John Whittles Wildlife

Madagascar 2007


In the 1950s, a young Cambridge zoology graduate persuaded the BBC to make programmes about animal collecting expeditions for London Zoo. Several expeditions, to exotic and distant locations, were made over the next few years and were a great success. The programmes fired my interest in wildlife and I watched each series avidly and read the accompanying books. The programmes were called “Zoo Quest” and the zoologist was David Attenborough. “Zoo Quest to Madagascar” was screened in 1961.

Madagascar split from Africa about 160 million years ago and reached its present position approximately 120 million years ago. Primates began to emerge around 60 million years ago and it is believed that early primates, the ancestors of the lemurs, must have reached Madagascar on rafts of floating vegetation. They must have had been uniquely adapted to withstand the rigors of their accidental voyage as more advanced primates, monkeys and apes, which replaced lemurs on the mainland, either never survived the crossing or failed to establish in Madagascar.

There are currently 86 species of lemur in Madagascar, and many more have become extinct. These range from the diminutive Mouse Lemur to the largest member of the family, the Indri Indri.
Indri Indri

One of the main aims of the “Zoo Quest” expedition to Madagascar was to film the Indri for the first time. They were successful. We visited the island in 2007 and I hoped to repeat their success. Photographing an Indri would be the icing on the cake, even allowing for the fact that it was likely to be far easier than in the 1960s. As you will see, I achieved both ambitions. The highlight was at the Palmarium private reserve, when an Indri descended from the canopy, reached out an incredibly soft hand, took my wrist and guided it to take a piece of banana out of my hand. An unforgettable experience.

Madagascar is a large island and on a two week trip it is only possible to see a small amount of what is on offer. The holiday was organised by Discovery Initiatives who arranged excellent local guides and local travel involving flights, motor boats and cars with local drivers. We were able to visit, and spend several days in the North East (Masoala National Park), East Central part (Andasibe and Mantadia National Parks and the private Palmarium reserve) and the spiny forest area of the South West (Reniala Nature Reserve and Arboretum d’Antsokay).

Accommodation varied from bamboo huts, by a beautiful white beach adjoining dense tropical rainforest (no electricity and shared facilities in an unlit block down an unlit path), to more comfortable lodges and modern hotels.

Madagascar is the 7th poorest country in the world with a young and rapidly growing population. When the island gained independence from France, the new government repealed many of the laws enacted by the colonial power. These included the laws setting up nature reserves. In the last thirty years, ninety percent of the dense tropical rain forest that covered the island has been destroyed by slash and burn agriculture. Wherever one travels one sees areas that have been cleared, planted and then abandoned. Secondary forest starts to grow and will in due course be burned again. When flying over the island, every river is brown with erosion from the surrounding hills and mountains.

The government has finally set up new reserves and is promoting wildlife tourism. Of the reserves we visited, Andasibe was the busiest and most commercial, There is a large modern hotel, Vakona Lodge, nearby and that attracts tours. Mantadia National Park is however close by and that is, much larger, quieter and covered in dense primary rainforest. There are many tracks although walking is not easy.

The gallery is a small selection of the photographs that I took.