IT’S COLD UP ON THE CENTRAL plateau of Madagascar. Patches of cloud float across hills swathed in eucalyptus, American sweetgum, azalea and magnolia. Hanging from their branches are bloated water droplets, ready to fall with a satisfying ‘poink’ onto the damp floor. Tree frogs croak and chirp and peep their presence through the drizzle, keeping leaf-tailed geckos and long-limbed spiders company beneath the canopy. Luc Rajeriosa pushes his way through the undergrowth, stepping through the vines of assorted plants and brushing aside the canoe-sized branches of giant tree ferns.
He pauses, pushes his straw hat to the back of his head, and stares into the treetops. ‘They are very far away,’ he whispers, frowning. ‘But still we must be very quiet.’ He plunges into a thicket of bamboo. With every step, his feet sink into the sticky mush of rotting foliage. At the top of a steep hill, he stops again. Within minutes, a high-pitched wail rises up, falls and rises again. More wails join it, as though an orchestra of musicians with broken trumpets has set up within the forest. ‘Now you hear the song of the indri,’ says Luc, and looks once more into the treetops.
Three silhouetted balls are coiled in the upper branches. Limbs appear from furry bodies, and the indri take shape: black feet and hands, white legs and arms, round ears framing a black face, and a long black tail. The three creatures – a male, female and their baby – start grooming in the fine rain, picking at each others’ coats with bony fingers. The male launches itself into a neighbouring tree, and his family soon join him. They swing off through the branches, and disappear. ‘The local people here will not harm the indri,’ says Luc, moving off in slow pursuit. ‘It is taboo. We call them babakoto – father of man. The belief is that one day, long ago, the indri saved a small boy lost in the forest. For that, we will always care for them.’
The indri is the largest primate in Madagascar (the giant lemur, the size of a silverback gorilla, has been extinct for some 600 years). Up to 70 family groups live in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, and the rainforest regularly sings with their territorial calls, the sound travelling for more than a mile. It is somewhat trickier to see them, but Andasibe has other distractions should a sighting prove elusive. There are fuzzy-faced, ginger-limbed diademed sifakas, which can only be found in this part of the country; the alien forms of giraffe weevils, heads carried on spindly necks four times the length of their red bodies; fluffy bamboo lemurs stripping leaves off their namesake plants; and Malagasy tree boas wrapped around the trunks of palisander trees, blue tongues flicking beneath black eyes.
Luc is not a man to be swayed from his almost reverential search for the babakoto though, despite several hours scrambling through the forest. ‘I am like the indri,’ he says, emerging briefly into sunlight at the banks of a small lake. ‘I need to be in the forest every day.’ He turns back into the undergrowth, and is soon lost from sight.