Travel to Madagascar and save the lemurs from extinction – time out with Catherine
Catherine is an eco-tourism campaigner based in London (but often seen exploring new countries on her wildlife expeditions). In 2015, after a decade of dreaming about it, she travelled to Madagascar, a huge island off the east coast of Africa that’s home to thousands of animal species found nowhere else on the planet. She is now on a mission to save its lemurs from extinction, and you can help.
What made you want to travel to Madagascar?
As an environmental activist, I’m hugely passionate about encouraging people to choose locally run wildlife destinations for their holidays over carbon consumptive resorts. It gives travellers a much richer experience, the money they spend goes straight into the economy and, over time, it helps to raise awareness of conservation issues. A win-win all round.
I see real potential to turn Madagascar into a major eco-tourism destination, and I wanted to help showcase it to the world by documenting the wildlife experiences on offer there.
When most people picture that dreamy Indian Ocean escape, they think about the Seychelles or the Maldives. Madagascar just doesn’t get a look in. It’s true, Madagascar’s roads are rugged and bouncy, and it doesn’t have all of the 5* tourism infrastructure that some countries have. (It is the 10th poorest country in the world!) But, in my eyes, it more than makes up for it in unique experiences and opportunities to get close with primates.
And did it live up to your expectations?
Oh, it was better than I could ever have imagined. And I’ve been dreaming about the trip since university!
It is a phenomenal country, like nowhere else I’ve ever been. They have the smallest reptile in the world, the smallest primate in the world, beautiful mountains, crystal clear waters where humpbacks come into calf… I’m desperate to go back and could easily spend a year travelling there. I’ve definitely found my spirit land.
Where did you visit within Madagascar?
We visited a real mix of places, and I adored them all. The Avenue of the Baobabs is that classic Madagascan image most people know. In real life, it’s just like a fairy tale.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is an amazing protected area with primary forest growth (quite unusual now on the island). It’s is home to Madagascar’s largest lemur, the indri. Their call is the most beautiful sound and it’s now my mobile ringtone!
Kirindy Forest Reserve was completely different and very arid. People go there mainly to see the fossa. It’s a carnivore that’s related to a mongoose but looks more like a cross between a cat and a dog. You don’t get them anywhere else on the planet. Fun fact: they also have the largest scrotum to body mass ratio of any animal!
Our final stop, Berenty Private Reserve is where a lot of the Attenborough documentary was filmed. If you’re into lemurs, it’s a huge tourism destination. They have ring-tailed lemurs and also the dancing sifaka, who skip along the ground on two feet and look as if they’re dancing. They’re absolutely beautiful to watch.
What did a normal day look like on your trip?
Travelling days aside, normally, we’d get up before sunrise and go hiking into the forest or the jungle looking for wildlife to photograph. Dawn and dusk are the best time to spot animals – and it also avoids us hiking in the heat of the middle of the day. Then, once we’d got our shots, we’d head back for breakfast.
The middle of the day always tends to be a quieter period, but we’d be back out in the late afternoon for more of the same. We’d usually go on a night walk to see the nocturnal animals, too. Those are less about the photography (lots of lemurs have those enormous eyes so they’re really sensitive to flash) and more about the experience.
Were there any “wow” moments that stand out?
So, so many. Having lemurs climbing on my shoulders. Seeing tiny baby ring-tail lemurs that had just been born. Seeing my first chameleon and watching its colour changing. Filming the dancing sifakas, and playing it back at a fraction of the speed taking in all the tiny details. It was all just fascinating to me.
There must have been challenges too?
The last stop, Berenty, was a heart-breaking reality check. It opened my eyes to a big reason why the lemurs are heading towards extinction. There’s this tiny pocket of forest, but the surrounding forest has been cut down for as far as the eye can see. The lemurs’ habitat is disappearing, and why? Because the sisal plant that grows there is cut down and exported for carpet underlay.
Also, of course, it is Africa. So, nothing happens too quickly and the logistics can be painful. The roads are really, really badly maintained so travelling anywhere is tough. We ended up doing quite a lot of flying within Madagascar – there’s only one internal airline and, frustratingly, they will bring your flight an hour earlier without telling you.
You definitely have to come with an open mind, relax into it as quickly as possible and let it all happen. But it’s so worth it when you do.
So, did you come away feeling just as passionate about Madagascar?
It has absolutely spurred me on with my mission to promote eco-tourism around the world, and specifically in Madagascar. There’s so much potential for it and I can see its ability to literally change the lives of the Malagasy people.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Day to day, people just want their families to survive. So, they’re cutting down trees, selling lemurs on the illegal pet market, eating them because they need the protein or selling them as bush meat. Of course, you can understand why – right now, they have no other options. But with eco-tourism, there’s so much potential through employment as guides, drivers, in lodges and hotels, and so on.
What have you been up to since you’ve been back?
I’ve been trying desperately to raise funds and awareness about the $7m needed to save Madagascar’s lemurs from extinction. This is according to a big piece of scientific research published by Conservation International. As things are going, it’s likely that within 25 years every species of lemur will be extinct. They’re the most threatened group of primates in the world.
Thankfully, the report outlines a really specific action plan with costs attached, including activities to encourage eco-tourism, build forest corridors and encourage grassroots projects with local communities.
So far, we’ve made a short film to promote Madagascar, I’ve written articles (here and here are some examples) and I’ve been fundraising. I’m ramping this up considerably this year. I’m determined to go out there with a cheque for the money they need to make it happen.
On a personal note, I’ve also had a baby boy. I can’t wait to share my passion for travel and wildlife conservation with him as he grows up.
Finally, how can we help your mission to save the lemurs?
If you can afford it and you have the inclination, the best possible thing you can do is to go to Madagascar. And, once you see the lemurs, you’ll love them forever. Trust me, you’ll be an ambassador for life.
You can also donate directly to the programme here, but I always say, just choose to go on holiday there and you’ll be making a difference.
Take time out for a life adventure.
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Team Faraway x