Over 80% of the wildlife is unique to the island- with much of it amazingly different to anything else on earth. Some 60% of mammals, 50% of the birds and 90% of the frogs are endemic. Of the mammals, there are no indigenous cats, dogs, antelope or ungulate species; the reptiles too are unique in that there are no poisonous snakes, no agamas and no monitors. Of the others that aren’t endemic, some of the species are similarly related to the African equivalent. Interestingly, some completely different species have taken over the role of the African equivalent on the mainland. For example, it is thought at the curious Eye Eye, a mammal that probes with its elongated finger into crevices in tree bark for grubs, fulfils the role of the wood hoopoes in Africa, – a bird absent in Madagascar. These types of scenarios are commonly found and any thoughts of relating this island as a brother to Africa are quickly forgotten. Many species’ closest relatives are actually found in South America and not Africa.
So visiting Madagascar is rather like seeing a long lost cousin; somewhat familiar in some aspects, but totally and exotically foreign in others!
90% of the frogs in Madagascar are endemic. Amazing in it’s own right- never mind how beautiful the actual frogs are. D200, 105mm & 1.4 converter @150mm. 1/180sec, f18, iso 200. Handheld
It all starts in the centre: Tana
Almost all travel in Madagascar revolves around the centrally lying capital city of Antananarivo. Every one calls it “Tana” and the exotic name lives up to its reputation. Driving into town from the airport you are confronted with a mixture of sights that confuse the senses and the mind. Rice paddies from Asia lie in the valleys, men in Arab style pirogues punt along the rivers while mud houses are decked with Provencal-style tile roofs as in France. Battered and beaten Renaults and Citroens are the main cars on cobbled roads leading up to the city centre. The shops are an assortment of holes-in-the-wall selling 1960’s car parts for the battered cars through to sleek, new petrol stations and boutique shops with the latest fragrances from France.
Walking in the rural areas of Madagascar offers excellent opportunities for travel images
Known as a relatively safe city, the streets of Tana are a hive of activity. Lots of business is done on the streets, providing all manner of interesting scenes. Markets often are type specific. We found a book market selling mainly French titled books, but very quickly we had our own librarians bringing us English titles. I even managed to procure a very old copy of Jane Austin’s- pride and Prejudice! Not normally having an affinity for cities, Tana provided a certain charm and intrigue that had me looking forward to my walks with a camera through its streets. Almost all flights go through Tana and it is from here that you access the rest of the country.
To know where to go to, you need to know a small amount of Madagascan geography. The island lies lengthways, almost three times longer than it is wide, on a north-south axis. Through the middle of the island runs a mountain range that divides it into distinct east and west biomes. Due to the various ocean currents and trade winds this has resulted in many diverse habitats. In general, these mountains divide the island into: lowland eastern rainforests, western dry deciduous forests, tropical rain forests in the north, highlands in the centre and desert and semi-desert landscape in the south. These varieties of habitats are one of the factors contributing to the diversity of Madagascar’s uniquely developed fauna and flora.
Street markets in Tana offer some interesting photography- Book market, down town street market.
D200, 12-24 @ 24mm. 1/20 sec, f4,5, iso 200. Handheld
Knowing that Tana is in the centre of the country and that a mountain range runs down its length, the potential travel problems start to surface. For most of the country, you cannot travel by road in an east- west direction- there is just no way through the mountains. This makes road travel tedious and thus travel is conducted by flights. However, almost all the flights pass through Tana. So like the spokes of a wheel, every plane uses Tana as a hub in getting from one place to another. Logistically, this can be a nightmare, especially if you want to be in the reserves and not stopping off in Tana every few nights. On any itinerary to Madagascar, make sure that you check your flight schedule carefully. With good planning (and knowledge of the flight times) you can be in and out of Tana in no time, rather than spending another night in town on a stop over. This is one piece of local knowledge that makes a huge difference.
Another tip, and one that you will learn quickly when there, is that all major towns have two names; the older French names as well as the local, renamed versions. The new and old names are bandied about together and can become confusing- until you learn both names that is!
A different type of game viewing
The most popular (and productive) way of game viewing in Africa is done via game drives. Arrive in Madagascar and the comfort of a 4×4 with beer and biltong at hand are quickly done away with. Game viewing is, almost exclusively, done via walking. All reserves have a path network along which walks are done. Local guides are invaluable on these walks. We encountered guides with incredibly good eyes and an excellent local knowledge of the fauna and flora.
You realise very quickly that the emphasis is not only on Lemurs, but also on the smaller species, and the guides’ knowledge becomes invaluable in finding and identifying the various species. Of interest, is that species are called by their scientific name. This is because many of the species don’t yet have common names. This comes as quite a wake up call in regards to how “new” many of Madagascar’s species are!
Only lemurs and birds are called by their common names, but even then, scientific names are used to differentiate species and sub species.
Nosy Mangabe island
As well as providing protection to some special endemics, Nosy Mangabe also offers landscape opportunities.
D200, 12-24 @14mm. 1 sec, f 22, is0 100, polariser. Tripod
Can you see me?
A Leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus spp) uses its camouflage to hide from even the best of eyes. Nosy Mangabe Island.
D200, 12-24 @12mm. 1/80sec, f8, iso 200, tripod
The North East Rain forests
Flying over Madagascar can deliver a conflict of emotions. On the one hand you see beautiful beaches, atolls and coral reefs along the coast, yet on the other hand, the amount of deforestation and erosion you see on the hills is quite depressing. The Masoala Peninsular is the heart of the eastern rain forest protected areas. It is also Madagascar’s largest reserve (400 000ha) and along with the island Nosy Mangabe holds some exceptional specials. The 30 min boat ride to Nosy Mangabe is a scenic wonder and filled with the anticipation of excellent wildlife viewing. Nosy Mangabe was prescribed as a special reserve in the 1960’s- when wildlife was disappearing fast. The highly endangered Eye Eye was housed here and it now holds a stable population. The chance of seeing them though is very slim, as they spend most of the day in nests high up in the tree-tops. Night is the best time to see them, when they come out too feed. Daytime viewing though, is quite spectacular. Nosy Mangabe must be the best place to be shown the Leaf-tailed gecko (genus Uroplatus). I say, “shown”, because the chance of seeing one on your own is virtually impossible. Using camouflage a Gaboon adder would be proud of, these geckos, about 40cm long, lie on open, exposed tree trunks face down. And no one would be the wiser. Other than the normal camouflage tricks of colour change and motionless positioning, they also have frilled edges to their skin that flattens onto tree bark. This cuts out any chance of shadows belying their presence.
Other specials on the island include White fronted brown lemur, black and white ruffed lemur and common brown lemur. We saw three different types of chameleon on our days there and they are regularly seen. Frogs are one of the main attractions of Nosy managabe, but the late rains didn’t help our cause in searching for frogs this time.
Of course, the birds were all new and blue pigeon, Madagascar squacco heron, blue coua, Madagascar kingfisher and Madagascar drongo were just some of the easily seen birds in the area.
Another of Madagascar’s star attractions: the Giant Parsons chameleon- photographed here in the Andisibe forest.
D200, 70-200 & 1.4 converter @ 220. 1/60sed, f 7.1, iso 320, Flash. Handheld
Eastern lowland forests
Just three hours drive from Tana, lies the forests of Andasibe (Perinet). This area is an excellent introduction to the islands fauna and houses some excellent wildlife. The night walk here is excellent too. Using a local guide, you should see many species of brightly coloured frogs, dwarf lemurs and some excellent specimens of chameleon. The highlight is the Brookesia spp of chameleon- a tiny reptile about that as about the size of a compact flash card. In the day there are many insects, chameleons, orchids, frogs and birds to be found, even in the gardens around the lodge. Birds at the lodge included the beautiful Madagascar flycatcher, Madagascar white-eye, Madagascar bulbul, blue and white vanga, Madagascar buzzard, velvet asity and yellow wagtail.
However, Andasibes most famous inhabitant is the Wailing Indri. Arguably the largest of the lemur family, the indri roams widely through the forests. We found a group after an hour in the forest and spent nearly 1 hour with them. I was beginning to wonder why we were there so long and then it happened. The indri started wailing. Akin to sitting next to a roaring lion, these haunting calls reverberated through the valleys and up my spine in a numbing way! It is one of Madagascar’s top experiences.
The beautiful collared lizard is one of the commoner lizards seen in Ampijoroa.
D200, 70-200 & 1.4 converter @ 280mm. 1/250 sec, f 5,6, iso 250, handheld
Dry deciduous forest
Up in the North east of the country lies Ampijoroa and the Ankarafantsika Nature reserve. This is undoubtedly one of the hot spots of Madagascan birding and wildlife viewing. Broadbilled rollers, lesser vasa parrots and sickle-billed vangas noisily inhabit the campsite area, there is a breeding colony of approx 300 cattle egrets on the lake front (100m away) and you are greeted to Coquerels sifaka’s on the ground as you enter camp.
Lake Ravelobe, in the dry decidous forests offers a boat cruise with excellent photography of the lake, the forests and the many endemic birds along it’s shore.
D200, 70-200 &1.4 converter @ 210mm. 1/160sec, f5, iso125. Handheld
Known as a birding paradise, Ampijoroa lives up to its name, but it also delivers in many other ways too. You could spend a whole day photographing the sifakas. Their leaping through the trees and their bi-pedal running on the ground offer very specific photographic challenges. The walks in the forest deliver many lemur species, (Milne Edwards sportif lemur, rufous dwarf lemur, grey dwarf lemur) as well as some excellent birding. Some beautiful endemic species such as Paradise fly catcher on nest, rufous vanga, van-dams vanga (one of Madagascar’s most endangered birds), pygmy kingfisher, Madagascan scops owl and cuckoo roller were just some of the species seen. Then there is the boat ride on Lake Ravelobe. A gentle cruise along the shore of the lake, the boat ride offers opportunity to photograph Madagascan squacco heron, Madagascan malachite kingfisher, Madagascan fish eagle and the uncommon humblot’s heron all on one cruise. Of course the locals fishing on the shore make for good travel and scenery images in addition to birds and crocodiles.
Of course a visit to Madagascar is not complete with out seeing Verreaux’s “dancing” Sifaka doing their thing!
D200, 70-200 @120mm. 1/400sec, f 4, iso 250. Handheld
The dry south
Arriving in Fort Dauphine/Taolagnaro you are immediately greeted by a dry heat quite different to that of the centre and north of the island. Driving inland, the vegetation is very shrub like, with large amounts of dideraceae and euphorbia spp. indicating a dry landscape. Instead of heading to Berenty, a popular reserve three hours drive from town, we visited the Nahampuna gardens, 45 min from town. These lovely gardens provided a host of photographic subjects. Wasps, robber flies and many small frogs were photographed- the frogs being the highlight due to the large numbers of them on the leaves of certain trees!
The cuteness of the lemurs and sifaka’s is their obvious attraction and why they are the national animal of Madagascar.
D200, 70-200 @ 180mm. 1/350sec, f5, iso250. Handheld
However, once we found the lemurs- we knew what the real attraction was. The ring-tailed lemur is the national animal of Madagascar and together with the verreaux’s (dancing) sifaka, provided an afternoon of excellent photography. Both species are charismatic and the ringtails are extremely cute and photogenic. However, it is the bi-pedal running of the verreaux’s sifakas that provide the most challenging photos. Seeing them running is one thing- catching them on camera is another! Intensely fulfilling afternoon’s photography was had with both these species- leaving us to go back to the hotel and unwind from all the action.
The deep shade of the forests absorb light, making fast lenses a necessity for decent photos, even with flash.
D70, 70-200 @ 200mm. 1/100sec, f 2,8, iso 500, Flash. handheld
Weight is always a concern when traveling. Thus a lot of thought goes into planning a camera bag on a trip like this. The most important decision I made was to leave the 200-400 lens at home. It proved to the correct one- as walking in the reserves with it would have been a nightmare. Instead, I used a 70-200 and 1.4 converter as my “long lens” and this sufficed for most applications. It also proved very handy for shooting in the low light conditions of the forests. The wide aperture here really makes a difference. If the tour was more bird specific, then the long lens would have come along. I took 2 cameras- a D200 and a D70- these both are lightweight and the D70 couples as my infrared body as well. Lenses included a 12-24mm, 105 macro and an 18-70 ”travel” lens. This kit worked quite well and was in line with what most people bring to Madagascar. A 100-400 lens was a commonly used lens with others and due to its versatility proved very handy.
For once- the macro lens became the most used lens. Coupled with a flashgun, the whole of the Madagascan underworld opens up to you- frogs, chameleons, moths, butterflies, geckos, spiders, cicadas and bugs are all within reach of your macro.
If you want to learn how to use your flash- take a trip to Madagascar. Animals move- so a tripod is used mainly as support- the flash is what freezes the movement and helps you gain a decent aperture to working shutter speed ratio.
Night and flash photography is a great part of capturing Madagascar wildlife.
The results can be fascinating though.
D200, 105mm &1.4 converter @150mm. 1/200 sec, f16, iso 400. ¼ power flash. Handheld
Of all the places I have been to, Madagascan wildlife has to be the most foreign. Almost everywhere I have traveled, I have always at one stage been able to relate an animal or a bird from the country I am in, back to a similar Africa species. Madagascar changed all that. Sitting alone with a leaf tailed Gecko on Nosy Mangabe Island made me realize that this creature was totally alien to me. It made me cherish the moment a bit more and also realize just how unique this island is. We have all heard how new species are being discovered here every year- and it is true. I suppose that is what sums up Madagascar: New, exotic species that if you have not been there, will not know just how significant they are.
Shem Compion is a naturalist and photographer working throughout Southern Africa. His work can be seen at www.shemimages.com. He also runs C4 Images and Safaris , a company that presents photo courses, workshops and photo safaris.
All images © Shem Compion
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