Lemurs of Madagascar

We were told that one dollar could buy us a sea turtle's shell. Photo by Carl Safina

On board with Lindblad Expeditions Southern Africa and Indian Ocean tour.

I’d just arrived in Madagascar for the first time. I was with the foremost expert on the primates called lemurs, trying to pay attention. I had everything to learn. We’d just gotten there on the ship National Geographic Orion, courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions.

As soon as we docked in Toliara, people in dugout canoes arrived at our ship seeking to sell us sea turtle shells for one dollar. You start to see right away that the problems are the usual: poverty, ignorance, the need to eat. (We soon met Dr. Garth Cripps who described the innovative programs of Blue Ventures, helping local people set up protected areas on depleted reefs and gain access to family planning.)

We were told that one dollar could buy us a sea turtle’s shell. Photo by Carl Safina
Small mesh nets, designed to catch everything. Photo by Carl Safina

Madagascar, an island the size of California is considered part of Africa. But biologically it’s a tiny continent, isolated since the time of dinosaurs, with many animals and plants found nowhere else. Africa’s famous mammals, for instance—gazelles and elephants and big cats—never made it to Madagascar. Most birds never made it. Humans didn’t get there until about 2,000 years ago. And even they didn’t come from Africa; they were seafarers from what’s now Indonesia.

Lemurs live only on Madagascar. (Say LEE-murz). They evolved there from a pre-monkey, pre-lemur “prosimian” primate ancestor who probably survived a trip across the Mozambique Channel in the hollow of a tree washed out of a river. Because they got there tens of millions of years before rodents, over ages they evolved to exploit all kinds of niches. There are mouse lemurs, squirrel-like lemurs, monkey-like lemurs; there were —> Read More