A Wild Trek, Part 3 — Exploring Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve

Conclusion of Tim Eppley’s and Lytah Razafimahefa’s field site scouting expedition

At the end of the exploration expeditions we did in June 2023, Wildlife Madagascar Country Director Tojo Lytah Razafimahefa and I had met with Dr. Erik Patel, Director of Conservation and Research for the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF), who I’ve known for a long time. He was aware of our ongoing search for conservation field sites, and he strongly advocated for Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve (ASSR) as a possibility for our site. ASSR is a little-known protected area in northeastern Madagascar, currently managed by Madagascar National Parks (MNP). It was established in 1958, and it covers a total area of 37,480 hectares (92,615 acres) of mid- to high-elevation humid evergreen forest. Currently, the park is rarely visited, as most tourists go to the more well-known Marojejy National Park. Erik invited us to visit so we could take a look.

Day 1 — Antananarivo to Andapa

To begin our journey, Debra Erickson and Lytah, Wildlife Madagascar’s Co-Chief Executive Officers, and I arrived in Sambava after an early morning flight. We were greeted at the airport by Joxe, LCF’s Madagascar Program Manager, and discussed our program over breakfast with a local businessman and tour operator who owns the restaurant and various properties in the area, as well as an ecotourism camp north of Sambava. We had an excellent discussion about tourism and the need for increased investment in hotels and the hospitality business.

The team getting ready to head out. From left to right: Tim, Joxe, Lytah, and Debra.

Heading out, the road between Sambava and Andapa was very winding as we made our way through the mountains and valleys, but it was paved and well maintained. There are small villages along the route, all of which were busy drying the recently harvested vanilla crop. The SAVA region is one of the top vanilla-producing areas in the world, so the air was thick with the aroma of fresh vanilla. Nearly every home has vanilla pods drying, and their crop provides the bulk of their income for the year. Vanilla prices dropped considerably this year, though, and whether prices rebound in future years may play a role in local livelihoods.

We picked up our local guides and cook and arrived at our hotel a little after midday. This was in the center of Andapa, which is a medium-sized city surrounded by expansive rice paddies and agricultural fields. It is one of the top food-producing areas in the country. The rest of the day was spent resting and getting additional provisions for our trip to ASSR.

View of Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve from the village of Antsahoabaely.

Day 2 — Andapa to Camp Indri in Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve

It rained on and off in the morning, but by the time we reached the village of Befingotra near the boundary of ASSR, the sun was out. Because the road conditions became extremely poor beyond this village, we unloaded the truck, set up the porters, and began our one-hour hike, accompanied by our guides Gerlain and Guy, a MNP agent, and a community member liaison.

We hiked along the national road to the ecotourism site the Lemur Conservation Foundation (CLF) created and that is now managed by MNP: Camp Indri. The road is relatively easy overall, but because of the rain, it had become slippery and somewhat treacherous in places, with deep trenches in the mud. We didn’t see any vehicles attempting this road, but we did see young men pushing bicycles through it, loaded with rice sacks weighing upwards of 150 kg (330 pounds). Andapa is a major rice producer, and the villages along the highland plateau on the other side of ASSR send their rice to the Andapa market, hoping to return home with other goods.

Villagers transporting heavy loads of rice.

We arrived at Camp Indri in the afternoon, which is a basic ecotourist camp bordered on two sides by a small river. Although minimal, it is nicer than many field research camps in Madagascar. With improvements, this ecotourism site could be expanded to also host an operational field research station. Since we were here for three nights, I programmed the five camera traps we brought, and we deployed them along nearby trails. It was easy to set them up, but with the recent rain, the leeches were incredibly active and motivated to latch on to us! We returned to camp and saw a small family group of silky sifaka settling down for the night high up in a tree. As if that weren’t perfect enough, just after sundown we were greeted by a large group of white-fronted brown lemurs near the river.

Debra upon arrival at Camp Indri.

Day 3 — Camp Indri

Being the austral winter (between June and September), August in Madagascar can be quite cold. Certain dwarf lemur species go into hibernation during these colder months, and many mouse lemurs go into torpor to cope with scarce resources. Activity patterns of larger lemurs vary, and sifaka and indri tend to settle down for the night earlier and start their day later. We were able to casually eat our breakfast and get ready before they even got up from their sleeping site.

Our guides led us directly to a group of three silky sifaka. There were no hardened trails, so we had to bushwhack up some steep terrain and through dense vegetation. The silky sifaka remained higher in the canopy for a bit, and then descended as they began searching for leaves to feed on. This group is occasionally followed by the guides when there are tourists, and they allowed us to follow them for over an hour.

Silky sifaka

Once back at camp, we heard indri calling from the opposite direction. The MNP park agent and community liaison went ahead to look for them. We gave them an hour head start, and then headed in that direction. We ascended a steep ridge with dense vegetation, then descended the other side, backtracked, crossed a stream, and scaled a steep and densely overgrown area. Many scratches, cuts, and leeches later, we found the guides and were greeted by a family group of indri: two adults, one subadult, and an infant. Their fur was entirely black. It’s incredibly special to observe all-black indri—this is the only site in the region where tourists can see them. There have never been any long-term research projects focused on a northern population of indri, so creating a monitoring and research project here is greatly needed.

Indri — black morph

We spent over half an hour with this indri group. The infant was visible clutching its mother’s side, safely tucked in. The other adult, presumably a male, was missing its left eye. There are lots of dangers in the forest, so injuries are not uncommon, but it was good to see that the animal was otherwise healthy. After the group moved on, we returned to the trail and continued to explore.

The trail we were on was part of a transect used by researchers, so it was more hardened, and it had excellent lookouts over the landscape. We returned to camp in the late afternoon, happy with our sightings of two iconic lemur species. After it was dark, we had an extraordinary surprise: we saw a hairy-eared dwarf lemur just outside of camp. This endangered species is incredibly rare, harder to find than the aye-aye! We were very excited at this find.

Day 4 — Beyond Camp Indri

We only had one more full day in ASSR, so we wanted to make the most of it. Lytah and I split up so that we could explore more distant areas. Lytah went to Ranomafana along the southeast boundary of the park, which is an area known for its natural hot spring and attracts local and regional visitors. Lytah said the route was steep and slippery, and it took him about three hours to reach the hot springs. The man who owns the adjacent land, like his father before him, helps to maintain the area for tourists. There is a path up to the springs and a deck around the natural pool, so visitors can easily enjoy this area. Although the visit took the entire day, it sounded fascinating and well worth the trip.

Marolakana River. This is the only river crossing when traveling on the road through Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve. Since everyone crosses the river, this area becomes a gathering spot, with many people stopping to bathe or relax before continuing their journey.

With the guides, I decided to hike the remainder of the national road, to see the central and southwestern zones and the village of Anjiamazava. We saw people biking, traveling back from Andapa to the other side of ASSR, and young men (sometimes full families), making their way towards Andapa with full sacks of rice, honey, and other items to sell in the market. Despite seeing many people, we still heard lots of birds throughout the morning, including large flocks of white-eyes and brush warblers on the road pecking at spilled rice.

The road between the Marolakana River and the village of Anjiamazava was challenging!

The road wound its way along the mountains and became increasingly worse the further we hiked. The trenches became deeper, and we seemed to be constantly navigating back and forth. It added time to our journey and stress on our feet since we were constantly trying not to slip. The road between the Marolakana River and the village of Anjiamazava is the worst stretch, but there are also many beautiful lookouts over forested valleys and mountain ridges. Best of all, indri could be heard calling from both sides of the road. Lemurs tend to be quiet during the cool winter months, so hearing their eerie calls coming from all directions was a beautiful experience.

Lookout along the road towards the forested valleys and ridge lines of central Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve.

The villages of Anjiamazava and Analabe were small but had several places offering very simple rooms and food. The area had some moderately sized rice paddies, including shallow pools for fish farming, and appeared to be growing large amounts of bananas, pineapples, and papaya. Despite the agriculture, the villages were noticeably poorer than those along the eastern boundaries of the park.

Village of Anjiamazava along the southwest boundary of Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve.

The hike back to Camp Indri did not seem as bad, since we already knew the best route to take when navigating the treacherous road. We did come across a large truck loaded down with produce. Somehow this truck crossed the river, and there were six men running alongside to throw rice husks over wet areas to keep the truck moving ahead. By the time we returned to Camp Indri after 5 pm, I had counted 292 people along the road going in either direction, as well as 9 zebu and a dog. What was even more surprising is that many would be walking in the dark for most of their trip, unless they planned on sleeping along the road.

Truck making its way through Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve after the rains.

Day 5 — Camp Indri to Andapa

We planned to return to Andapa after breakfast. We collected the camera traps but, not surprisingly, there was very little “captured,” given that we only had five up for three days. Typically, camera trap studies rely on 20 or more cameras that are deployed for multiple months to gauge the state of wildlife populations, and even then, some species prove incredibly elusive.

On the hike back to Befingotra, we stopped in Antsahoabaely, a village on the park boundary that appeared quite poor. It provides an amazing 360-degree view of the landscape, though, including the beautiful forested eastern portion of ASSR. Possibilities there might include building a new school, as one is desperately needed.

The primary school in Antsahoabaely.

Shortly after arriving back in Andapa, we went to the local Madagascar National Parks office that manages both Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve and Marojejy National Park. The local MNP director was not in town that week, so MNP’s regional head of tourism, Fostin, gave a presentation followed by a discussion of ways in which Wildlife Madagascar could help in Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve. We were joined by Joxe, from LCF, and their support for us joining them in the region was extremely encouraging.

Meeting at the Madagascar National Parks office in Andapa. Fostin, pictured center, is the MNP head of tourism for the region.

Days 6 to 10 — Other Sites

The remainder of our time in the SAVA region was spent visiting other sites of potential tourist interest. This included a two-night trip to Marojejy National Park to see Camps 1 and 2. Most tourists to the region only go to Marojejy, with the main goal of seeing silky sifaka, helmet vanga, and perhaps summiting its highest peak—although ASSR offers many similar experiences, but with less people around. Marojejy National Park is beautiful and has some stunning views, but some of the infrastructure is in need of repair.

In addition to seeing the silky sifaka, white-fronted brown lemurs, and many frogs and chameleons, we were greeted by a large group of northern bamboo lemurs just outside of Camp 1. This was particularly special for me. Our LCF guides had been collecting behavioral ecology data on this group since June, as part of a collaboration between Dr. Erik Patel, Dr. Tim Bransford (Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida), and myself. This was my first time seeing the group, so it was great to discuss some of Guy’s observations with him while watching the lemurs feed on bamboo.

Northern bamboo lemur (Hapalemur occidentalis)

Conclusion — This Is It! We Found Our First Field Site

After exploring ASSR, we all agreed that this site presents an enormous opportunity and a great location to build and grow an internationally recognized conservation program. Even with the beauty of other areas we saw, there is no reason that ASSR can’t be a star among tourist locations in the region. It is the only site in the area currently open to tourists that has indri, as well as having other rare lemur species. It also contains a far greater variety of birds, reptiles, and amphibians compared to the main tourist circuits. We believe this site will be of great interest to both conservation researchers and ecotourists. It harbors incredible wildlife diversity, and it is relatively unexplored compared to most other IUCN category IV protected areas in Madagascar. We have an excellent opportunity here. Along with willing and helpful partners in the region, we are really set up to make a positive impact in ASSR.

Now that we’ve found our first conservation field site, we can get to work! I am so excited to get started!