Madagascar: a land of lemurs, lizards and lost worlds

24/03/2020 09:53

Written by Peter Tyson

Madagascar is a land where lizards scream and monkey-like lemurs sing songs of inexpressible beauty. Known as the Great Red Island, it is a place where fossa and tenrecs, vangas and aye ayes thrive in a true 'Lost World', alongside bizarre plants like the octopus tree and the three-cornered palm. And where the ancestors of the Malagasy, as the island's 18 tribes are collectively known, come alive in rollicking ceremonies known as 'turning the bones.'

During the 1990s, Peter Tyson joined a group of scientists out to plumb the natural and cultural mysteries of the world’s fourth-largest island. The story of his experiences living in the rainforest and spiny desert, going in search of species never before recorded, has been hailed a classic among books about Madagascar. 

And that's why we think Madagascar: the Eighth Continent is the perfect book to sate your wanderlust right now. Download the ebook (just £1 for the next 24 hours), settle into an armchair and virtually jet off to explore the wilds of this remote and extrordinary country.

Tsarabanjina island by Pierre-yves Babelon, DreamstimeLocated just off the northwest coast of Madagascar, Tsarabanjina island is known for its azure waters and white-sand beaches © Pierre-yves Babelon, Dreamstime

Many have tried to get at the heart of what makes Madagascar so different from every other place in the world. “May I announce to you that Madagascar is the naturalist’s promised land?” the Frenchman Philibert de Commerson wrote in 1771. “Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she has used elsewhere.”

David Attenborough, who brought some of the first moving images of the island to the outside world in the early 1960s, described “a place where antique outmoded forms of life that have long since disappeared from the rest of the world still survive in isolation.” To me, the most evocative metaphor comes from Alison Jolly, the doyenne of lemur studies, who once wrote that on Madagascar it is as if “time had once broken its banks and flowed to the present down a different channel.”

Down that channel have come a cornucopia of curious beasts. When the first people arrived on the island about 2,000 years ago, they found a real-world Jurassic Park. Flightless elephant birds, standing ten feet tall and weighing half a ton, thundered through the island’s wooded savannahs on legs like tree trunks.

Verraux Sifika lemur by Gail Johnson, ShutterstockMadagascar is the only place on earth where you'll find this primate-like creature © Gail Johnson, Shutterstock

Lemurs the size of apes nibbled leaves high in rainforest trees, while Galápagos-sized tortoises and dwarf hippopotamuses grazed below. Sadly, these creatures and the rest of Madagascar’s so-called megafauna are now gone, rendered extinct sometime in those 2,000 years.

Yet countless other types of animals and plants remain to astonish the visitor. Madagascar is a place where lizards scream, giant cockroaches hiss, and a handsome beast called the indri sings a song of inexpressible beauty. Dozens of different kinds of lemurs, early models of primates that were the smartest living things 40 million years ago, live there – and only there. One is so small you could cup it in your palm.

The fossa (“FOO-sa”), Madagascar’s stab at a mountain lion, slinks around the jungle at night, seeking to plant its retractile claws into unwary prey. In the trees, two-foot-long chameleons zap bugs with tongues as long as their bodies, while cryptic snakes with noses shaped like sharpened pencils slide through the branches, veritable twigs on the move.

The vangas, just one of five families of birds found nowhere else, rival Darwin’s finches for diversity, and many members of the island’s phantasmagoria of invertebrates, epitomized in my mind by the truly freakish giraffe-necked weevil, might have come straight out of the bar scene in Star Wars.

Plants are just as singular. Eight out of ten of them grow naturally only on Madagascar. Like the animals, they are the dinosaurs of the plant world, relicts from a time long past. The traveller’s tree, a fan-shaped banana relative that serves as a kind of national symbol, counts its closest relatives in South America. The comet orchid, one of more than a thousand varieties of orchid that decorate the island, has a fourteen-inch spur.

When Darwin saw this species in 1862, he predicted that a giant hawkmoth must exist with a proboscis long enough to take advantage of the nectar at the spur’s base; entomologists found it four decades later.

Madagascar even has an entire floral ecosystem all its own, the spiny desert. A searing, otherworldly landscape in which virtually all the plants exist nowhere else on Earth, the spiny desert might have sprung from the imagination of Henri Rousseau. Here, the finger-like stalks of octopus trees wiggle at the sky below massive baobabs rearing overhead like vegetable elephants.

Avenue des Baobabs by milosk50, ShutterstockThis cluster of towering Grandidier’s baobabs is one of Madagascar’s most famous views © milosk50, Shutterstock

The human world is as exceptional as the natural. Though the island lies just over 250 miles off Africa, its people, customs, and language originally hail from Indonesia. “This strikes me as the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world,” the physiologist and biogeographer Jared Diamond has written. “It’s as if Columbus, on reaching Cuba, had found it occupied by blue-eyed, blond-haired Scandinavians speaking a language close to Swedish, even though the nearby North American continent was inhabited by Native Americans speaking Amerindian languages.”

Signs that the forebears of the Malagasy came from Southeast Asia are pleasantly rife throughout the island: terraced rice paddies, outrigger canoes, and ancestor worship, to name just a few.

While passing Malagasy people in the streets of Antananarivo, the capital, you might swear you were in Jakarta. Over the two millennia since the first Malagasy settled the island, a significant African component has blended in, so that the culture and people can seem at times a perfect mix of both. Africans brought the island-wide obsession with cattle, for instance, and the widespread regard for spirit possession. Malagasy society is also spiced with strong Arabian, South Indian, and European influences.

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