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© Madagasikara Voakajy
by Aye-aye Design
The song of the indri
Tuesday, 16 July 2013 08:57
Moramanga is a sprawling, chaotic town on the way to the east coast. A mine was recently opened nearby, and now Moramanga looks like an overgrown, overdeveloped tangle of muddy roads where wooden shacks casually mix with colonial buildings. The main street is packed with stands that sell coffee and fritters, tables full of dubious-looking vegetables and meat, and the omnipresent little convenience stores that sell little more than candy and basic toiletries. Enormous trucks constantly roar through the city, making their way through armies of rickshaws and taxi brousse. Confused, attention-seeking roosters crow all day long. The sky is often grey, with a fine rain coming down, and clothes never really get dry. Madagasikara Voakajy's office is at the end of the main street, so every morning I cross Moramanga, grabbing some oversugared coffee and some sweet bread on the way. The Malagasy version of hash browns is also available in some stands, making a good breakfast alternative to bread. The office is in a quieter area of Moramanga, and the only noise comes from children going to the nearby school. Well, that, and the usual needy roosters. You really can't escape those. The team here is working on the new Mangabe forest reserve, which MV is promoting and supporting. The critically endangered golden mantella frog is found in the forest and it is one of the main focuses of the organization's work in Mangabe.

Mantellas are beautiful bright-colored frogs, severely threatened by a number of factors. Their colors warn predators about their palatability – don't eat me man, I'm poisonous – but they make them very attractive to another kind of predator, frog collectors. International trade of mantella frogs is strictly regulated, but illegal collection is still an issue. The other main problem is, obviously, deforestation, the nightmare of every conservationist working in Madagascar. Madagascar is struggling to adopt sustainable agricultural practices, and forests are constantly being cut down for fuelwood or to make room for new agricultural land. The traditional slash-and-burn system of tavy is still practiced, even if the government declared it illegal. The new batch of protected areas that are currently being established aims at stopping the constant deforestation, therefore slowing down Madagascar's extinction crisis.

Moramanga is very famous for another reserve, Andasibe, about half an hour away. We leave Moramanga behind to visit another organization in Andasibe, Mitsinjo. They work on another new protected area in the area, where they activated a mantella breeding program. The expansion of the mine in Moramanga is going to destroy part of the breeding ponds, and the mining company is funding this project to preserve the local population. Individuals from the affected sites were collected to start the breeding program, in order to be released in the new protected area. After half an hour driving through rice fields, felled trees, and mixed stands of invasive eucalyptus and pine trees, we arrive to Andasibe. I let out a sigh of relief seeing that there are places where the forest is still standing. We get a local guide, and we get ready to get into the forest.

The real star of Andasibe is not the golden mantella, but the indri, the largest lemur in Madagascar. About one meter tall, covered in soft black and white fur, with powerful hind legs designed to jump between trees, the indris are one of Madagascar's most charismatic species and are strongly embedded in Malagasy culture and mythology. While its scientific name – Indri indri – suggests that there's no other species quite like it, and that it doesn't really fit in any other category but its own, the Malagasy name of the animal, babakoto, is more poetic and describes the strong ties with humans that indris have in local cultures. Babakoto might be translated as "ancestor". According to one version of the myth, once upon a time there were two indri brothers, living in the forest. One of the brothers, however, decided to leave the forest and went out in the open land to be a farmer. Humans are the descendent of the adventurous brother, while indris come from the other brother, who stayed in the forest. Mourning for the loss of his brother, the indri started wailing, and its cry can still be heard today in the "song of the indri", a long, eerie and haunting cry that family groups perform several time a day.

So, I know the animal's ecology, I read the myths, but I've been in Madagascar for two weeks and I still have to see one. We are making our way through narrow paths running through the jungle. Parasitic vines twist around the trees on either side of the path, often killing the host tree. The luckier trees won the battle with the vine and bear the spiral-shaped scar of the vine attack. Enormous spider webs festoon the trees, and I'm paying extra attention not to end up straight into one. We have been walking for about ten minutes when our guide points at a tree. I look up, and there they are. Four indris, a family, getting ready to go to sleep. I'm speechless, but at this point I've seen nothing yet. We are taking a few pictures of the sleepy family, who doesn't seem to pay much attention to us, when the silence is broken by another group of indris, who start singing their song a few kilometers away. The call is a high-pitched, modulated sound that is equally beautiful, sad and haunting. It's not hard to see why the myth talks about crying in mourning. If you heard wolves howling, or whales singing, you might have an idea of what the cry of the indri might sound like. Or maybe "feel like" would be a better way to put it. The song goes on for a few minutes, hits a few lower notes, and then stops.

I get ready to get my backpack and continue the hike, when all of a sudden, attracted by some leaves our guide was holding in his hand, one of the young starts to make his way down. Indris rarely touch the ground, and prefer to stay high on the trees, basking in sunlight. The animal stops about two meters from the ground, and holds on to the tree trunk, while with his little black clawed hand he takes some of the leaves from the guide. I get closer – one meter is ok, my guide tells me – and I get the chance to feed the animal a few leaves as well. By now I can't stop smiling, inebriated by how close I am to this wild creature, when my hike partner quietly points behind me. Turn around, he whispers. I turn, and holding on to the tree right behind me, twenty centimeters away, is the other pup. He must have made his way down without me noticing him. His round yellow eyes stare straight at me, acknowledging my presence, but not seeing me as a threat. Indris have a quizzical look on their face, and he seems more curious about me being there – and about the leaves in my hand – then wary. Then he sticks his arm out, asking for a treat. I give him a few leaves, and before taking them, the indri touches my hand. His skin and his fur are very soft, like a kitten's. I stay there looking at the animal, as he looks back at me calmly eating his leaves. I give him a few more, that he gladly accepts, and then the two brothers decide it is time to go, and with a couple of impressive jumps among the trees they're back in the canopy, getting ready for the night. We start making our way back as the sun sets.


Nick is an Italian conservationist who is spending summer with Madagasikara Voakajy, focusing on the Mangabe forest reserve. Currently based in Moramanga, he will blog his experience with us as he visits our projects and works on the management plan for the reserve. His experience includes working with forests and deer in Scandinavia, heathlands and bogs in the UK, sea turtles in Cape Verde, and water birds in his native Sardinia. He enjoys travelling, good food, coffee and wildlife.