Lemurs Forest Camp

ChamEO — The last visitors, ever.

The path to the Lemurs Forest Camp — Photo by April Hinkle

The Lemurs Forest Camp is a well-known and frequently visited small patch of primary rainforest where families of lemurs live and play. The area has been protected by a man named Daniel Rajaona for the past fifteen years. There are several small cabins, makeshift bathrooms and a lodge with a proper dining room where the camp’s visitors would be served classic French dishes.

ChamEO (a group of 10 chameleon and wildlife enthusiasts) was heading over to Madagascar for an 8-day tour to explore the places where chameleons can be found, and everything in between. One of the highlights of ChamEO’s first retreat was going to be an overnight stay at the Lemurs Forest Camp in Ialatsara, but as we drew closer to our U.S. departure, things changed.

We were informed by our guide in Antananarivo that Lemurs Forest Camp was no longer taking reservations, and cancelling all existing reservations. The reason given, that the forest’s caretaker had health problems. Later, it was revealed that his safety was in jeopardy as he had recently been under attack by the locals. Time had come for him to leave. A decision, we would soon learn, was very difficult to make

We needed to rethink the route very quickly since this was one of the highlights of our retreat and we needed something else to fill in the time.

After many conversations with the guide in Madagascar, the story of Lemurs Forest Camp and the importance of its preservation came to life. In the forest, there are Milne Edwards’ sifakas, Red-bellied Lemurs, Mouse Lemurs. Daniel tried persuading authorities at Ranomafana National Park to relocate the family of Milne Edwards and hopefully the others too. But his many requests went unanswered.

In addition to the lemurs, this area was home to many chameleons such as Calumma oshaughnessyi and Furcifer lateralis.

I really wanted to help out with the lemur issue but I didn’t know how. So I contacted my exotics veterinarian, Dr. Attila Molnar of All Animals Veterinary Hospital to see if he had any solutions. I figured that he would know what to do in a situation like this. He was also one of the ten going with us on this trip.

Dr. Molnar said he would be able to tranquilize the lemurs by using blow darts, then we could relocate them. Sounds simple, although it isn’t. Tranquilizing them in a way that would not cause them to fall to the ground would be the first difficult task. Carrying their dead weight out of a rainforest would be the next. Since they can’t remain tranquilized, we would need something to secure them in, bring them to and then transport them to the appropriate authorities. But the real problem was getting authorization and permits to do any of this.

We were instructed to contact Patricia Wright to see if she could help us get permits or help put together a team for the lemurs’ relocation. I wrote to her immediately.

Dr. Wright and I exchanged a number of emails. Just before our group started our journey to Madagascar, last I heard, Dr. Wright said they will look into obtaining authorization. But in the meantime, she would get a study group together to monitor their behavior.

We landed in Madagascar on February 5th and made our way from Antananarivo to Antsirabe, then on to Ialatsara by February 7th. While Daniel had already vacated the property, he returned to meet us there in hopes that we could somehow move the lemurs. He and his staff prepared a wonderful meal for us. I know he was hoping we could relocate the lemurs as well. Dr. Molnar was well prepared but by this time, no authorization had been obtained. We could do nothing but photograph them.

(L) Log cabin — Photo by April Hinkle; (R)Roasted Duck and vegetables for lunch— Photo by Elisa Hinkle
Daniel Rajaona, the caretaker of the Lemurs Forest — Photo by April Hinkle

This is Daniel.

Daniel and I sat down to talk about payment for the day hike and lunch. I was dying to know (but also afraid to know) what was going to happen to this beautiful sanctuary once he left. In the distance I could hear the sound of saws. The smell of burning wood was faint but distinct. The sadness in Daniel’s eyes is what compelled me to ask him how he was doing.

He is very tired. He is done risking his life, his safety, and that of his staff. Who in their right mind sticks around to protect a small patch of trees and the animals? That was Daniel’s quest, until January of 2017. There was no question how painful of a decision this was for him to make.

We set out on our hike feeling very somber, dreading the fact that we will be the last visitors to Lemurs Forest Camp.

We walked past the cabins. I recollected what a friend described to me, waking up to the eerie sounds of lemurs calling. It gave him chills. I wanted to experience that so badly. I choked back the tears and focused on the fact that we were very lucky to get to see this place at all.

Years ago, a private land owner purchased the forest, cut down half of it and planted two crops of Eucalyptus trees. He is eager to get rid of the remaining primary forest to grow more Eucalyptus trees. Little by little he has been inching towards the cabins where Daniel and his staff resides. Closer and closer to the lemurs too.

Just beyond this point in our hike, the smell of burning trees filled the air. In a small open grassy field, Furcifer lateralis were abundant in all sizes, from juvenile to adult, all displaying their brilliant magnificence.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to search for more. It was late in the day and we were heading towards the lemurs’ habitat. I wished we had more time to spend in Ialatsara, but the roads are very dangerous to drive at night and we needed to reach Ranomafana National Park by sundown.

Milne Edwards’ sifaka — Photo by April Hinkle
She’s a bit parched but also going into a shed. Calumma oshaughnessyi — Photo by April Hinkle

We came across a few oshaughnessyi, both male and female. None of them looked particularly healthy, but this could be attributed to rainy season arriving about six weeks later than usual.

Some lemurs only eat bamboo and cannot survive in a Eucalyptus forest. I honestly hate to allow my mind to think of the reality of this situation. Lemur meat is bushmeat. The Malagasy are very poor and starving, so they eat what they can find. Those beautiful animals you see above could very well have been killed and sold for a couple of bucks as bushmeat. Unlike zebu, chicken, pork and duck raised for the food trade in Madagascar, this sort of practice will drive lemurs right into extinction. When you cut down their habitat combined with the only source of food for some, Bamboo Lemurs for example, those that escape slaughter will eventually die from starvation.

A few weeks after our trip, Cyclone Enawo, the strongest cyclone to hit Madagascar in the past 13 years, entered the country from the northeast. It was equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane with devastating effects in several areas causing massive flooding and landslides leaving 50 dead, 20 missing, 180 injured and 110,000 displaced (Tropical Cyclone Enawo Makes Category 4 Landfall; Strongest Madagascar Landfall In 13 Years (RECAP). Retrieved March 22, 2017, from https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/tropical-cyclone-enawo-madagascar-forecast).

The trip to Madagascar was incredible for so many reasons but it was equally depressing, if not more. Less than a month after our return to the U.S., photos of the Lemurs Forest Camp were shared with me.

The only information we have on the lemurs is that they were going to be captured and moved to Ranomafana National Park, but no one was able to confirm their status. I will update this story if I hear anything further.

Photos provided by Klaus Konnerth
Photos provided by Klaus Konnerth