JEAN-BAPTISTE STROLLS cheerfully through, the forest, arms swaying, flip-flops flapping. For the past hour, he has led the way through a tangle of paths that each looks identical to the last, pausing to point out brown creatures hidden in the brown undergrowth: a twig-like pencil snake here, a fist-sized land snail there. It takes some time to locate the lemur he spotted with barely a glance, but after much gesticulating (‘To the left of the fork, down from the second branch, no, not that branch, down further’), there it is: a sportive lemur, its teddy-bear head and goggly brown eyes poking out of a tree hollow. The sighting opens the floodgates to an embarrassment of encounters in the forest of Kirindy.
A few steps on, a black-and-white Verreaux’s sifaka appears far above, swinging between the treetops with the elegance of a trapeze artist, the tiny head of her baby peeking out from the fur of her belly. In a clearing nearby, Jean-Baptiste’s guttural ‘whoop-whoop’ is catnip to a family of red-bellied lemurs, and they soon make their way down from the canopy to inspect their human visitors. The residents of Kirindy have made their home in the remains of the last dry deciduous forest on Madagascar’s west coast. It supports eight species of lemur – and the one creature in the country whose belly starts to rumble when it spots one. The forest is one of the best places to see the lemurs’ only predator: the endangered fossa.
Three of the animals have spent the day in the camp at Kirindy’s ecological research centre. One by one, they slink out from beneath a cabin, stretching and yawning in the sunshine, before hunching down in the dirt. They look like some terrible genetic mix-up between a dog and a weasel, with grey-brown fur, yellow eyes and a tail as long as their bodies. Mamy Ramparany, who manages the centre, would rather they didn’t feel so at home here. ‘One of the major issues for them,’ he says, squatting to check for other fossa beneath the cabin, ‘is the destruction of their habitat through farming and logging. Maybe they come here because they don’t have enough food.’
Mamy watches as the creatures rise and stalk into the forest. ‘That is the challenge of conservation in Madagascar, to work out how people profit from the forest without destroying it,’ he says. ‘But it is an exciting challenge. As long as there are animals left, there is hope.’ The broad-trunked, spindly-topped trees that rise incongruously through the scrubby thicket of Kirindy give some clue to the nature of that challenge. These are baobabs – ‘mothers of the forest’ in Malagasy – and the region was once full of them. Lost to deforestation and agriculture over the centuries, they now commonly stand alone, trunks thick as houses, towering over scorched earth cleared by slash-and-bum.
Some 25 miles south of Kirindy, the Avenue des Baobabs is a proud reminder of what has been lost. At dawn, a thick mist has settled over the road, and the 20 or so baobabs lining it – some 600 years old -are reduced to murky silhouettes. Farmers emerge through the fog, carrying scythes and axes, and leading zebu cattle, who stop to scratch their flanks on the gnarly bark of the trees. Fires are lit outside mud houses along the road, blackened pots placed over them, ready for a day’s cooking.
As the sun rises, the mist seeps away. More traffic appears on the avenue: jeeps on their way to the main town of Morondava, motorbikes with mattresses balanced on the handlebars. By the roadside, revealed for the first time in the morning light, are 10 small enclosures. Inside are frail baobab saplings barely a centimetre thick and half a metre tall – dwarfed by the old trees around them, but a sign, of a brighter future nonetheless.