These appear to be cries of alarm raised against a danger
unseen by the humans below. But the indri, the largest of
Madagascar's lemurs, is better known for its "song" -- a long
and haunting call which can carry for up to 1-3/4 miles through
the dwindling forests it calls home.
"Sliding notes, harmonies, graceful razor slashes of
sound," is how the natural history writer David Quammen has
described the indri's call.
It is a call which may not be heard much longer, for the
indri, like many of the weird and wonderful creatures found on
the world's fourth-largest island, is heading for extinction.
The Analamazaotra Reserve, about 85 miles east of the
capital Antananarivo, is one of the last refuges of this
teddy-bear-like creature which spends almost all its time high
off the forest floor in trees.
The Analamazaotra reserve covers just 2,000 acres and is
home to only a few dozen family groups of two to five animals.
Estimates for Madagascar's total indri population vary
widely between 1,000 and 10,000 -- no one is really certain --
but all the scientific literature agrees that the animal is
A superb jumper, the indri -- which can weigh 15-1/2 pounds
or more -- can leap up to 33 feet.
But jumping from this patch of rain forest would be
suicidal as it is surrounded by pine trees and a eucalyptus
plantation, plants which offer no nutritional value for an
Analamazaotra is an isolated island of indri habitat and
one that may prove too small to support a viable population of
Like rain forests everywhere, it still contains an
astonishing variety of life.
A morning's guided hike yielded sightings of the beautiful
blue coua bird, indris and brown lemurs, a boa constrictor, a
foot-long chameleon that snatched a huge bug with its
lightning-quick tongue, a tiny frog and fish in a river.
Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish can
all be seen during a five-hour walk in a tiny piece of
ecosystem surrounded by degraded habitat. Try doing the same in
a European or North American forest and you are unlikely to see
A sign at the visitors' center says most of the native
forest in the area has been cleared for farming, timber and the
building of a railway, which is currently not operating.
Indris and other lemurs are only found on the Comoro
islands and Madagascar, an evolutionary mad-house that began
breaking away from Africa about 160 million years ago, becoming
its own version of Noah's Ark as it drifted out into the Indian
"Madagascar is truly the naturalist's promised land," wrote
the naturalist Joseph Philibert Commerson in 1771. "Nature
seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where
she could work on different models from any she used
Madagascar has no deer or antelope species, and also lacks
large predators. Poisonous snakes are absent as they are a
relatively recent evolutionary development.
Madagascar also boasts half of the world's roughly 135
species of chameleons. But the lemurs are what really draw
wildlife enthusiasts to this island.
Regarded as "primitive" primates, some 50 surviving species
of lemurs make their home in Madagascar. Kin to monkeys, apes
and humans, their behavior and characteristics shed vital clues
on our own distant past.
But 15 species of lemurs have become extinct since
sea-faring humans who originated in present-day Indonesia
arrived on Madagascar's shores about 2,000 years ago.
Humanity is still wreaking ecological destruction on the
island, as a swelling and desperately poor rural population
hacks away forests, creating what some environmentalists say is
the most heavily-eroded place on the planet.
For the lemurs, the last chance for survival may lie in the
employment and cash generated by eco-tourists who come from
afar to view them.