red-fronted brown lemurs as they swung through the canopy, just a few meters from the road.

“Hey guys, guess what?”I said as we climbed back into the WWF vehicle in the parking lot. “We’re in Madagascar.” Yes, indeed we are.

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