New Yorker, Mar 7, 1988
THE countryside through the train window could be almost anywhere. The villages dotting it, each clustered around a tall, thin steeple, look French, and the trucks and cars on a road running alongside the tracks are definitely FrenchPeugeots, Renaults, the redoubtable Citroen 2-CV. But they are battered models from ten or twenty years ago, and the earth bared on slumped, rain.: beaten hillsides in the distance is too red to be European; it is the brick-red lateritic soil of the tropics. So this must be some former possession of the French. But where? Passing details are pantropical: a burst of tattered banana leaves, a row of eucalyptus, a mat of water hyacinth, with its attractive purple flowers (it is native to the Amazon but now clogs warm waterways around the world), a flock of white egrets shimmering against a slate-gray sky. But here, to the right, is a clue, perhaps: a stand of tall sedges with airy round heads-papyrus-says that this could be the Nile Delta; and over there is a grid of shallow pools, with people wading in them-rice paddies-so we are probably in Asia, or on the edge of Asia. Now we are pulling in to a station of turn-of-thecentury French design-the walls edged with staggered quoins, a peaked, dormered roof projecting over the platform. This could be a stop in Provence, except that the sign on the station’s wall says “AMBOHIMANAMBOLA,” and the people milling on the platform, rushing up to the windows of our c.ar with platters of bananas and litchi nuts and tart little peaches, are not European. They are dark-skinned, tropical people, but they aren’t African, and they aren’t Indian or Oriental, either. They are AfroIndonesian. Most of them are probably Merina, the largest and most urban of Madagascar’s eighteen ethnic groups, who live Qn the central plateau. In the nineteenth century, the Merina conquered the island, and were, in turn, conquered by the French. Madagascar. For as long as I can remember, the word has had a magical ring, has been swathed in visions of the exotic bordering on the unreal. I remember doing a report when I was a schoolboy on the coelacanth, a fivefoot-long fish that was known to have lived in the Paleozoic Era, when fish were starting to grow limbs and come out on land. It was thought to have been extinct for three hundred million years but was rediscovered in 1938, forty fathoms down, in the waters between Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, using its paddlelike fins to walk along the ocean floor. I imagined Madagascar, that huge island out in the Indian Ocean, as a lost world, where all kinds of fantastic holdovers from earlier times lived on.
As I grew older, I kept running into references to the island which made it seem even stranger: a certain genus of stringy, epiphytic cactus, Rhipsalis, is found in Amazonia, Africa, Ceylon, and on Madagascar; the closest relative of an Amazon river turtle is Erymnochelys madagascariensis. How could these two places, on opposite sides of the globe, have such close relatives? The answer, or part of it, I learned, is that long ago South America and Madagascar were both attached to Africa: with Australia, Antarctica, and India, they were all part of the southern supercontinent known as Gondwanaland. Madagascar was up by Tanzania. Then, around a hundred and sixty million years ago, a chunk of the African part of Gondwanaland broke off and, over a span of some seventy million years, was slowly rafted to its present position, two hundred and fifty miles east of Mozambique. The chunk was, and is, a thousand miles from tip to tip and three hundred and fifty miles at its widest point, a minicontinent half again the size of California. (“In shape it resembles the print of a gigantic left foot with an enlarged big toe pointing pigeon-toed slightly to the right of north,” Sir Mervyn Brown, Britain’s Ambassador to the island during the nineteen-seventies, writes in his dry, affectionate history, “Madagascar Rediscovered.”) Meanwhile, South America had separated from western Gondwanaland and was drifting west. Much later, during the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended only ten thousand years ago, Africa suffered widespread desiccation; its tropical forests, which had not been extensive to begin with, shrank, and many of their plants and animals were wiped out. But some of the Gondwanaland forms survived on Madagascar and in Amazonia, among them the prototypes of the boa; today, there are many species of boa in the Americas, three on Madagascar, and none in tropical Africa.
By about fifty or sixty million years ago, overland migration between Africa and Madagascar was no longer possible. Cut off from the rest of the world, with no competition from higher, more successful forms of life, the flora and fauna on the island, which were still at a primitive stage of evolution, developed in astonishing ways. A thorn forest-known as “the spiny desert”-that looks like a Dali creation sprang up in the dry southern part of the island. There, too, are many trees with bloated, bottle-like trunks, for storing water from the infrequent rains (a bizarre adaptation known as crassulescence); Madagascar boasts seven species of baobab to Africa’s one. The chameleons-lizards that can change color and can swivel each eye independently-speciated madly: two-thirds of the world’s species, including the world’s largest (Chamaeleo oustaleti) and smallest (Chamaeleo nasutus), hail from Madagascar.
The island is the world headquarters not only of chameleons but also of the lemurs: long-snouted, bug-eyed, usually long-tailed, tree-dwelling prosimians, ranging from squirrel size to cat size, whose ancestors are also those of monkeys, apes, and man. The most intelligent form of life to be stranded on the island, the lemurs filled all sorts of empty niches. Somethe giant lemurs-became grazers; there being no hoofed animals to compete with. (Hoofed animals had not evolved when Madagascar drifted away.) One filled the woodpecker niche, there being no woodpeckers on the island. But many developed the social behavior and the diurnal, fruiteating habits of monkeys, there being no higher primates, either. Some forty types of lemur are known; all live on Madagascar and-except for a few on the Comoro Islands-only there.
The first European naturalists to explore the island were astonished by the animal and plant life. In 1771, Philibert de Commerson, a Frenchman, called Madagascar “the naturalists’ promised land,” and wrote, “Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she used elsewhere. There, you meet bizarre and marvellous forms at every step.” A century later, the great Victorian evolutionist and biogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace called the island “one of the most remarkable zoological districts on the globe.” As naturalists began to catalogue the flora and fauna, they discovered that the levels of endemism-species unique to the island-were unequalled even in the Galapagos. Of some eight thousand flowering plants found on Madagascar, eighty per cent are endemic. So are half the bird species, which number two hundred and thirty-eight. As the naturalists classified the species and sorted out their relationships, they discovered that the tremendous diversity on the island had arisen from relatively few models. Some orders are poorly represented, some not at all. There are no vipers, since poisonous snakes are a recent development in snake evolution. The indigenous carnivores include a peculiar, weaseloid form of civet cat. Because of the nearabsence of predators, the naturalists found, the animals there had a virtual lack of fear. One could walk right up to them.
TODAY, Madagascar is on the brink of environmental catastrophe. After centuries of deforestation, the island is self-destructing: it is washing into the sea, going the way of Haiti and the Sahel. Huge gashes of eroded red earth are such a characteristic feature of its landscapes that there is a special word for them in Malagasy, the locallanguage-lavaka. Recent research conducted by the World Wildlife Fund has determined that Madagascar is the most heavily eroded place on earth. Much of the island is already barren, burned-over, brickhard, sunbaked laterite. The destruction has been going on since prehistoric times. The largest of Madagascar’s animals were gone before any European got a chance to see them: giant lemurs, a pygmy hippopotamus (which probably swam over from Africa during the Pleistocene), and the elephant bird, one of whose eggs, it is said, could have provided an omelette for fifty people, and which went the way of the dodo on nearby Mauritius and the moa oh New Zealand, but without European help. Human beings are thought to have first arrived on Madagascar less than two thousand years ago, and since that time sixteen genera of vertebrates have become extinct. Islands go a lot faster than mainlands do, because the minimum critical habitats of their species, being smaller, are disturbed more quickly, and because a lot of the species aren’t adapted to predation; flightless birds, for instance, are helpless against introduced terrestrial mammals like pigs, dogs, rats, mongooses, and man. Because eighty per cent of the Malagasy, as the island’s ten million inhabitants are called, live off the land, the need for farmland, pastureland, timber, and charcoal has put tremendous pressure on the last remaining tracts of forest. The people are in a terrible plight: the ecologist Alison Jolly, who has been doing brilliant work on Madagascar for twenty-five years, and her husband, Richard Jolly, who is an economist with UNICEF, have pointed out that the Malagasy are being forced to sacrifice their future so that they can survive in the present; they are caught in a “tragedy without villains.” Most of them aren’t aware of the consequences of what they are doing to the land, and unless they are stopped there will soon be nothing left. A food crisis like the one that has taken up to a hundred thousand lives right across the channel in Mozambique will erupt.
The last good survey, completed twenty-five years ago, estimated that only twenty-one per cent of the original forest, which is thought by some to have once blanketed almost the entire island, remained. Recent satellite photographs suggest that only half of those patches are standing today, and a 1981 study by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization determined that thirty per cent of the 1980 forest cover will be gone by the year 2000. Because of the island’s unique level of endemism (to continue the list, more than ninety-five per cent of its reptiles and nearly all of its hundred and fifty frogs are not found anywhere else in the world), clearing a patch of forest on Madagascar probably has more devastating repercussions than clearing one anywhere else. And, undoubtedly, many species haven’t yet been discovered. “Entire mountain massifs and river basins have never had a botanist in them,” the botanist Porter Lowry, who was on a recent expedition that discovered two new genera of palms, told me not long ago. “It’s one of the truly underexplored areas in the world.”
Late in 1984, the government (Madagascar was granted independence by the French in 1960, and has a nominally Marxist government that in the last few years has become friendly with the West), prodded by foreign scientists, enacted a new program, a Strategie de la Con.s’ervation et du Developpement Durable, but the money to carry it out is lacking. For that matter, Madagascar has long had an excellent park system on paper. Established by the French in 1927, it was one of the first in the African region. Ten special reserves were set aside (and more have since been added), but these protect only one per cent of the island, and that only theoretically, since in all of them poaching of timber and wildlife is virtually unchecked; the entire annual budget for maintaining the system is only a thousand dollars. So the government has entrusted nothing less than the salvation of the island to Western organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, which now accords Madagascar the highest conservation priority in the world. Thomas Lovejoy, who was overseeing the Fund’s work on the island, told me, “We’re identifying critical areas, shoring up local institutions and creating new ones, sending Malagasy graduate students to the States for training, educating the local people and getting them involved in anti-poaching activities. All islands have a peculiar intensity. They are self-contained worlds that lend themselves to study as microcosms. It is easier to trace the fates of the limited number of life forms that are turned loose on them. This great red island Madagascar is particularly
fascinating, not only because so many of its forms are unique but because the whole drama of human aspirations in the tropics is being played out on it.”
THE train, which followed the old line from Antananarivo, the capital, north to the east coast, was nicknamed Fandrefiala, after a forest snake, because it snaked through the forest. But I had been on it for several hours and I still hadn’t seen any forest, only man-made grassland studded with smooth brown granite inselbergs. Theoretically, the journey was to take a couple of hours, but the train limped along, stopping frequently. Twice, it changed engines. It was January-the cyclone season. There had been heavy rains the last few days, and in several places rivers had risen almost over the tracks. The day before, a man in the capital had told me that once during the cyclone season he had been stuck on this train for several days. He had made himself a hammock in the luggage rack, and people from the nearest village, which had been flooded, had come and slept in the cars until the waters subsided.
I wanted to see lemurs in the wild while there were still some to see. Michel Rakotonirina, a Merina, who was in charge of special tourism on the island-Boy Scouts, scientists-had come along with me to make sure that there were no problems. We would be spending a few days at Perinet, a little town on the eastern escarpment, which we were scheduled to reach at noon. “This is where people go to experience the indri,” Michel had told me. “The indri is the largest of the lemurs. The people around Perinet believe that it is their ancestor.” Perinet was said to be a naturalist’s paradise. Twenty-seven years ago, in a charming book called “Bridge to the Past,”David Attenborough wrote of a visit he had made to Perinet. Attenborough was then a young filmmaker shooting natural-history movies for the BBC, and his guide was Michel Rakotonirina, then a young forester at Perinet.
At about 10 A.M.-we had left Antananarivo at 5:30 A.M.-we finally reached the limit of the denuded grassland. Michel bought some litchis from a vender through the window. They tasted a hundred times more ambrosial than the canned litchis one gets in a Chinese restaurant. Soon the train began to weave in and out of gorges, where, alternating with charred, smoldering clearings, remnants of one of the southernmost tropical rain forests in the world were still visible: tall trees with purple flowers; magnificent tree ferns. The next stop-by now we were in thick jungle-was Perinet, named after a French engineer who died during the construction of the railroad. There were a few hundred yards of double track here, so that the daily trains from the capital and from the east coast could pass each other. If all went well, this maneuver usually happened around lunchtime, but sometimes one of the trains would be delayed; then the other would have to wait. There were rooms and a restaurant at the Hotel-Buffet de la Gare, a large, rambling station whose architecture, like that of the other stations on the line, was French. As Michel and I stepped off the train, porters took our bags, and we shook hands with the keeper of the hotel, a Merina named Joseph Andriajaka. He led us through a small crowd of crippled beggars at the entrance thrusting out their hands, and up a grand rosewood staircase to our rooms. We washed and came right down for lunch.
The restaurant was a large room with thick posts and beams of rosewood; Joseph told me that they had been cut in the forest in the forties and would cost a fortune now. He introduced his wife and children. I spent a lot of time with Joseph-Michel and I were the only guests-walking in the village, listening in the evening to records of Big Bill Broonzy and the soundtrack of “Black Orpheus,” which he had got in his student days, and talking about what he called “the form of life.” He said he had read everything that Tolstoy ever wrote. He was a gentle man in his late thirties, with an almost feline grace of movement. He had been in charge of the hotel for fifteen years.
Lunch was the national dish-manioc leaves with pork on rice. The beer, Three Horses, was great. (I have never been in a tropical country where the beer wasn’t.) In the days that followed, Joseph served up one superb meal after another: kabob with saffron rice, followed by banana flambe; braised goose; a delicate, slightly fishy white meat that turned out to be eel.
from the creek behind the hotel (the eels were enormous-four inches in diameter). The food was prepared on glowing charcoal braziers in a cavernous kitchen with soot-blackened walls, where several women were usually singing as they diced carrots beside the sink, and children and chickens were constantly wandering in and out.
After lunch, a slim young man in rubber boots who had been waiting meekly at the door with his hat in his hands came over and introduced himself. He was Maurice Ratsizakanana, the nineteen-year-old son of the forester of the Analamazaotra-Perinet reserve; they were not from the local tribe. He said that if we’were interested he could take us to see the indri. “By all means,” I said. (This, like all conversations I had in Madagascar, was in French.) I looked up at the sky. It was dark, and there was a tension in the air, as if it were going to start pouring any minute. The eastern escarpment gets about a foot of rain in January. Maurice said that it wouldn’t rain for a couple of hours, but it wouldn’t hurt to take along a poncho, so I got mine and the three of us started walking down the road behind the hotel, which Maurice said was Ancienne Route Nationale Numero Deux.
The road went through a forest teeming with birdsong and the din of frogs and insects. A large black parrot, one of the endemic species, flew over us, calling on the wing-three descending notes. To our left, a muddy creek ran through the trees, one of which was leaning out over the water. From its branches hung tightly coiled scarlet flowers that looked just like holly berries; the genus of this tree, Symphonia, is also represented in the N ew World. Several large, iridescent moths were hovering over the flowers, their swallowtailed wings a blurred flurry of black, green, red, white, and blue. They were the famous day-flying moths, Chrysiridia madagascariensis. I had seen their relative in the Amazon, and it is spectacular, but these moths were larger and even more magnificently colored. The iridescence of their wings, like the iridescence of rainbows, oil slicks, corned beef, and soap bubbles, is structural rather than pigmental; it is caused by a series of overlapping films on each scale. Each film, which is of microscopic thickness, has a different refractive index, so it picks up a different color from the light that strikes it. In some years, the Chrysiridias migrate over the island in clouds of tens of thousands.
The forest around Perinet was full of butterflies, especially in the morning, when the sun was out. More than three thousand butterflies and moths from Madagascar have been described so far, and ninety-seven per cent of them are endemic. No studies have been published on the smaller species of the Lycaenidae family or the Satyridae family. The Malagasy call some butterflies lolopaty, which means “spirits of the dead.” On some parts of the island, the insects are believed to be reincarnations of people. The word for the Chrysiridia moth is lolonandriana, “noble spirit.”
Down the road, we came upon one of Madagascar’s botanical wonders, a traveller’s palm, Ravenala madagascariensis: its slender trunk shot up twenty-five feet, then produced a stately fan of huge leaves like banana leaves. (The tree is actually in the banana family.) The reserve was on the left. It had been created in 1970, and consisted of only eighteen square miles, Maurice said. He led us past a fish farm, where his father was raising Nile perch, and up a steep path to a ridge-one of many ridges, with deep, moist glades between them, that pleat the eastern escarpment. The trees on the ridge were short and twisted, and were encrusted and festooned with ferns, orchids, lichens, mushrooms. Many of the plants beneath them were recognizable in a general way-as club mosses, as maidenhair ferns, as mimosas, as members of the melastome family (the leaves of melastomes have pinnately netted veins, and are unmistakable once you have seen a few of them )-and the over-all physiognomy of the woods was familiar. This was high jungle, a variation on a theme I had seen stated in many different ways in Africa and South America. I had a sense not so much of being somewhere new and strange as of being back in a world that I knew.
After passing through a patch of cicada din (the drone of the insects ~as deafening when we were right among them, but it faded away within a dozen yards), we came to several tall wire-mesh structures-remnants of an unsuccessful attempt to keep indri in captivity, Maurice explained. It hadn’t been clear whether it was the bananas or being in cages that the indri hadn’t liked, but they had refused to eat and had had to be released. Indri eat the fruit and leaves of some sixty trees. “There is a family of them up on this ridge,” Maurice said. “In the morning, they sing-they tell you exactly where they are. But they stop singing at about two o’clock, so finding them may take a while. You wait here while I go look.”
So Michel and I watched some wood nymphs-little brown butterflies with orange-and-black eyespotsdancing in the path. Then Michel found a paradise flycatcher, a small brown bird with long, flaming-blue tail streamers, sitting on a nest about four feet from the ground. The bird was amazingly tame: he let me approach within a few feet and take his picture. After a while, he hopped off the nest, and up popped four tiny, wide-open, noiselessly clamoring mouths. I wondered if it was the chicks’ father or an older brother who had been keeping them warm. Some male flycatchers help with their mother’s next broods instead of having children of their own.
We watched a ten-inch-long green chameleon creep slowly down a branch, with its tail wrapped around the branch to keep it from falling. Several times, it stopped, did’ a quick, nervous pushup, and rotated its bulging eyes in different directions. “He’s very patient,” Michel said. Suddenly, it shot out its tongue-a pink laser, as long as its body, that had been retracted into its mouth-and picked off a bug from a leaf.
Twenty-seven years earlier, indri had been very hard to get a look at. Attenborough had heard their “deafening eerie wail” once; then for several days he had heard nothing and had been unable to find a trace of them. Some days (weather and temperature seem to be factors), the indri don’t sing at all, but on seventy per cent of the days of the year they do sing, from one to seven times. A single song lasts from forty seconds to four minutes. At last, one morning, Attenborough heard their “stentorian trumpeting” again, and, rushing to where the sound was coming from, he arrived in time to catch “a momentary glimpse of a body sailing through the air.” It was only by playing their song, which he had taperecorded, back to them that he finally got them to hold still-indignant, fascinated.
In 1972 and 1973, a young British scientist, J. I. Pollock, spent over a year observing groups of indri. Two of the groups became so used to his presence that they would approach and feed within fifteen feet of him. Most of what is known about the animal was discovered by Pollock. He learned that each group is a nuclear familymother, father, and two or three young-but didn’t find out whether the parents mate for life or may have other partners. The children come only every three years or so-possibly an indication of low predator pressure. Each family has its own fixed territory. At night, the members sleep in trees, from thirty to a hundred feet up. After waking and stretching, and urinating and defecating in concert, they all set out on their feeding route, moving from tree to tree. Pollock found evidence of “female dominance”: the females would lead the group into the next tree, and “only they appeared to succeed in freely and independently moving and feeding,” while the males hung back until the females had eaten their fill. At first, Pollock thought that the males were performing some kind of lookout function, but he eventually concluded that he was witnessing “social displacement”-the males withdrawing so that the females could feed without hindrance or competition. He also saw a male make sexual overtures to a female and be repeatedly rejected -“with a cuff or a violent shrugging action causing the male to immediately dismount.” This is very strange behavior for primates. In most species, including chimpanzees, gorillas, and spider monkeys, the males are bigger and stronger, and have the pick of the food and the females. Perhaps, Pollock conjectured, the female dominance among the indri is a function of their being committed monogamists-if indeed they are.
AFTER about fifteen minutes, Maurice came running. “Quick!” he said. “I found the indri.” We hurried after him. Suddenly, we were stopped in our tracks by an earshattering explosion of brays and hoots up in the trees maybe a hundred yards ahead. I fumbled for the tape recorder in my shoulder bag, but by the time I got it out the noise had stopped. Maurice led us to the edge of the ridge, and there they were-four creatures with the bodies of monkeys and the faces of dogs and the black-and-white fur of pandas, with black muzzles, and rust color on their abdomens-making their way, one after another, through some trees. Attenborough suggests that the indri may have been the inspiration for the cynocephalus-the fabled dog-headed man who graced the pages of seventeenth-century natural histories, along with dragons, manticores, hydras, and unicorns. These indri seemed to be in no hurry, to be used to being watched.
The great mystery about the indri is that they have no tails. Primates are supposed to lose their tails only when they come down from the trees, but the indri are arboreal. They rely on extremely powerful and agile legs and arms for balance and support. One of them pushed off from a tree with an explosive straightening of its legs and, keeping its body erect, landed against another tree maybe fifteen feet away, gripped the trunk with its feet, then bounced to another tree, ricocheted off that one, and finally came to rest in a fourth tree. The whole leaping sequence took no more than a few seconds.
The song of the indri is one of the loudest sounds made by any animal. It carries for more than a mile. Pollock describes it as “a relaxed event”: the indri simply raise their muzzles into the air and cut loose. He speculates that it serves as “a mechanism of selfadvertisement essential for territorial defense.” Howler monkeys in the New World and gibbons on Borneo have similar songs.
Hoping they would sing again, I got my tape recorder ready, but by accident, trying to get to clean tape, I cut into a recording I had made the day before of three children singing on a street in Antananarivo. The indri snapped to attention. Cocking their heads, pricking up their Teddy-bear ears, they hissed anxiously to each other, then glared down at us with their sparkling yellow eyes and, opening their small, brilliant-red mouths, let out a piercing volley of raw barks, of peacocklike squawks-leur cri derange, Maurice explained. They were upset, but they were also curious. They lingered for half an hour or so, waiting for something else to happen, for some other communication across the evolutionary distance between us. S. Dillon Ripley, the emeritus secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has described the lemurs as “the first animals you think might have a soul,” but it was my impression that there wasn’t a great deal going on behind the indri’s big, bright eyes. The kinship I felt with them was distant. (With other primates I have encountered in the wild-howler monkeys, spider monkeys, mountain gorilias-I have felt that I could strike up a conversation if I only knew the language.) Pollock observed that much of the time the indri remained immobile -sleeping, or digesting leaves in their voluminous viscera. Some days, they were active for only five hours; and social interactions, like grooming each other, which play such an important part in the lives of the higher primates, took up only two per cent of their activity period.
The indri moved on, and we descended the ridge into a beautiful glade with a stream running through it-a stream we crossed on a huge fallen tree provided with handrails. Maurice pointed out a Madagascar malachite kingfisher perched vigilantly above the stream. A large swallowtail with luminous green wing bars-one of the island’s rarest endemics, Papilio mangoura-came up the streambed and, darting among gigantic tree ferns, disappeared into a bamboo glade. As we waded through wet knee-high grass, I noticed that a brown inchworm, about three-quarters of an inch long, had landed on the back of my hand. I tried to flick it off, but its head was fastened to my skin. Maurice said it was a sangsue-a bloodsucker. I had seen water leeches, but nothing like this. The inchwormlike land leech is an Asian form, common in places like Ceylon, Borneo, Vietnam, and Australia. There are certain areas of New Guinea where people swear you can be exsanguinated by these leeches in a couple of hours. This was the only place in Madagascar where I ran into them, but it was thick with them. When we got out of the grass, we inspected each other and found that each of us had half a dozen. They were very aggressive. They had punched holes through our socks, come in through the ventilation holes and shoelace eyelets of our sneakers. It was important to remove them before they embedded themselves deeply. They seemed to be ravenous, perhaps because there were so few warmblooded mammals for them to feed on. A meal can last them a whole year. The wounds they made were aseptic and bled freely, because the leeches secrete both an antibiotic and an anticoagulant substance called hirudin. Maurice picked a nearby plant, a composite herb of the genus Ageratum, crushed it in his hands, and dripped its juice on our wounds; this stopped the bleeding.
We had one more encounter, with a large bird standing in the path fifty yards ahead; the bird took off and sailed on ghostly white wings into some casuarina trees. Then the rain started-a real deluge. We dashed to the forester’s hut. Inside, we found Maurice’s father, Jaosolo Besoa-a small man with a mischievous air, in orange rubber boots and green fatigues over a white shirt and a tie. Jaosolo had been a forester in the Direction des Eaux et Forets for twenty years. The bird we had just seen, he said, was a crested wood ibis: “It is in the process of disappearing, because it is hunted by poachers. It is very rareonly found on the coasts. It eats ants. That is what it was doing in the path. We call it the akohoanala, or vampire.”
We talked about the indri. J aosolo said that the name came from the first European account of the animal, in 1782, by a Frenchman named Sonnerat, who reported that “indri” was the name the natives used. Actually, Jaosolo said, in Malagasy indri just means “Look at that.” Perhaps Sonnerat’s guides were pointing at one of the animals and Sonnerat thought they were saying its name. The Malagasy word for the animal is babakoto, or “grandfather .”
“People here think they are the babakoto’s sons, so they don’t eat him,” Jaosolo told us. “He cries between seven and one o’clock, most often twice, at nine and eleven. The song is a rallying cry, a cry of greeting for all the groups.” Local legend has it that “the babakoto circumcise their newborn,” J aosolo went on. “The mother sets a day for the circumcision and invites the neighboring groups to the ceremony; then she waits with her baby on a branch for them to arrive. Before birds or men are stirring, the father goes to the river and sucks up a mouthful of water to wash the wound. Someone from one of the invited groups performs the operation, cutting the foreskin with his fingernail, and finally tearing it off with his teeth. Afterward, the father takes the baby and tosses it to the mother, and if it falls to the ground it is left to die. They all take off, because if the babycan’t cling to the mother’s stomach it is thought to be sick.”
I asked how the local people had come to believe that the babakoto was their ancestor.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s logical.”
It rained so hard that night that the water lines to the hotel were washed out, and water had to be heated in the kitchen and brought up to my room for me to bathe in. After dinner, J 0seph’s daughters retired to their rooms to listen to the radio, and his wife withdrew into a French gothic novel. Joseph, Michel, and I stayed up in the restaurant listening to a nephew of Joseph’s sing mellow Malagasy ballads with a guitar, and talking about the, form of life.
THE next morning, I set out with Maurice again. Michel, assured that I was in good hands, stayed behind, waiting for the train to Antananarivo. The whole local population seemed to be on the road-the men with axes and brush hooks and bundles on sticks slung over their shoulders, hobo style, and the women with baskets of manioc leaves, sweet-potato leaves, breadfruit, or Chinese lettuce on their heads, to sell at the market in town. They all greeted us gaily as they passed. The greeting here was “8alaam”-“Good health.” The creek sliding through the trees was about eight feet higher than it had been the day before. During the morning, we saw more kinds of birds than I had ever before seen in a single outing; they were so obliging that you could walk right up to them. Among the ones we identified were blue couas, opalescent green doves, magpie robins, rollers, vermillion foudias, sunbirds, drongos, warblers, forest kingfishers, rails, honeycreepers, cuckoo shrikes, blue vangas, and bulbuls. Seventy species have been identified in the reserve, but there must be more.
Maurice led us through the kneedeep water of the flooded creek to see a sacred tree. It has a name, kakazotsi fantata, which, he told us, means “the tree whose name nobody knows.” It was the tallest, oldest tree in the forest, he said as we stood beneath it and looked up at its crown, some sixty feet above. It was crowded by other trees, was cabled with lianas, and was partly wrapped in the embrace of a strangler fig, so it was hard to tell which leaves were its own. I looked with my binoculars and, after some time, made them out-or I think I did. They were small and simple-and that was as far as I could get with identifying them. Nobody-not the old locals who knew every tree in the forest, not the vazaha (white) botanists from universities in Europe-had succeeded in figuring out what tree it was, Maurice said. Later, his father told us, “The first branch is like Dalbergia [rosewood]. In 1963, a sorcerer named Petain tried to take part of the tree, and he would have died if he hadn’t sacrificed a cow to the tree, as he was told to do in a dream. Then the forester before me tried to take a cutting of the tree, and he died that night.” People came and danced under the tree, slaughtered goats there, left offerings of money, rum, and candy, he said-women who weren’t getting pregnant, men who weren’t having luck in love, people who wanted to get rich, students who wanted an “admissible” on their exams. Throughout Madagascar, venerable trees and prominent rocks are the site of observances having to do with ancestors. They are thought to be inhabited by a special category of spirits known as togny, who are associated with the hasina, the most sacred and highly revered of the dead. Often the rock will be draped with a white cloth. Someone had tied a red ribbon around the base of the kakazotsi fantata.
I asked Maurice if the creek had a name. He said that it was called Sahatandra, after a man who died three years ago, and who had been the oldest man in the village. On the way back to the road, Maurice found a small boa in the grass, and picked it up and draped it around his neck. It was about three feet long, tan with brown lozenges whose edges caught the sun and by some optical illusion were reproduced as dazzling blowtorch-blue rings in the air slightly above them. In some parts of the island, the boa, or do, is thought to be an ancestral incarnation and is given a wide berth. Because the do often lurks in the cool darkness of family tombs, many Malagasy believe it to be the adult form of the worms that devour the corpses and thus absorb their spirits. This belief is not found on the eastern escarpment. “Here we believe our ancestors are the indri,” Maurice explained.
MOST of the people around Perinet belong to a small, politically unimportant ethnic group called the Bezanozano, who are lumbermen and slash-and-burn farmers, clearing the forest and planting dry rice. “The name Bezanozano means ‘many small branches,’ ” Joseph said when Maurice and I joined him for lunch. “The people here make fires with many small branches. Other people use regular firewood.”
“What about the name of the creek?” I asked. “Now that the old man it was named for is dead, is the creek going to be renamed? Is it renamed every generation? Or will it always be Sahatandra?”
Joseph called one of the cooks, a native of Perinet and himself a Bezanozano, from the kitchen. The cook said that saha meant “water” in the local dialect, and Tandra was the name of a girl who had drowned in the creek. Her father had lived near a waterfall thirty kilometres away.
Maurice, irked at being contradicted, said that saha meant “garden plot,” not “water.”
The cook said, “No, it means ‘water.’ ”
“I can’t help you with this one,” Joseph told me. “I know nothing about the origin of the creek’s name. The best thing is to go into the village and ask the elders.”
So that afternoon Joseph and I crossed the railroad tracks and a footbridge over the river into which the creek emptied-also called the Sahatandra-and, sidestepping rivulets of scum, climbed a winding muddy path between two-story weathered gray houses with peaked roofs and balconies. The power lines were thatched with spiderwebs to which enormous spiders clung-N ephila madagascariensis, one of the world’s largest orb weavers. A bad cold was going around the village; we could hear hacking coughs from within every second house. Joseph said there were seven thousand people in the village. It had been renamed Andasibe, which in Malagasy means the Big Station, in the early seventies. “The people in the forest are poor but happy, but here in the village there is more misery,” he told me. “There is malaria,. and an un described mosquito-borne fever called the virus of Andasibe, which can be fatal if the person is unhealthy. The humidity takes its toll. I can’t. sleep, because of the aches it brings on in my shoulder when I lie down. But the biggest problem is dehydration from diarrhea, which kills many children.”
In the central plaza, women sat at stalls behind piles of beans, potatoes, and taro leaves, and a youth was strumming a homemade guitar. On the wall of an alcove in which a man Was repairing a radio was a poster of John Travolta. Joseph said that television was due to arrive in Andasibe at the end of the year; a receiving station had been built on a ridge outside of town. I wondered how long it would be before television began to erode the local culture: how soon it would replace gossip and storytelling as the main way of passing the time, as it is doing all over the world; what it would do to these people’s hold on their legends and history, which already seemed precarious.
Joseph asked an old man leaning on a balcony above us about the origin of the name Sahatandra, and .the old man said, “Once, there were so many crocodiles in the river that it was lady [taboo] to wash dirty pots or laundry in the river.” These were Nile crocodiles-mamba in Malagasy-which swam over from Africa during the Pleistocene and, I learned, have been hunted out almost everywhere on the island except in a few lakes in the north, where they are revered as ancestors. “A woman named Mme. Tandra was offered to the crocodiles. After that, they disappeared.”
“When was this?” I asked. “About eighty years ago,” the old man said.
Just then, the president of the Commune Rurale de Sambademba, the local representative of the pouvoir re volutionnaire, came up the path, and Joseph explained to him that we were trying to find out the meaning of the name of the river. He invited us to his office, and when we got there his clerk and an old woman in a bandanna joined in the discussion. The three of them agreed that, according to ancestral beliefs, a woman named Tandra had been sacrificed “more than a hundred years ago to keep the crocodiles from multiplying.” It was clear that the dead continued to exert tremendous influence on the villagers’ lives. But their reverence for “the ancestors” (razana) seemed more ideological than specific. I traced the genealogies of several villagers. None of them could go back more than four generations-typical shallow tropicalforest pedigrees. And yet another woman in a bandanna said that she had a hundred ancestors in her family tomb, and that once a year she and hundreds of her relatives gathered at the tomb, which was twenty miles from Andasibe, for the Famadihana, or Exhumation Ceremony. “Every year, we change the shrouds,” she said.
I asked how many of the ancestors they exhumed.
“That depends on how much money we have,” she said. “The shrouds are very expensive.”
“If you had only enough money for one, whom would you exhume?”
“Your mother and father are usually wrapped together,” she said. “You would do them first. You would do your grandfather before your uncle or brother.”
Did she know the names of all the ancestors in the tomb?
(When I got home, I spoke to the anthropologist Robert Dewar, of the University of Connecticut, who has done a lot of work on Madagascar, and he explained that as the disintegration of the older ancestors progresses their bones are placed together and it is impossible to tell them apart. “In this part of the island, every Malagasy theoretically has the right to be buried in any of the tombs of his eight great-grandparents, but in reality he usually has a choice of only three,” he said. “To be buried in a tomb, you have to have contributed to its upkeep. It could be on your mother’s or your father’s side. Or, if you marry a woman who is close to her mother’s people, you could end up in their tomb. But if you couldn’t stand your in-laws, that, of course, wouldn’t happen. Basically, it all depends on what part of the family you want to deal with.”)
We met Jaosolo at the post office, and he said we hadn’t got the story about the river’s name right at all. There had never been crocodiles in the river, he assured us. This had simply been a case of a first wife’s killing the second while the husband was away, and dumping the body in the river. “Tandra means ‘beauty spot,'” he said. “The second wife had a beauty spot. Saha is definitely not a fieldit’s a brook.” But while there were no crocodiles in the river, J aosolo couldn’t resist adding, there were definitely zazavavindrano-mermaids. “In December, they take handsome men and suck their blood, and their cold white bodies float to the surface.” I have heard similar stories in Zaire and Amazonia. “Once, an old woman was stolen by the zazavavindrano,” Jaosolo went on. “They needed a midwife. She was returned a month later unharmed, and the zazavavindrano gave her two cows. This is a true story. It happened in 1948 in Mananara, which is to the north. And during the construction of the railroad the zazavavindrano who live under the big falls at Ikuna stole an engineer, a surveyor, and eight bearers to live with them. Every December 25th, offerings are left at the falls.” I wondered if they were meant as Christmas presents.
When Joseph and I returned to the hotel, we spoke with an old Bezanozano waiter. “Jaosolo doesn’t know anything,” this man said. “He only came here in ’57. There used to be many crocodiles. Every time a zebu, a cow, crossed the river, it was eaten, One night, the parents of Tandra, 2 rich family with many zebu, dreamed that the genies of the water wanted th~ girl. These were not the zazavavindrano but the razana, the spirits of th~ ancestors in the water-they wanted her.”
During the visit to the office of th~ president of the Commune Rurale, ] had asked the old woman in the bandanna what would happen if you did nothing for your ancestors, and sh~ had said, “They come in your sleep and say, ‘I’m cold. I need beef.’ Or they make you sick. You go to th~ sorcerer and they speak through him -‘You didn’t exhume me’-and h~ directs their appeasement.” Sometimes, as in the case of Tandra’s parents, the amends you had to make to them were frightening, she said.
THE next morning-my last sortie with Maurice-we went to the far end of the reserve, hoping to see some of the nine other species of lemur at Perinet. Very soon, we didtwo eastern bamboo lemurs, gray, cat size, with long, curly tails, sitting on their haunches at the edge of a bamboo grove, eating young shoots. They saw us and bounded into the darkness of the grove.
In the course of the day, we left the reserve briefly, and came upon a bearded man in a brimless straw hat. He was a Betsimisaraka. The Betsimisaraka, who are the Bezanozano’s neighbors, are the second-largest ethnic group on the island. They occupy a four-hundred-mile-long strip of the eastern coast which extends inland twenty to fifty miles, and are heavily involved in the production of spicesvanilla, cloves-and coffee. I asked Maurice to ask him if it was fady to eat the indri. (The man spoke only Malagasy.) Maurice translated his answer: “Once upon a time, some Bezanozano went into the forest to get some honey. They climbed a vine right into the treetops, but then the vine broke and there was no way back down. The indri came and took them down on their backs. Since then, the Bezanozano tell their children, ‘If you eat the indri, all the Bezanozano will die.’ ”
“What about the aye-aye?” I asked. The aye-aye is the rarest, and weirdest, of the lemurs-indeed, one of the rarest, weirdest animals in the world. It is small, solitary, nocturnal, and ghoulish in appearance, with bat ears, bug eyes, and a long skeletal third finger, with which it taps trees to see if they are hollow, and extracts insects from decaying wood. Until a few years ago, there were thought to be only fifty aye-aye left, but now there were indications that they might be more numerous. Two holes thought to have been gnawed by an aye-aye had recently been found in a tree on the reserve.
“The aye-aye is a kind of man,” the bearded man said. “He has different kinds of hair-human, a dog’s, a chicken’s, a pig’s, a cow’s. He is like a god. He has much power. Some people here find an aye-aye and kill him with a stick, then they go down the road a few yards, and the aye-aye comes back to life and follows them. If the sorcerer of the attackers is not strong, the aye-aye and his attackers change places: the attackers die, and the ayeaye lives.” The word he used for sorcerer was marvellous: mpanaofanafody. “When you hunt the aye-aye, or immediately afterward, to avoid its power, crush a tobacco leaf and rub the juice on your face,” he advised. “There are still many aye-aye. You find their nests in the cut-over scrub.”
“Can you show us one?” I asked. “Without a sorcerer it is fady to look upon them.”
“Can you take us to a sorcerer?” “That can be arranged,” he said, with a faint smile.
“Well, then, come on-let’s go,” I said, getting up excitedly.
Both he and Maurice were smiling now, enjoying a little joke. “He is the sorcerer ,” Maurice finally explained.
The next communication from the bearded man came as no surprise.
“He needs a hundred and fifty francs for tafy-medicine,” Maurice translated. “The aye-aye is the enemy of the sorcerer.”
I handed the man the money, and we went into his hut-a tiny one, about eight feet by eight, with a ceiling so low I couldn’t stand up. The sorcerer’s wife left the room, and the sorcerer took down a modern medicine cannister from a shelf. On the cannister was “Polyvinylpyrrolidine, twenty pills.”
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“He doesn’t know. He found it on the road,” Maurice relayed.
The sorcerer opened the cannister and poured out a few dozen hard black beans and, picking up a handful, scattered them on a table. Then, as the three of us crowded around, he sorted the beans into two vertical rows, in groups of 2, 2,1,1,2,1,2 and 2, 2,1,1,2, 1, 1. Then he asked my name. I gave it. He added two beans to the last group in each row, and pondered the result. Finally, he announced,’ “We will see the nest but not the animal.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he left during the night and is now far away.”
“What is the nest like?” I asked. “Like a bird’s, but very big, with many branches in the form of a bed.” “How did you find the nest?”
“The beans have told me where it is, and now I will tell you,” the sorcerer said. “I have never seen it myself.”
“Where is it?” “Near.”
We went into the next hut, a store, and he bought some tobacco. “I need rum, for the prayer,” he said, through Maurice.
Another three hundred francs.
Then he led us down a road. I asked Maurice if he thought the sorcerer was tricking us.
“C’ est un sorcier pour faire le mauvais, pas pour faire le vrai,” he told me. “There are better sorcerers on the coast.”
After half a mile, the sorcerer took a faint path up a steep slope to a tree. Fifteen feet up in the tree was a tangle of vines with a mass of leaves in it. He thrust a pole up at it. “That’s it,” he said.
“That’s it?” I asked. It looked dubious. Leaves could have got caught among the vines of themselves, without help from an animal. The sorcerer uncorked the rum and sprinkled some on the base of the tree. Then he steeled himself with a healthy swig and, trembling with fear, with tears of fright forming in his eyes, he looked up at the nest and prayed for the ayeaye and for our health.
“He was very sincere,” I said to Maurice after we left him and were doubling back into the reserve. “He believed.”
WE could hear the stutter of axes and the steady tear of a saw. Soon we came upon seven woodmen. Two of them were up on a makeshift scaffold sawing the trunk of a Ravenala with an eight-foot crosscut saw for a M. George of Tamatava, a big city on the coast. M. George had a logging permit from Eaux et Forets, and he could choose from forty commercial species. Each of the woodmen received two boxes of rice and less than two dollars a day. They slept in a little hut of pandanus leaves; the pandanus, an agavelike plant, sprouted here and there on the forest floor.
“Seen any lemurs?” I asked. “Yes, the brown one,” one of them said.
“Do you hunt them?”
“No, but only because I don’t have a gun.”
A mile farther along, we came on a lemur trap, right on the path. It was for the black-and-white ruffed lemur, Maurice said. He showed me how it worked: in comes the lemur, enticed by the fruit of a melastomej he trips the wire, and down comes the door-it’s as simple as that. The cage was made of stakes planted in the ground and lashed with bark cord. “The penalty for poaching is five years in the prison at Moramanga, but there are only two guards for the reserve. C’est qa Ie
probleme malgache,” Maurice said sadly. “Almost everybody in the forest poaches, because people have no money to buy meat in the market. They either eat the lemurs or sell them to the Chinese who are working on the Nouvelle Route Nationale Numero Deux or to the rich. That’s why it’s hard to see the other species.” One of the officials of the Commune Rurale, he said, was a known lemur eater. Maurice tore the trap from the ground -and flung it into the bush.
Half a mile on, we reached the camp of some other woodmen. Maurice suspected that they had made the trap. Half a dozen men were sitting under a thatch roof raised on poles, and one was pounding a red-hot hammer into shape on an anvil. “It might be interesting for you to talk to them,” Maurice said.
I asked if they had seen any lemurs.
“None right here, but far away there are some still,” one of them answered. “c’ est qa Ie probleme, M onsieur,” Maurice said in an aside while he was translating.
“Babakoto, simpona [the diademedsifaka], kotrika [the sportive lemur], bokombolo [the bamboo lemur], varika [the brown lemur], tsidy [the mouse lemur], ampongy [the eastern woolly lemur ].”
“Do you eat them all?”
“Even the indri?”
“They know indri is an ancestor, but they eat him anyway,” Maurice explained.
“Why? Isn’t it fady?” I asked. “In the old days, it was very fady,” the spokesman for the woodmen went on. “As fady as marrying your sister.”
“So why do you eat indri?” I repeated.
“Because they are fat and because today there is a shortage of protein. We have to eat. A kilo of beef costs a thousand francs in the market at Andasibe. A lemur may weigh eight kilos, and we can sell it for fifteen hundred francs a kilo.”
“Don’t you get punished with sick ness for violating the fady?”
“Others get sick, even die, because of their belief,” the spokesman said.
“These men don’t have the belief deeply,” Maurice explained.
“How do you kill them?” I asked.
Maurice’s translation of the answer was “Avec une fleche.”
I thought this meant an arrow shot from a bow or a dart from a blowpipe, but when I asked to see a fleche one of them showed me a slingshot with a thong cut from an inner tube, picked up a pebble from the ground, and fired it through a nearby banana leaf.
Five hundred yards later, we came out on the Nouvelle Route N ationale N umero Deux. “This is the end of the reserve,” Maurice said. Across the road, a charred wasteland, acres and acres of smoldering devastation, spread as far as the eye could see. “That is the country of the Betsimisaraka,” Maurice said.
We bought coffee and roasted sweet potatoes that a Betsimisaraka woman was selling in a hut along the road, and sat on the curb eating and drinking. A baby was crying in another hut, and in the distance some indri were wailing. Their cries seemed even sadder now that I realized how seriously threatened the animals are. These were the cries of the last indri.