Madagascar—A World Unknown

by Shem Compion | April 1, 2008

© Shem CompionAbruptly removed from Gondwanaland about 160 million years ago and left to its own devices in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, shaped somewhat like a folded omelet, started developing a natural history all on its own. As with many of the other exotic islands, Madagascar developed its own unique species of animals and birds. Over 80% of the wildlife is unique to the island with much of it amazingly different to anything else on Earth. Some 60% of the mammals, 50% of the birds and 90% of the frogs are endemic. Of the mammals, there are no indigenous cats, dogs, antelope or ungulate species. The reptiles, too, are unique in that there are no poisonous snakes, no agamas and no monitors.

Of the other species that aren’t endemic, some are related to the mainland African equivalent. Interestingly, some completely different species have taken over the role of the mainland equivalent. For example, it is thought that the curious Aye-aye, a mammal that probes with its elongated finger into crevices in tree bark for grubs, fulfills the role of the wood hoopoes in Africa, a bird absent in Madagascar. These types of scenarios are commonly found on the island and any thoughts of relating a species as a brother to an African one are quickly forgotten. Many species’ closest relatives actually are found in South America and not Africa. So visiting Madagascar is rather like seeing a long lost cousin—somewhat familiar in some aspects, but totally and exotically foreign in others!

It All Starts In the Centre: Tana

Almost all travel in Madagascar revolves around the centrally lying capital city of Antananarivo. Everyone calls it “Tana” and the exotic name lives up to its reputation. Driving into town from the airport one is confronted with a mixture of sights that confuse the senses and the mind. Rice paddies from Asia lie in the valleys, men in Arab style pirogues punt along the rivers, while mud houses are decked with Provencal-style tile roofs as in France! Battered and beaten Renaults and Citroens are the main cars on the cobbled roads leading up to the city centre. The shops are an assortment from holes-in-the-wall selling 1960’s car parts for the battered cars to sleek, new petrol stations and boutique shops with the latest fragrances from France. Known as a relatively safe city, the streets of Tana are a hive of activity and all sorts of business is done on the streets, providing all manner of interesting scenes. Markets are often type specific: we found a book market selling mainly French titled books, but very quickly we had our own librarians bringing us English titles. I even managed to procure a very old copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice! Though normally we do not have an affinity for cities, Tana provided a certain charm and intrigue that had me looking forward to my walks with a camera through its streets.

Almost all flights go through Tana and it is from here that one accesses the rest of the country. To know where to go, the traveler needs to know a small amount of Madagascan geography. The island lies lengthways, almost three times longer than it is wide, on a north-south axis. Through the middle of the island runs a mountain range that divides it into distinct east and west biomes. Due to the various ocean currents and trade winds this has resulted in many diverse habitats. In general, these mountains divide the island into: lowland eastern rainforests, western dry deciduous forests, tropical rain forests in the north, highlands in the centre and desert and semi-desert landscape in the south. These varieties of habitat are one of the many factors contributing to the diversity of Madagascar’s uniquely developed fauna and flora.

Rural Madagascar © Shem Compion

Walking in the rural areas of Madagascar offers excellent opportunities for travel images.


Knowing that Tana is in the centre of the country and that a mountain range runs down its length, the potential travel problems start to surface. For most of the country, one cannot travel by road in an east-west direction; there is just no way through the mountains. This makes road travel tedious and thus travel is conducted by flights. However, almost all the flights pass through Tana. So like the spokes of a wheel, every plane uses Tana as a hub in getting from one place to another. Logistically, this can be a nightmare, especially if you want to be in the reserves and not stopping off in Tana every few nights. On any itinerary to Madagascar, make sure that you check your flight schedule carefully. With good planning (and knowledge of the flight times) you can be in and out of Tana in no time, rather than spending another night in town on a stopover. This is one piece of local knowledge that makes a huge difference.

Another tip, and one that you will learn quickly when there, is that all major towns have two names, the older French names as well as the local, renamed versions. The new and old names are bandied about together and can become confusing, that is, until you learn both names!

A Different Type of Game Viewing

The most popular (and productive) way of game viewing in Africa is done via game drives. Arrive in Madagascar and the comfort and luxury of a 4×4 is quickly done away with. Game viewing is done almost exclusively via walking. All reserves have a path network along which walks are done. Local guides are invaluable on these walks. We encountered guides with incredibly good eyes and an excellent local knowledge of the fauna and flora.

One realizes very quickly that the emphasis is not only on lemurs for which the island is known, but also on the smaller species. The guides’ knowledge becomes invaluable in finding and identifying the various species. Of interest is that species are called by their scientific name because many of the species don’t yet have common names. This comes as quite a wake up call in regards to the “new” knowledge of many of Madagascar’s species!

Only lemurs and birds are called by their common names, but even then, scientific names are used to differentiate species and subspecies.

Nosy Mangabe © Shem Compion

As well as providing protection to some special endemics, Nosy Mangabe also offers landscape opportunities. D200, 12-24 @14mm. 1 sec, f 22, is0 100, polariser. Tripod.

The North East Rain Forests

Flying over Madagascar can deliver a conflict of emotions. On the one hand the traveler sees beautiful beaches, atolls and coral reefs along the coast, yet on the other hand, the amount of deforestation and erosion seen on the hills is quite depressing. This is what precedes arriving in the Masoala Peninsula. The Masoala Peninsula is the heart of the eastern rain forest protected areas. It is also Madagascar’s largest reserve (400,000 ha) and along with the island, Nosy Mangabe, holds some exceptional specials.

The 30-minute boat ride to Nosy Mangabe is a scenic wonder and filled with the anticipation of excellent wildlife viewing. Nosy Mangabe was prescribed as a special reserve in the 1960’s when wildlife was disappearing fast. The highly endangered Aye-aye was housed here and it now holds a stable population. The chance of seeing them, though, is very slim, as they spend most of the day in nests high up in the treetops. Daytime viewing is quite spectacular, though night is the best time to see them, when they come out to feed.

Nosy Mangabe must be the best place to be shown the Leaf-tailed Gecko (genus Uroplatus). I say “shown” because the chance of seeing one on your own is virtually impossible. Using camouflage a Gaboon Adder would be proud of, these geckos, about 40cm long, lie on open, exposed tree trunks face down. No one would be the wiser. Other than the normal camouflage tricks of colour change and motionless positioning, they also have frilled edges to their skin that flattens onto tree bark. This cuts out any chance of shadows belying their presence.

Other specials on the island include White-fronted Brown Lemur, Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur and Common Brown Lemur. We saw three different types of chameleon on our days there and they are regularly seen. Frogs are another of the main attractions of Nosy Mangabe, but the late rains didn’t help our cause in searching for frogs this time.

Of course, the birds were all new to us. Blue Pigeon, Madagascar Squacco Heron, Blue Coua, Madagascar Kingfisher and Madagascar Drongo were just some of the easily seen birds in the area.

Collared lizard © Shem Compion

The beautiful collared lizard is one of the commoner lizards seen in Ampijoroa. D200, 70-200 & 1.4 converter @ 280mm. 1/250 sec, f 5,6, iso 250, handheld.

Eastern Lowland Forests

Just three hours’ drive from Tana lie the forests of Andasibe (Perinet). This area is an excellent introduction to the island’s fauna and houses some excellent wildlife. The night walk here is excellent too. Using a local guide, one may see many species of brightly coloured frogs, Dwarf Lemurs and some excellent specimens of chameleon. The highlight is the Brookesia species of chameleon, a tiny reptile about the size of a compact flash card.

In the day there are many insects, chameleons, orchids, frogs and birds to be found, even in the gardens around the lodge. Birds at the lodge included the beautiful Madagascar Flycatcher, Madagascar White-eye, Madagascar Bulbul, Blue-and-White Vanga, Madagascar Buzzard, Velvet Asity and Yellow Wagtail.

However, Andasibe’s most famous inhabitant is the Wailing Indri. Arguably the largest of the lemur family, the indri roams widely through the forests. We found a group after an hour in the forest and spent nearly one hour with them. I was beginning to wonder why we were there so long and then it happened—the indri started wailing. Akin to sitting next to a roaring lion, these haunting calls reverberated through the valleys and up my spine in a numbing way! It is definitely one of Madagascar’s top experiences.

Madagascar frogs © Shem Compion

90% of the frogs in Madagascar are endemic. Amazing in it’s own right-never mind how beautiful the actual frogs are. D200, 105mm & 1.4 converter @150mm. 1/180sec, f18, iso 200. Handheld.

Dry Deciduous Forest

Up in the northeast of the country lies Ampijoroa and the Ankarafantsika Nature reserve. This is undoubtedly one of the hot spots of Madagascan birding and wildlife viewing. Broadbilled Rollers, Lesser Vasa Parrots and Sickle-billed Vangas noisily inhabit the campsite area. There is a breeding colony of approximately 300 Cattle Egrets on the lakefront (100 meters away) and one is greeted by Coquerel’s Sifakas on the ground when entering camp.

Known as a birding paradise, Ampijoroa lives up to its name, but it also delivers in many other ways too. One could spend a whole day photographing the sifakas. Their leaping through the trees and bi-pedal running on the ground offer two very specific photographic challenges. The walks in the forest deliver many lemur species, including Milne Edwards Sportif Lemur, Rufous Dwarf Lemur, and Grey Dwarf Lemur, as well as some excellent birding. Some beautiful endemic species such as Paradise Flycatcher on nest, Rufous Vanga, Van -Dam’s Vanga (one of Madagascar’s most endangered birds), Pygmy Kingfisher, Madagascan Scops Owl and Cuckoo Roller were just some of the species seen.

Then there is the boat ride on Lake Ravelobe. A gentle cruise along the shore of the lake, the boat ride offers opportunity to photograph Madagascan Squacco Heron, Madagascan Malachite Kingfisher, Madagascan Fish Eagle and the uncommon Humblot’s Heron all on one cruise. Of course the local people fishing from the shore make for good travel and scenery images, in addition to the birds and crocodiles.

Wildlife of Madagascar © Shem Compion

The deep shade of the forests absorb light, making fast lenses a necessity for decent photos, even with flash. D70, 70-200 @ 200mm. 1/100sec, f 2,8, iso 500, Flash. handheld.

The Dry South

Arriving in Fort Dauphine/Taolagnaro one is immediately greeted by a dry heat quite different to that of the centre and north of the island. Driving inland, the vegetation is very shrub like, with large amounts of dideraceae and euphorbia indicating a dry landscape. Instead of heading to Berenty, a popular reserve three hours’ drive from town, we visited the Nahampuna gardens, only 45 minutes from town. These lovely gardens provided a host of photographic subjects. Wasps, robber flies and many small frogs were photographed, the frogs being the highlight due to the large numbers of them on the leaves of certain trees!

However, once we found the lemurs, we knew what the real attraction was. The Ring-tailed Lemur is the national animal of Madagascar and together with the Verreaux’s (dancing) Sifaka, provided an afternoon of excellent photography. Both species are charismatic and the ringtails are extremely cute and photogenic. However, it is the bi-pedal running of the Verreaux Sifakas that provides the most challenging photos. Seeing them running is one thing; catching them on camera is another! An intensely fulfilling afternoon’s photography was enjoyed with both these species, leaving us to go back to the hotel and unwind from all the action.

Verreaux sifaka, Madagascar © Shem Compion

Of course a visit to Madagascar is not complete with out seeing Verreaux’s “dancing” Sifaka doing their thing! D200, 70-200 @120mm. 1/400sec, f 4, iso 250. Handheld.


Weight is always a concern when traveling. Thus, a lot of thought goes into planning a camera bag on a trip like this. The most important decision I made was to leave the 200-400mm f/4 lens at home. It proved to be the correct one as walking in the reserves with it would have been a nightmare. Instead, I used a 70-200mm f/2.8 and 1.4 teleconverter as my “long lens” and this sufficed for most applications. It also proved very handy for shooting in the low light conditions of the forests. The wide aperture here really makes a difference. If the tour were more bird specific, then the long lens would have come along. I took 2 cameras—a D200 and a D70. Both are lightweight and the D70 doubles as my infrared body as well. Other lenses included a 12-24mm f/4, 105mm f/2.8 macro and an 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 “travel” lens. This kit worked quite well and was in line with what most people bring to Madagascar. A 100-400mm f/4-5.6 lens was a commonly used lens with other photographers; due to its versatility it proved very handy.

For once the macro lens became the most used lens. Coupled with a flashgun, the whole of the Madagascan underworld opens up; frogs, chameleons, moths, butterflies, geckos, spiders, cicadas and bugs are all within reach of your macro. If you want to learn how to use your flash properly, take a trip to Madagascar.


Of the species in all the places I have traveled, Madagascan wildlife has to be the most foreign. Almost everywhere I have been, I have always been able to relate an animal or a bird from the country I am in, back to a similar species in Africa. Madagascar changed all that.

Sitting alone with a Leaf-tailed Gecko for an hour on Nosy Mangabe Island I realized that this creature was totally and completely alien. It made me cherish the moment a bit more and also realize just how unique this island is. It also linked with conversations I had with researchers on the island; every animal species they looked at warranted a study. We have all heard how new species are being discovered here every year, but visiting Madagascar brings the realization home, new species are a fact of the researchers life!

I suppose that is what sums up Madagascar: new, exotic species with very little known about many of them. If you have not been there, you will not know just how significant they are.

About the Author

Shem Compion is a naturalist and photographer working throughout Southern Africa. His work can be seen at He also runs C4 Images and Safaris, a company that presents photo courses, workshops and photo safaris.

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