Far Flung Correspondents (Madagascar), Page 2
New Yorker, Mar 7, 1988
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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
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.
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.