The area of Ranomafana and it’s national park was our first prolonged stop after arriving in Madagascar. We had already spent a night in the capital, Antananarivo (Tana for short), and an overnight stop in Antsirabe. We were due to spend 4 nights in Ranomafana to explore the national park and the surrounding area. I had high hopes of seeing a wide variety of rainforest creatures endemic to Madagascar and so different to anywhere else in the world. It didn’t disappoint…
On our way from Antsirabe to Ranomafana the landscape changed dramatically. It was clear to see that from Tana to Antsirabe the land was being used for agriculture. The air was thick with smoke from bush fires created for what is known as slash and burn farming. The technique is adopted by just about every local man and woman where they burn the scrub to regenerate the minerals and plant new arable crops. Unfortunately there is no option of crop rotation so, after the land has been farmed the once, the farmer moves on to repeat the process. It is having a devastating effect on the landscape, environment and in turn the wildlife of Madagascar. You can hardly blame the Malagasy people though as they’re just trying to scratch out a living in one of the poorest countries in the world.
What was originally dominated with rice paddies, clay fields and other areas carved out for farming from Tana to Antsirabe, as you got closer to Ranomafana the thick rainforest started to take over. We stopped for lunch at what seemed to be the little known reserve of Yalatsara. It is a working farm which has dedicated a large portion of it’s land to the environment. The wildlife thrives and attracts visitors doing the same as us and stopping on the way to Ranomafana. The farm owner had already set up a table for us to have lunch which was the one option of Zebu (cattle) steak, rice and vegetables. Given the location of this reserve the owner did a remarkable job and lunch was delicious. We got our first taste of the comparatively basic accommodation of Madagascar with the toilets - they were wooden shacks with bucket of water to flush. You don’t travel to Madagascar for luxury, you travel there for the fact that just about everything you see you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
We were joined at lunch by 3 Peacock Day Geckos clinging to the wooden buildings of the farm all on the lookout for insects to eat. No sooner had we finished then our guide for the afternoon came to greet us and beckoned us to follow him…
… He had found a pair of Parson’s Chameleons; the largest rainforest Chameleon in the world. The female was in a difficult spot to reach so we left her be, but fortunately the male, and the more colourful, was in clear view.
It was at this moment that I experienced my first horse-fly bite. I’d just put my bag down and was setting up an off-camera flash to photograph the male chameleon, when I felt a sharp sting on my leg. It felt, from what I can remember, just like a wasp sting. I shook the fly off and didn’t think much more of it. Over the next few days it became apparent that my leg didn’t like horse-flies much and swelled up and went the distinct colour of beetroot.
This male Parson’s Chameleon was a fantastic introduction to vast variety of amazing endemic animals of Madagascar. It’s amazing that around half of the world’s species of chameleon are found on the island and nowhere else.
Seeing this chameleon was definitely the highlight for me during our short walk through the forest of Yalatsara Reserve…
I got carried away watching and photographing this chameleon and didn’t realise that our guide had gone off in search of other animals for us to see. Shortly after realising he had disappeared he came rushing back beckoning us yet again to follow him.
This time he had come across a troop of Red Bellied Lemurs and as a special treat one had a tiny baby, no more than a week old.
You can tell the males and females apart easily with these lemurs. The male has white patches below the eye whereas the female doesn’t. For our first lemur experience in the wild I couldn’t believe how tame they were, especially with such a young one. We watched a mother grooming her baby’s fur no more than 3 metres away. Soon we were joined by what I assumed was the rest of the troop as we were surrounded by 2 males and 4 females. They didn’t seem bothered by us at all and seemed happy enough just to watch us.
It is one of the few lemurs to be recognised as being active both day (diurnal) and night (nocturnal), something known as cathemeral.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists Red Bellied Lemurs as vulnerable due to habitat loss from the infamous slash and burn agriculture of Madagascar.
I could have easily spent a lot longer at Yalatsara but we were on our way to Ranomafana. The winding road skirted the edge of one side of the valley that was Ranomafana National Park. The valley and surrounding hills were covered in dense rainforest which I was keen to explore.
Madagascar’s geography explains why the east of the island is rich rainforest whereas the west is much drier and in the far south resembles a desert. The country has a spine of mountains running, as you’d expect, down the middle known as the Central Highlands. Rainfall coming in from the Indian Ocean is prevented going any further by this mountainous range and creates the hot, humid and wet conditions necessary for a rainforest in the east. As the west receives a lack of rainfall it forms a much more different landscape. There is a lot more to the geography of Madagascar which I won’t go in to, but you get the idea.
On our second full day in Ranomafana we were treated to an amazing sunrise (for those of us that got up to see it that is) over the village. The photos below were taken from the window of my bedroom - I was lucky with where I was staying…
It was really interesting watching the Malagasy people wake up to start their day. Most seemed to be putting washing out to dry and, from what I could tell, cooking breakfast from the small plumes of smoke rising from chimneys of each house. Children came out to play with just about anything they could find - old bike tyres and sticks seemed to be the favourite.
It sounds odd to mention but one thing that stood out to me was that there was very few lights from houses and street lights were non-existent. Malagasy people had to work with what daylight they were given. I admired their resourcefulness and positivity. I’m not entirely sure how people in the UK, or anywhere in the ‘western world’ for that matter, would take to living in a house with no electricity or running water.
The hotel, Centrest, we were staying at had some resident wildlife which I enjoyed watching in the gardens. The first being another Parson’s Chameleon, only much bigger and looking older and wiser than the one seen in Yalatsara. He moved very slowly and was completely unperturbed by me, so I managed to go in close with the macro lens to get a shot of their amazing scale patterning and colouring…
One group of animals I was really hoping to see while in Madagascar (I seem to be saying that a lot in these blog posts) was the Day Geckos. They come in a whole range of different colours and sizes, but unusually for the gecko world they’re active during the day, hence their name.
In Centrest they were everywhere, sunning themselves at every available opportunity. They seemed little bothered by people so as long as you kept your distance they would go about their usual business. Most of the time that meant yet more sunbathing and generally soaking up the sun to show off their amazing green colour. On one occasion during lunch something I wasn’t expecting happened…
I was packing up my camera kit having spent some time photographing the geckos around the garden when a huntsman spider came shooting across the restaurant floor. For some strange reason this spider wanted to seek shelter in my bag, probably away from the prying eyes of the geckos. I’m all for supporting animals but I have to admit I draw the line at spiders climbing into my bag. I managed to fend it off for long enough to safely close my bag spider-free, at which point it found another safe-house in the form of a pipe in the restaurant wall (I’m guessing to allow water to drain away during flooding, it is a rainforest after all).
Once the spider had just about reached the pipe a small Lined Day Gecko came out of nowhere and landed right next to it. A Mexican stand-off ensued with each sizing each other up. The gecko was longer but very slender while the spider was, considering the legs, much wider. Eventually the gecko made up his (I’m calling it a ‘he’ for the purpose of this blog, really I’ve no idea!) mind that he could take the spider he jumped at it grabbing the abdomen in his jaws.
The spider writhed around trying to free itself to no avail, with the gecko violently shook the spider often smashing it against the restaurant wall. Eventually the spider gave in and the gecko no longer had to fight. I didn’t actually see the gecko finish eating the spider as he disappeared from view but if he succeeded I’ve no idea how. As you can see from the photos below the spider was huge compared to him…
Our first opportunity to explore the wildlife of Ranomafana was in its own national park. The park was established in 1991 with the purpose of conserving the unique biodiversity of the local ecosystem. It is part of the World Heritage Site Rainforests of Atsinanana. Ranomafana literally means ‘hot water’; Rano is Malagasy for ‘water’ and mafana means ‘hot’. It is home to huge array of species, from 12 different lemur species to 120 different types of frogs. Its celebrity species are the two bamboo species; the Golden Bamboo Lemur and the Greater Bamboo Lemur.
We were lucky enough to see both during our trek through the rainforest. The Golden Bamboo Lemurs were the first we saw but very high up in the trees so no photos, but were amazing to watch as they jumped around the tree-tops finding things to eat. Lemur agility is amazing to watch; they are able to move through the trees with complete ease.
One thing that surprised me on our walk through the rainforest here is that it was dry. By the very definition of ‘rainforest’ I was expecting humidity and rain. Instead it felt like the dry heat of a sauna. I assume it was because we were there in October/November which is the end of the dry season just before the rains kick in, in December to April. We continued on through the forest not seeing a lot. It’s often very difficult to see animals in a rainforest as they’re so well hidden amongst the foliage. Soon our guide received a call to say that the Greater Bamboo Lemurs had been found not far from where we were. All the guides radio to each other so they can track what the animals are doing.
After a lot of climbing through the rainforest we reached the lemurs. This time they were at our level so we could get a good look at them from a distance. We were very lucky to see them as there are only 2 left in Ranomafana. Unfortunately, as the rest have either been killed for bushmeat or have died from habitat loss, the 2 left are a daughter and her father so therefore can’t breed. Sadly new ones can’t be introduced either, as the bamboo they eat contains cyanide and therefore they need a clay lick to counteract this, but new lemurs wouldn’t know where to source it.
Our guide, Bertaine, was very excited at having spotted a Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko. The photos below don’t show the tiny size of this gecko, scarcely bigger than the end of your thumb. They’re amazingly camouflaged looking exactly like a dead leaf which they use to avoid predators. They’re nocturnal, so finding this little guy was quite an achievement. They go looking for insects to eat in the comparative safety of night. I took a few photos and left him in peace…
Near the end of our walk through Ranomafana National Park we came across our first Paradise Flycatcher, this time a male calling through the forest. We were in Madagascar in October and November which is mating and nesting season. I didn’t realise at the time how many Flycatchers we’d see through our trip, so initially was pleased with the photos below, although I managed to get much better ones in Zombitse and Isalo National Park.
Right at the end of our first trek in Ranomafana we had my first highlight of the area. We were walking along a path back to the car park when something moved in the leaf litter; a tiny Brown Leaf Chameleon (brookesia superciliaris).
As you can see from one of the photos below, this critter was also tiny just like the leaf-tailed gecko and just like the gecko is endemic to Madagascar.
Obviously due to its size they not easy to find despite them being abundant through the park. It was my first opportunity to crawl around in the mud and leaves to get an ‘eye-level’ shot of this chameleon. Fortunately with the park being dry I was able to shake off most of the dirt once I was done.
The guide picked up the chameleon and moved him off the path to the safety of the other side amongst foliage. It could have quite easily been trampled by us or anyone else walking through the park as well as being picked off by predators otherwise.
I’ve written a separate blog about the night walks I was able to do in Madagascar but I thought I’d briefly mention them here. Walking through national parks at night is prohibited by law in Madagascar, so we walked along the roadside looking for whatever we could find. It might sound surprising but we came across a lot more than we expected.
Night walks in Ranomafana would start at sunset so the in the first hour there was usually enough natural light to work with photographically.
On every night walk the first animal we came across, usually heard before being seen, was the Madagascar Tree Frog. They made a ‘quacking’ sound not too dissimilar to a duck, hence we nicknamed them ‘quacking frogs’. They were found right by the road side amongst branches and plant matter saturated in water running down from the trees above.
Higher up in the trees, around head height, we usually found Nose Horned Chameleons as well. They were abundant here. Aside from the pygmy chameleon family group (brookesia - like the Brown Leaf Chameleon above) the Nose Horned Chameleon is the smallest chameleon species, again endemic to Madagascar. Somehow they managed to cling on to tiny branches as the wind picked up during sunset.
Further down the road towards Ranomafana village during our night walks we came across a few huge Madagascar Golden Orb Web Spiders, one of which had just shed it’s skin. It was amazing to see the difference in size between the male and female. In the third photo below you can see the huge female on the left and you can just about make out the tiny male on the right amongst the web.
On our second full day in Ranomafana we went to the less visited area of Vohipara National Park. Before reaching the park though, as we were driving, we screeched to a halt when a troop of Red Fronted Brown Lemurs were spotted crossing the road. Unfortunately being struck by cars is yet another way lemurs are being killed in Madagascar.
We pulled over on a lay-by and watched as the troop descended from the treetops and scampered across the road and disappearing from view in the thickness of the rainforest on the other side…
The foliage of Vohipara was very much like Ranomafana National Park; thick with bamboo and feeling dry. The most notable difference was that while Ranomafana was very hilly which turned me into a sweat-bucket by the end of the walk Vohipara was comparatively flat.
Our guide had recommended we visit this park as it is the haunt of the Milne Edwards’ Sifaka. Sifaka are a genus (propithecus) of lemur. Malagasy people named them Sifakas for the unique call they send echoing through the forests, which sounds like ‘shif-ak’. They’re different from other lemurs in that they maintain an upright position when leaping from tree to tree and moving along branches. They move by vertically clinging and leaping quickly from tree to tree by jumping with their powerful hind legs. In this way they can clear distances of over 9 metres.
The diet of Milne-Edwards’ Sifaka contains a variety of seeds and new leaves, as well as fruits and flowers. They move through the forest at a fast rate (I can testify to this!) to forage for this varied diet. As always sadly they’re classed as endangered on the IUCN red list by habitat loss, hunting and sensitivity to a changing climate.
We first saw a troop of these Sifakas way up in the trees but it wasn’t long before our guide was radioed to say that a mother and her baby were right down on the ground, albeit within thick forest. We rushed to see what we could find and sure enough there they were, completely unperturbed by us being there.
The next hour proceeded in us watching the troop as they moved through the forest. Often it was difficult to keep up as I tripped and awkwardly clambered along the forest floor. It was only when they occasionally stopped for a breather that I was able to try and get some photos of them…
It was quite difficult to get a clear shot of these Sifakas as the forest was so dense. Every so often they’d rest in a clearing and I’d take my opportunity. They were amazing to watch and I realised how well suited to their forest life they were, perfectly at home in the trees.
Near the end of our walk through Vohipara I was able to get some more natural looking photos of Lined Day Geckos sunbathing in a pandanus palm…
At the end of the walk Vohipara opened up to reveal a river running by which, our guide assured us, was used for fishing for the local village. Resting by the roadside and soaking up the surrounding landscape was a great way to end what had been a fantastic trip through Vohipara…
On our last full day in Ranomafana I had spoken to Bertaine about my hope of seeing a rare species of frog known as a Painted Mantella Frog. They’re Madagascar’s answer to poison dart frogs and they have evolved almost identically to those in Central and South America. Both Mantella Frogs and their counter parts on the other side of the world live almost entirely on land. Just like poison frogs, Mantella frogs are quite small, reaching no more than 5 centimeters in length. While they aren’t closely related they’ve ended up being very similar. The reason for this is they’ve evolved to fill similar niches in their environment, so developed similar adaptations, something known as convergent evolution.
Mantella frogs are, surprise surprise, endemic to Madagascar. They’re often considered the most beautiful of all frogs because of their bright colours which they use to warn off predators that they’re poisonous.
Near the end of the day Bertaine took us to a little known spot favourited by one of the strangest insects you’re every likely to see; the Giraffe Necked Weevil.
From the photos below it isn’t difficult to see why they’ve been given their name, although it is the males who have the most pronounced ‘giraffe-like’ neck which they use for fighting during the mating season. The female uses her smaller neck to roll a leaf tube nest into which she lays a single egg. As with most insects they’re tiny in size reaching only around 2.5 centimeters in length. While I was hoping to see these insects in Ranomafana I hadn’t really expected to based on how small they are and finding one in the vast rainforest didn’t seem like a possible chance.
We were very lucky that we had Bertaine with us for the duration of our time in Ranomafana as without him I wouldn’t have seen most of the animals we came across. I am extremely grateful for his knowledge and enthusiasm for his local wildlife and environment. He had told us a story of a couple from Brazil that had come to explore Ranomafana just like us, and, just like us, they were so enamoured with his passion for the area that they gave him their lazer-pen which many guides use to point out species, shining it close by the animal but obviously not at the animal. Unfortunately while on a bus ride home Bertaine had lost his lazer-pen and was so upset about it that he didn’t eat for two days. We spoke to our driver, Kiki, who was taking us around Madagascar whether he knew somewhere that we could buy a lazer-pen for him to say thank you for his time. There wasn’t anywhere in Ranomafana but assured us that in the capital, Antananarivo (or Tana for short), there were places. So we gave him enough money to be able to buy one on his next trip to Tana as well as about triple what guides are normally given. I can only hope he’s managed to get one to continue his guiding in the amazing place that is Ranomafana…
Thanks very much for reading. I’d appreciate any comments you’re willing to give…