The Search for Wildlife Madagascar’s First Conservation Field Site (Part 1)

View of part of Analamerana Special Reserve.

In this series of posts, Chief Conservation Officer Tim Eppley shares his experiences in Madagascar looking for the right field site for Wildlife Madagascar.

One of the first major tasks of our new organization is to locate a site where we can set up long-term conservation field studies and begin to create infrastructure for ecotourism and partnering with local communities. We researched several possibilities and settled on three to explore. Debra Erickson and Lytah Razafimahefa, Wildlife Madagascar’s Co-Executive Directors, had previously explored two of these potential sites, and as Chief Conservation Officer, it was time for me to get out there! So, I set out with Lytah to explore and evaluate the third potential site in person.

We started our adventure in Analamerana Special Reserve, a 34,700-hectare protected area in northern Madagascar. Analamerana hosts one of the most endangered primates on the planet, the Perrier’s sifaka (Propithecus perrieri), as well as one of the rarest birds in Madagascar, Van Dam’s vanga (Xenopirostris damii). Despite the extraordinary fauna, this area is rarely visited. Lytah and I gathered our gear, put on our hiking boots, and went to work.

Day 1 — Antsiranana (Diego Surarez) to Irodo

We departed Antsiranana, Madagascar’s capital, in the morning, along with our guide, Angelin. We brought our own supplies, both camping equipment and provisions, to support us for the length of our stay. The drive was scenic, with the rugged karst ridgeline of Montagne des Français. The road itself wasn’t terrible, though there was a lot of stop-and-go to avoid the potholes. Still, it took about three hours to reach the turnoff to the southeast.

Traveling through Tsingy Rouge, a canyon of red sandstone.

The turnoff is marked by a large sign advertising the Tsingy Rouge, a private site with canyons of red soil erosion. It receives thousands of tourists each year taking pictures of the strange formations, many coming from cruise ships docking in Antsiranana. But there is no mention of Analamerana Special Reserve. So, tourists would have no idea that the escarpment and forest visible to the south is actually a large and unique protected area!

We arrived in the village of Irodo by mid-afternoon, where there is a small hamlet of fishermen. We arranged for a boat to take us to Nosy Ankomba the next morning, as we wanted to see this area and if there were any potential ecotourism opportunities. Rather than hike to our camping spot, we decided to stay near the village.

Strangely, there was a rudimentary tourist lodge—a large pavilion and bungalows with some moderate landscaping—situated between Irodo and the coast. When asking the locals about this place, no one seemed to know much, other than it was occasionally used for fishing charters. It was clear that no one had been there in a long time, with many of the bungalows empty and some needing repair. We decided to make camp there as it was a large open area away from the village.

Left: Panther chameleon; right: Betsileo reed frog

That night, we walked around and observed numerous panther chameleons and Oustalet’s chameleons, Betsileo reed frogs, giant day geckos, fish-scale geckos, and a Mahajanga velvet gecko. Notable birds included a large group of sickle-billed vanga and many pairs of Chabert’s vanga, in addition to Madagascar kestrels, grey-headed lovebirds, lesser vasa parrots, souimanga sunbirds, Madagascar cuckoo rollers, magpie robins, wagtails, fody, and nightjars.

Day 2 — Irodo to Antenanaombikely

Sunrise on the water, along the eastern coast of Analamerana.

We woke around 4 a.m., had a quick breakfast, broke down our camp, and hiked to the coast. There was a boat waiting for us, and we departed just before sunrise. The ocean was relatively calm, and the sunrise was spectacular, illuminating the escarpment of Analamerana. However, from this view, we could also see the unfortunate patchwork of remaining forests, with large chunks cut and burned away, probably for both housing and fence materials and to allow zebu, a type of cattle, to graze.

We could see bare patches where forest had been along the eastern slope of Analamerana.

When we reached the island of Nosy Ankomba, the waters were relatively shallow, and we enjoyed seeing the coral and other sea life below the boat and rocky outcrops overhanging the water. There was a small sandy beach where a few fishermen were temporarily living, while the rest of the island was dense scrub-brush and sharp limestone.

On the island, we met with the president of Ambohoboka village, who told us that most of the people there are fishermen, but it also seemed that at least one local guy was a hunter but not immediately willing to offer information about those activities. Some families struggle to have food throughout the week, which is unfortunately common in more rural areas.

We purchased some dried fish in Tsarimvatavo.

Returning to the Irodo River, we arrived at the village of Tsarimvatavo and began our hike along the boundary of Analamerana Special Reserve. We bought some dried fish and coconuts, and then hiked along a tidal flat area. After crossing several streams, we entered the reserve, and eventually, we came to the small village of Antenanaombikely, which was very scenic with large baobabs. At our camp that evening, we saw two small groups of crowned lemurs (Eulemur coronatus) and a couple of sportive lemurs (Lepilemur ankaranensis), as well as velvet geckos, a Mimophis snake, fish-scale geckos, and a leaf-tailed gecko.

Lytah walks through the open area with picturesque baobab trees.

Day 3 — Antenanaombikely to Mosorolava

The next morning, we hired a zebu cart to transport our camping gear and provisions. Once packed up, we hiked along the road before going into the forest. We traveled on trails that had clearly been used by loggers, moving timber out of the forest with zebu carts. The paths were wide, and the forest was less dense than before. We did come across pockets of nice forest with large baobabs and other interesting flora.

Zebu cattle pulled the cart with our supplies.

There were a few large open areas that may have been used for zebu grazing where we could see views of the surrounding forest. We could see a dense cluster of baobabs that the locals called “Avenue des Baobabs,” but because the locals bury their dead nearby, we were unable to go closer. From here, we bushwhacked through the forest, up and down small gorges, and through dense undergrowth. Not much fun. For one thing, there are many wasps that build their nests under low-lying leaves! Eventually we came to another logging path and stayed on it for the rest of the day. Along the way, we came across an interesting cave that is used as a burial location. We could only view it from the entrance, though, since going inside was strictly forbidden.

Entrance to a cave site where local burials take place.

We eventually reached the small hamlet of Mosorolava, which is basically an area within the reserve managed by a proprietor. The proprietor had grown up there, though his father moved to that site well after the park had been established. Still, they were allowed to stay and manage agriculture fields. Our gear was already there, and we had a late lunch.

We were then supposed to camp at a nearby site with running water. But after hiking for another couple of hours to get there, we discovered that the “running” water was stagnant and bubbling unpleasantly. That wasn’t going to work! We searched the area for about an hour and were unable to find any clean water. We decided to go get the zebu cart and turn around. It was frustrating, as the wasted time deterred us from even attempting the long hike to Antoboratsy the next day, where we were really hoping to see groups of Perrier’s sifaka. But we decided to scrap the plan and head straight to Ankavana, so we could spend an extra day there and not have to rush.

Having to turn around and go back to Mosolorava wasn’t in the plans, but we did see more lemurs that night.

We did get a pleasant surprise while pitching tents that evening. A large group of crowned lemurs descended from the forest and used the sisal stalks to move toward a gallery forest. It was already quite dark, so as I approached, they began alarm calling. The fact that a group of more than ­12 individuals was moving in an area so close to a village was unusual.

We had a trek of more than 21 km ahead of us the following day to reach the Ankavana forest, so we said goodnight to the lemurs and headed for our sleeping bags.

Tim’s adventures will continue in the next post!