“The natural world is precious, more precious than Rembrandt or the Hope Diamond, but is being destroyed every day. We can band together to value nature with all its treasures. To value, respect and save the natural world, especially the tropics, should be the top priority of all humans.” —Patricia Wright, World Lemur Expert
PUBLISHED: THE HILL: Changing America by Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor May 25, 2020
The ancient group of primates is threatened by deforestation, hunting and other pressures.
To hear the Indri, the largest lemur in Madagascar, is to hear one of the most haunting sounds on Earth, their chorus almost reminiscent of a terrestrial version of a humpback whale song. Their family the prosimians go back over 50 million years, a good 20 million years before monkeys starting developing. To see the black and white face of the indri is to look at a specter, at a moment’s notice capable of disappearing into the increasingly tenuous forests of the 4th largest island on Earth.
We had come to see these most exquisite and rarefied of beings, creatures that define the island of Madagascar along with the entire lemur family, chameleons, fantastic rock formations and Jurassic Park landscapes that were once part of Gondwanaland, cradled between Africa, India and Antarctica several hundred million years ago.
Madagascar’s fauna is unique on Earth and for that alone needs worldwide support, and fast. The word lemur comes from the Latin Lemures, which means ghosts, and considering that 90 percent of the 111 lemur species face extinction, humanity needs to act before the increasing deforestation and sorely lacking tourist and international funding renders a once forested primeval island into a parched wasteland.
We headed south and chanced upon a wild, wild south kind of town where dozens of claims on sapphires and rubies had been made, where holes had been dug so fast and without support beams that the walls had collapsed in on themselves burying prospectors alive. In the late 1990s only a few houses dotted the landscape. Then the town exploded. Merchants from Russia, Eastern Europe, Burma and Sri Lanka had come to make deals for the most exciting new gem site on Earth. People were stashing wads of Malagasy ariary bills under their mattresses. This boom town, where it seemed half the island and a good part of the gem experts on Earth were converging, was ironically called Gogogogo.
Where there used to be superstitions and sorcery now there was banditry. After the coup of 2009, a kind of Sacramento fever of 1848 that ran amuck in California ignited all over the south. But then foreign aid, 40 percent of the state budget was slashed. Foreign capital dissolved and poverty blossomed and with it many of Madagascar’s inimitable forests.
It was in Berenty Reserve with its sweeping rocks of the Mandrare River with baobab trees efflorescing like giant cathedrals of wood that was our ultimate destination. The ring-tailed lemurs. Perhaps the most famous species because of the film series “Madagascar,” they were being as playful as any mammal one would wish to meet. But as we learned, the uncanny spiny forests and succulent woodlands of Madagascar, like so much of its land mass, were fast becoming casualties of critically poor farmers looking to make charcoal from trees, especially since the political upheaval of 2009 and the ensuing droughts and locust invasions. There may be no more than 2,000 of these exquisite species left. With their habitat being slowly burnt, how long will they hold on? Rosewood and rare tortoises are the other casualties caught between ensuing political infighting and the corruption that has skyrocketed overt the last decade.
Photo credit ©Cyril Christo & Marie Wilkinson