A Wild Trek Continued

Tim Eppley’s and Lytah Razafimahefa Look for a Second Field Site

In our blog post from September, we announced we found our first field site: Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve. This large, forested landscape in northeast Madagascar is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, much of which is endemic to that protected area, and we are extremely excited to get started there.

But Wildlife Madagascar plans to eventually have several sites—and we hope to have two sites by the end of 2023. Many conservation NGOs focus on singular sites, but we want to take a broad approach. Over the coming years, we hope to expand within many regions. Having multiple sites will allow for continual “lessons learned” sharing, and that can help us hone our site-specific programming and ultimately improve our conservation outcomes.

So, the quest continues…for a second field site!

Overview of Amboasary An’ala property

Amboasary An’ala

A private land holding in central-eastern Madagascar was brought to our attention as a potential field site for Wildlife Madagascar. The owners of the Amboasary An’ala property expressed a strong interest in working with us, so we decided to visit. Amboasary An’ala comprises 4,000-hectares of largely high-elevation, primary humid forest. It is about three hours northeast of Antananarivo, and it used to have the Mananara Lodge, but that was lost in a fire some years ago. The site has remained unused since, though the Malagasy owners have been actively searching for and engaging with potential investors to help revitalize the property. The site hosts the two largest living lemurs, both of which are Critically Endangered: the indri and diademed sifaka. Both lemur species are among the most beautiful and are typically high on tourist lists of “must-see” species.

Akiba Lodge nestled in the trees

Day 1 – Antananarivo to Anjozorobe

We headed north from Antananarivo toward the town of Anjozorobe. Traffic was heavy, as expected, but once outside of the city, it was an easy and relaxing drive through the rolling hills of the central highlands. The national road is bordered by small villages and next to valleys with sprawling and meandering rice paddies. After about 2.5 hours on the national road, we turned onto a dirt road that led us to Akiba Lodge. This site is managed by a large Malagasy NGO, Fanamby, which caters to higher-end tourists. The lodge has a beautiful hall with restaurant looking out at the steep rainforest valley, while individual bungalows are positioned along the back of the valley with an equally excellent view. We stayed here for two nights, and as it is the only lodging in the area, and it was helpful to see how they operated. We were greeted with cocktails and had an amazing lunch.

Two guides were then ready to take us into the forest. This was a bit disappointing, as I would’ve expected one of those guides to already be in the forest searching for lemur species. That way, by the time we started hiking, he could alert the other guide to specific locations. Lytah mentioned this to them, simply as a way of helping them improve their approach. By the time we had ascended the steep forested hillside, both guides asked us to wait while they searched the valley below. This happened multiple times, with us looking around along the ridgeline by ourselves, and the guides calling back and forth to each other below. Despite being in the forest for most of the afternoon, we saw no lemurs and relatively few birds.

Recently cut trees along tourist path near Akiba Lodge

The forest was typical of a higher-elevation humid forest. The canopy was high for this habitat type, but the undergrowth was dense and made movement off the trail difficult. Surprisingly, we saw multiple trees that had recently been cut down along the trail. Surely the chopping could’ve been heard by anyone at the lodge, and it is disappointing to know this is happening within the protected area of Anjozorobe-Angavo. Unfortunately, this is a reality of protected areas within Madagascar, but for such a high-end lodge, I would’ve expected the nearby forest to be well protected.

After sundown, we headed back out for a night hike along different paths. This was more productive. We saw many Perinet and blue-legged short-horned chameleons and a mossy leaf-tailed gecko. We also observed a large group of common brown lemurs foraging in the canopy. Later, we observed a family of woolly lemurs and some individual mouse lemurs. Considering the cold, wet weather, I thought it was a pretty good night!

Mossy leaf-tailed gecko

Day 2 – Anjozorobe to Amboasary An’ala

We had an early breakfast and departed for Amboasary An’ala, about a 45-minute drive. Upon reaching the site’s gate, we were greeted by two guides. Our driver returned to the town of Anjozorobe to purchase some items for lunch, and Lytah and I walked along the entrance road toward the old lodge. The pine plantations were dense on both sides of the road, but not far down there was a cleared area that offered an excellent view of the forested hills.

Once we reached the old Mananara Lodge, it was easy to see that this must’ve been a very nice place in the past. The footprint of the restaurant was still there, with an open space between it and the road. There was a building used as driver quarters on the other side of the road, and down a path was an older two-story home that had belonged to the site manager. This home would make an ideal field station, and the open area around it could be set up for tent platforms for visiting researchers.

Site manager’s house at Amboasary An’ala; could make a good field station

From the old lodge, we took a path into the low-canopy forest, and every 10 meters or so there was a short path leading to an old bungalow footprint. The seclusion of bungalows in the forest would’ve been nice, though the view would be limited with the tree height. About 100 meters down the trail, we came to a marsh and stream that was really spectacular, with views of the forest. Having tourist bungalows overlook this area would an ideal setting.

Marsh and stream near the old lodge site

There used to be a bridge over the stream, but it is now gone, so the guides propped some wood planks between the cement slabs. From there, we began walking into the forest. It was dense, but it was easy to see that this would be an ideal site for tourists to view lemurs and other wildlife, as it was relatively open, relatively flat, and easy to move within. Even for researchers, this site would be excellent, especially for younger Malagasy students still learning proper sampling techniques and methods. We constantly heard birdsong as we moved deeper into the forest, and we saw many mixed-species flocks. We even saw a pair of Madagascar wood rails, an uncommon bird that is often sought by bird enthusiasts.

We heard the haunting vocalization of indri, and then additional vocal responses from other groups. In total, we heard indri vocalizing from four different directions—great news! Unfortunately, we were unable to observe these individuals, but that was not surprising, since this site has not been used for tourism in a long time. The guides mentioned that within this tourist area, there are six indri groups that they see regularly, and even more diademed sifaka groups. Our visit coincided with the beginning of austral winter, which is a cooler season in Madagascar and typically referred to as a resource-limited, lean season for lemurs. That means that they tend to be quieter, slower, and less active. It was quite rainy throughout the day, so that may have also led to reduced lemur activity. But we did see foraging signs left by aye-aye, so that was exciting!

Left: Indri; Right: Diademed sifaka

We returned to the lodge and proceeded to walk the remaining road through a pine plantation, which opened into a homestead area. This was the owner’s home, a two-story, typical Malagasy highland home. The guardian and his family lived in a small home behind it, while there were some livestock kept in corrals and agriculture fields nearby. From the porch, you could see a lake no more than a two-minute walk down the hill. There was a large group of red-billed teals and a canoe idyllically placed on the near shore. It was a beautiful and relaxing site that could make an excellent area for a lodge. The lake had a small stream that meandered through another marsh area, which the guide told us was previously used for birding. It’s possible that during the summer this may also be a good area to search for herps.

Lake near owner’s home

After a late lunch, the heavier rains subsided, and we returned to the forest and planned to walk back in the dark. We waited in an area where the guides regularly see mouse lemurs, but perhaps due to the timing or the rain, we had no luck. Still, we saw many Perinet and Wills’s chameleons. We did eventually see some mouse lemurs and woolly lemurs, but only via eyeshine, since they were farther away in the forest.

Despite being dark and rainy, the drive back to Akiba Lodge from Amboasary An’ala was pretty quick. This is great news, as it would be possible for guests of Akiba to also visit the nearby site for day and night hikes, so long as they have a 4×4 vehicle. This is something we could explore further.

Our Conclusions

Overall, the private land of Amboasary An’ala has an undisturbed, high-elevation humid forest that appears to be in good condition, and has groups of indri and diademed sifaka, as well as healthy populations of common brown lemurs and many nocturnal lemurs. It was apparent that the forest habitat and adjacent wetlands make for excellent bird viewing and could be ideal locations for future bungalows or bird hides for photography. Furthermore, the relatively flat landscape and short travel distance from Antananarivo make this an ideal place for the next generation of Malagasy field researchers and conservationists to train.

After this favorable evaluation, we are looking into creating a collaboration agreement with the owners. This site would be of great interest to both conservation researchers and ecotourists. Given the oversaturation of tourists in Andasibe and the relative lack of available options in Anjozorobe, this could be a great opportunity to grow tourism in this area and help protect the local wildlife.

Blue-legged short-horned chameleon