A Return to Madagascar

Ian Tattersall, April 2004

Paleoanthropologist and primatologist Ian Tattersall, who conducted extensive fieldwork in Madagascar, will be a member of the lecture team on our inaugural Indian Ocean Safari expedition, which begins 12 February 2005, on board Le Ponant. Here he explains why this itinerary holds special meaning for him.

I was delighted to be asked to accompany this voyage, not only because it begins and ends in places (the islands of Reunion and Zanzibar) for which I have long nourished a special affection, but most of all because it will give us a very unusual taste of what is for me the most fascinating place on earth: the vast mini-continent of Madagascar, the world's largest oceanic island. It is by now well over 30 years since I began my love affair with Madagascar, but I still discover something new on every visit there.

One hundred and sixty-five million years ago, Madagascar was part of the vast southern continent of Gondwana, with which it shared an ancient flora and fauna. But at that point Gondwana began to fragment into what we know today as South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia, as its components began to drift apart. By about 120 million years ago Madagascar was as far away from Africa as it is today, and as a result of the island's isolation its living inhabitants were launched along an independent evolutionary trajectory. It has been said that, in Madagascar it is as if the river of evolution burst its banks and flowed to the present down an entirely different course.

My particular fascination in Madagascar is with the lemurs: distant primate cousins of humans and a window into our own remote past of about 60 million years ago. These creatures exist only in Madagascar, but are there in amazing variety, including several creatures that are my particular candidates for the title of "world's most beautiful animal." Our ports of call along the island's east coast will give us a fascinating glimpse of the teeming life of the eastern rain forests, as well as of a little-visited coastline whose colorful history has involved seafarers from Indonesia, Arab traders, Betsimisaraka princesses, and assorted pirates, explorers, and adventurers.

Most of Madagascar's coastal rain forest is now gone, since humans began the ongoing process of clearing the island about two thousand years ago. But one tiny forest remnant hangs on, miraculously preserved as a sacred place to the local Malagasy people. This is Tampolo, a magical place that recently became twinned with the Lemur Conservation Foundation's (LCF) reserve at Myakka City in Florida. The LCF is solely devoted to the conservation and understanding of the lemurs of Madagascar, and recently financed the building of a site museum at Tampolo. This resource is designed to help the local people appreciate and thus protect the unique nature that surrounds them. We will visit this forest from the sea, arriving exactly as did the early explorers who first discovered Madagascar's wealth of natural history.

Another highlight for me along the island's eastern coast will be our call at Vohemar, which is the jumping-off place for Daraina, a site where I discovered a new kind of lemur back in 1974. A decade after I saw it and first reported its presence here, this immensely attractive animal, the golden-crowned sifaka, received the scientific name Propithecus tattersalli. It is highly unusual nowadays to discover, anywhere in the world, a new kind of large-bodied and day-active primate. But Madagascar is just that kind of place: a spot where the new, bizarre, and unexpected lurk around almost every corner.

This itinerary on Le Ponant thus promises an incessant round of discoveries and new delights to all its participants, whether or not they have previously explored this part of the world. I look forward very much to sharing these experiences with you.

The Lemur Conservation Foundation

The lemurs of Madagascar are the world's oldest surviving primates. These prosimians, protected by isolation and the lack of predators, thrived on the island and today number 32 different species. With the arrival of humans roughly two millennia ago, the existence of the lemurs became more precarious. Seventeen species have gone extinct in that span from habitat loss and hunting, with many others considered endangered or critically endangered.

Founded in 1996, the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and conservation of lemurs through captive breeding, nonharmful scientific research, education, and reintroduction of lemurs to the wild. To these ends, the LCF operates the Myakka City Lemur Reserve in Florida, home to a small colony of lemurs. The LCF concentrates its efforts on so-called orphan species, lemurs that other conservation programs choose not to propagate. The foundation also works with a multinational effort in Madagascar and is officially allied with Tampolo Forest Station, one of the last remaining areas of coastal forest on Madagascar's eastern shore.

For more information on the LCF and their mission, visit their Web site at www.lemurreserve.org, call them at (941) 322-8494, or write them at P.O. Box 249, Myakka City, FL 34251.

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