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SO UGLY THAT IS CUTE… THE RARELY SEEN COMES OUT AND COMES CLOSE!

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on July 08, 2011 with 2 Comments

I love nature in all its forms. I love exploring mountains, deserts, forests, savannahs, steppes, beaches, oceans, rivers… each has its charm and beauty, but there is something about the rainforest that fascinates me deeply. Every time I immerse myself into the rainforest, I can sense it, smell it, feel it, listen to it… I am always mesmerized by its intense greenery, the shadows under the canopy, the sense of total isolation and the animals that hide in the thick vegetation, and somehow I feel are watching me without being noticed.

Spending the night in the rainforest of Ranomafana was the best night sleep I had had in a long time. A few rays from a very early sunset managed to get into my tent. I opened my sleepy eyes and it was 5:30am. I covered myself with the sleeping bag and went back to sleep while birds sang out loud. What a beautiful way to start a day…

I got out of “bed” two hours later. The cloud mist and the cold of the morning impregnated the camping site. I had an exciting day ahead with a full day excursion and a night one in Ranomafana Park. This was a special day because it would be my first “hopefully” encounter with the famous lemurs!

Although the lemurs look like a cat or a big furry rat, it is a primate, one of the first to evolve. These animals developed in isolation in Madagascar, filling, according to Eillen, the niches left by other animals that don’t exist in this island, keeping a balance in the ecosystem.

While there are over 110 species of lemurs, some of these fascinating creatures are critically endangered as there is not some much forest left in Madagascar. In the few days I had been in Madagascar, I had witnessed firsthand the desolation caused by the slash-and-burned agriculture.

Ranomafana Park

“These forests are in small islands within the island, so there are isolated populations of lemurs that cannot reach other because there is nothing, no forest in between, to connect them,” Eillen explained to me the day before, and today was my opportunity to explore one of those remaining pockets of rainforests.

I got ready and walked to Centre Valbio to meet up with me Mami. As I went down from the camping site in the forest to the facility, I hoped I would be lucky enough to see the lemurs that call Ranomafana home, but this is a huge park covering more than 42,000 hectares. The animals roam freely in the wild, so there is no guarantee to see them. I know that first hand from my experience in Uganda, but that is precisely the magic of it. Nothing can be compared to seeing an animal in its habitat. There are zoos that can recreate very well a habitat, but it is still a confined space. Seeing the animals wandering in liberty in their homes is exciting, rewarding and more of an authentic experience.

“Salama, Inuna nu vao vao?” I said to Mami my favorite Malagasy words and the only words I could remember.

He responded in Malagasy. Me? Clueless of his response, but I guess it was a good thing but he was smiling.

“How was your night? Slept well?” asked Mami in Spanish.

“Oh Mami, so much better than a hotel. I am really really happy to go to sleep listening to the forest and walking up with it!” I smiled.

Mami laughed out loud. I was sure he thought I was the weirdest tourist he had traveled with. Not only I was from a country he had never heard of, but I didn’t like souvenirs and prefer camping over hotels.

Mami and I drove literally five seconds to the entrance of the park.

“Ay Mami, we could have walked. Come on man,” I joked.

Mami took me to the reception to sign in and pay for the guide.

“It is 80,000 Ariary for the guide,” indicated Mami.

Mami and Fungi

80,000 Ariary was about US$40. I was in surprised but paid it anyway. Madagascar is probably the only country where the entrance to a park costs US$2 and the local (and required) guide cost US$20 and up. When I booked my trip with the tour operator, local guides fees were not included, but I imagined that I would have to pay a tip or give them US$10 max depending on the length and the quality of the service, but in here there are some fixed rates and these are high. I again, suspected Rija, the owner of the tour company I hired. He knew I was traveling under budget and he neglected to mention this important fact. Now I had to watch out my finances because I had only taken enough cash with me to pay my meals and the tips. Now I had to pay extra for the camping sites (because the money of the hotels I wasn’t using were not given back to me), the high guides fees, the tips and the meals.

“Mami, the guides’ fees are this high in every park? If so, I really need to get an ATM because I will be really tight with my money and I want to make sure I make it to Tana,” I said.

“There are fixed fees and depends on the length of the service of the guide. There are different tours. In here is it 40,000 for the lemur spotter and 40,000 for me,” explained Mami.

Why would I have to pay Mami if he is already being paid for being my guide and driver? I wondered.

“I used to work here as a guide. I am a registered guide here. It is good!” said Mami all excited.

I guess that explained why he was getting the extra fee. It was my first park, my first encounter with the lemurs so I tried not to worry about my finances and enjoy the adventure. Besides, I was happy to know Mami knew the park so well as my chances to see more wildlife were higher.

“This is Fungi. The lemur spotter,” Mami introduced me to a 25-year-old Malagasy boy. Thin, shy with jumping eyes, he hardly spoke, but he would threw an English word here and there. He was actually being trained by Mami.

“I want to teach him so he can become a guide too!” he said.

Fungi, Mami and I went inside the park, crossing a bridge over a wild river. This was the same river I could listen to last night before while looking for mouse lemurs, but couldn’t see. It was surrounded by tall trees and deep forests in each side. It was strikingly beautiful.

Created in 1991 following the 1986 discovery of the golden bamboo lemur by well-respected Patricia Wright, Ranomafana has been a model for parks and reserves not only in Madagascar but also abroad.

Magical lemurs Like the three musketeers, we continued to walk through a path paved with stones, but the further we went, the trail was indistinguishable. I was glad Mami knew the park well, as he seemed to go on and off the tracks and always found his way.
Suddenly Fungi left us, and Mami and I continued our walk through rolling hills surrounded by thick and green vegetation. Mami explained to me the 12 -different species of lemurs lived in the park; two of them -the Greater Bamboo lemur and the Golden bambu lemur- are critically endangered. This park was actually created in 1986 to protect these two species.

Suddenly Mami’s cell phone rang. Fungi was reporting that he had found some Golden bamboo lemurs.

“Let’s run. It is not far,” my chubby Mami struggled to get up the trail but we made it!

The Bamboo Lemur

The beautiful furry creatures were up in the canopies. Ranomafana is one of the two habitats where the Golden lemur lives. This species was discovered in 1986.

With their long golden tail hanging from the tree, they looked down at us with curiosity. They jumped from tree to tree until they found a place to rest. When they sleep, they put their long tail around their body, looking like a big fury ball!

I laid on the ground to better film them. I wasn’t alone though. Other five Italian tourists –armed with expensive cameras with large Lents- snapped photos of these rarely seen lemurs.

The lemurs seemed to be taking a nap, and Mami told me to follow him in the search of other animals.

“Don’t worry. It is good luck,” I overheard a local guide said to one of the Italians.

A lemur had just peed on her!

Sifakas

On our way to a view point, Mami spotted some red-bellied lemurs, a medium sized lemur with chestnut brown coat and with white skin below the eyes. They played and jumped from tree to tree curious of the visitors.

Not so far from there, we encountered the sifakas, a large lemur with long and luxuriant white and black coat. It looked like a teddy bear!

It has been about an hour in the forest and we had seen three different species of lemurs, one of the them rarely seen. I felt so lucky!

These animals are so unique even among them. They seem like a mix of a primate, a rat, a koala, or something in between depends on the specie. I was completely awestruck.

Mami took me to a view point and by chance we saw a ring-tail mongoose. Its bright red fur with black stripes in its long-furry tail stood out in the greenery. We spotted an adult one and a baby one. At the same view point, we came across with multicolored gekos. I am not certainly big fan of reptiles, but these little ones in particular were spectacular.
Mami’s phone rang again. Fungi had found the rare Greater Bamboo lemur!!! This species of lemur was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1972. This was my REALLY lucky day because they are occasionally and very rarely seen by visitors.

The endangered Greater Bamboo Lemur found!

When we first saw them, they were in the canopies of the giant bamboo plants, but slowly they came down to the ground, eating eagerly the little pieces of bamboo they held in their tiny hands. They didn’t seem afraid, specially one in particular who walked less than a meter away from me, eating undisturbed its bamboo!

With jumping eyes, this fury creature is one of the 400 remaining in the wild. I felt extremely lucky to see them and to see them this close!

“The park decided to have lemur’s spotters because visitors came and they saw nothing, and some guidebooks were discouraging people to come here,” he added.

We did a picnic near a river, where again we have cheese, eggs and tomato sandwiches. I wondered what my friend’s wife would think of this risky eating behavior! If she was right about the parasites in the Malagasy tomatoes, for sure I already had a family of parasites inside of me at this point.

After relaxing near the river, we returned to the entrance of the park.

During those seven hours and a half exploring Ranomafana, we saw five different species of lemurs, reptiles, chameleons and mongooses. This was definitely not a typical day at the Ranomafana.

In love!

“Today was a good day. Very good,” Mami laughed with pride. This was “his park’.

Two hours later Mami would come for me again to do the night excursion. Fungi was coming with us as well.

Back in the centre, I could see Eileen was busy with a staff meeting. I walked around the centre and talked to some other researchers, including some who worked in the disease department. Some studies have found that the water that locals drink is highly contaminated with bacteria, which caused children to have diarrhea, which is one of the reasons of the high child mortality in Madagascar. Teaching the population something as simple as boiling water, has been a challenge as many Malagasy people don’t yet understand the importance of it.

Walking here and talking there, the two hours passed by quickly. It was time for the night excursion. We drove a few kilometers away from the centre and as soon as we got off, Fungi and Mami started spotting animals as if it was the easiest of the tasks. I saw NOTHING in the dark. We found two mouse lemurs. Caitlin and I couldn’t find any the night before, but here they were, two of them “playing or fighting” in the dark, jumping all over a tree.

Mouse lemurs

Then, we saw the strangest chameleons. Their various and flamboyant camouflage were just extraordinary. They are so ugly that they are cute! They move very, very slowly, to the point that –according to Mami- you can see a chameleon today in one place and find then again in the same spot the day after and even a few days later. I was amazed not only by the rare beauty of the chameleons, but also at the ability of Mami and Fungi to spot these animals, including tiny ones, at night.

We saw many different types of chameleons, one weirder than the next.

So ugly is cute!

I came back to the centre completely satisfied with what I had seen in my short visit to Ranomafana. I showed the photos and told the researchers at the center about what I have seen, and they said that I was indeed lucky as many of them had never seen all the species that I saw today despite they had been in Ranomafana for several weeks.

I couldn’t be happier. What a way to start my lemur’s adventure in Madagascar. It is as if the weird and wild (And endangered) had specially come out today to welcome me! I went to my tent in the middle of the rainforest to sleep in the arms of Ranomafana.

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2 Comments

There are currently 2 Comments on SO UGLY THAT IS CUTE… THE RARELY SEEN COMES OUT AND COMES CLOSE!. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. I like the “I’m in love” creature.

    All seems astonishing. I’m jealous.

    Congrats

  2. Thanks Sam!

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