An Introduction to Madagascar
Madagascar is legendary for its profusion of wildlife and flora, 80% of which is found nowhere else on earth.
Isolated from the continents 160 million years ago, Madagascar followed a unique evolutionary path into enormous tortoises,
elephant birds, and lemurs. Lemurs were the highest primate form on the island until the Malagasy people, of Afro-Polynesian ancestry, arrived a mere 2000 years ago.
Though divided into at least 18 tribes or clans, the Malagasy share a belief in the power of dead ancestors. This belief explains the importance of tombs and funerals. Although the form differs among the clans, it is after the first burial that the Malagasy honour their dead. The best-known ceremony is the famadihana of the Merina people, a joyful occasion to communicate with a loved one whose remains are exhumed and wrapped in a new shroud.
Some of the world’s most unusual birds are found only on Madagascar – gorgeous ground-rollers, the diverse vanga family, the couas. Birders will be rewarded by a visit to any of Madagascar’s splendid reserves. If you long to ‘tick off’ most of the endemics, including oxylabes, newtonias and the rare Madagascar fish eagle, we recommend a two-week specialist birding tour. Ask us for further information.
Madagascar has three main climactic/floristic zones - the eastern rainforests, the western tropical dry deciduous woods and the semi-arid south – with an unsurpassed diversity of plant species. We can arrange tours for the orchid enthusiast, who will be drawn by the 1200 varieties found in the rainforests, and special botanical and natural history tours.
Recommended wildlife hotspots
Some of Madagascar's richest national parks and private reserves
In our experience, the destinations described below are generally best for nature enthusiasts, but you are not restricted to these places. If you would like to visit remote or recently-opened protected areas such as Andringitra in the east, Andohahela in the south-east, Marojejy in the north-east or Tsingy de Bemaraha in the west, please let us know and we will design a suitable itinerary.
Perinet (Analamazaotra) - Mantadia
This montane rainforest harbours the largest of the lemurs, the indri, with its black and white markings and eerie, wailing cry. Eight other species of lemur inhabit the reserve. Four nocturnal species (woolly lemur, sportive lemur, greater dwarf lemur and rufous mouse lemur) are commonly encountered. Pack a torch for night walks.
The 810- hectare reserve claims a world record for frog diversity, with over 100 documented species. Reptiles include the enormous Parson’s chameleon. Birders can expect to see blue coua, coral-billed nuthatch vanga and many more. We recommend that birders visit one of the nearby marshes for localised endemics.
About 37 km from Perinet, Mantadia is a spectacular national park spanning 10 000 hectares of primary rainforest inhabited by rare wildlife not found in Perinet. Star attractions include the diadem sifaka, ruffed lemur and all four rainforest-dependent ground-rollers.
These rainforest reserves are about 3 hours from Antananarivo. Trails are gentle in Perinet, steeper in Mantadia.
Ranomafana National Park
The thundering white-water Namorona River dominates this spectacular upland rainforest in the south-eastern highlands. Ranomafana protects 12 species of lemur, including all three bamboo (gentle) lemurs, ruffed and red-bellied lemurs and the striking Milne-Edward’s diadem sifaka. People often see 5 or more species of lemur during a single walk in the rainforest. Rare birds include the brown mesite, Henst’s goshawk, rufous-headed ground-roller and Pollen’s vanga. Reptiles and frogs abound.
Masoala National Park and Nosy Mangabe Island
The recently gazetted Masoala National Park, east of the town Maroantsetra, protects the largest remaining Malagasy lowland rainforest. In some places, rainforest extends unbroken down to the sea. The Masoala peninsula, much of which remains unexplored, contains a bewildering diversity of plants and animals. In the Bay of Antongil, the uninhabited island reserve of Nosy Mangabe is a stronghold for the ruffed and white-fronted lemurs and the bizarre aye aye. Nosy Mangabe's reptilian denizens include the fringed (leaf-tailed) gecko.
Only campsites provide accommodation in Masoala and Nosy Mangabe.
Montagne d’Ambre National Park
This large area of forested volcanic massif, 37 km south of Diego Suarez, was the first Malagasy conservation project to involve local people in planning and management. Lemurs include the crowned and Sanford’s brown lemurs. The stately Madagascar crested ibis and the lovely pitta-like ground-roller are among the birds often seen. The landscape is astonishingly beautiful, with several crater lakes and waterfalls. You can enjoy a refreshing swim in the natural pool at the base of La Grande Cascade.
Berenty Private Reserve
With its large populations of ringtails, brown lemurs and Verreaux’ sifakas, Berenty is probably the most famous Malagasy reserve. Birding is rewarding. The reserve protects both spiny bush and dry tamarind woodland, along the Mandrare River bank. The guides are among the best in Madagascar, but it is easy (and permitted) to follow the broad trails and explore Berenty independently. The museum has rare examples of Sakalava carvings.
IFATY SPINY FOREST
Twenty-nine km north of Tulear, Ifaty attracts birders from around the world. It is possible to “tick off” all the rare endemics of the spiny desert zone in one good morning walk. This is a fascinating floristic zone, with bloated trees and plants (baobabs, pachypodiums, hildergardias, moringas) and spiny, drought resistant trees (didiera). The magnificent offshore reefs invite exploration. There is a PADI diving centre and Veso fishermen will ferry snorkellers to the reef by priogue. Between June and August, whales can be observed off Ifaty’s beautiful white beaches.
Isalo National Park
A landscape of sandstone rocks cut by canyons and eroded into extraordinary shapes, much of Isalo remains sacred to the Bara tribe. There are old burial sites in the caves of canyon walls. The elephant’s foot plant is the emblem of this reserve. It grows on the cliffs, blooms in late winter and represents the drought-resistant life forms that survive in this habitat. The imposing ruiniforme rock formations, the natural pools, and the lush, lemur-inhabited stream banks make Isalo a great hiking venue.
In the transition forest of the new Zombitse Forest National Park, an hour’s drive from Isalo, birders can see many localised species. The colourful tombs of Andranovory are further along the same road (RN7).
Kirindy (‘Swiss’) Forest
Tropical, dry deciduous forest is the world’s most threatened habitat type. This 10 000-hectare reserve, 60 km north of Morondava on the west coast, claims a world record for primate density. There are many lemurs, include the world’s smallest primate, the pygmy mouse lemur. Kirindy is the best place to see giant jumping rat and there are fosa (Madagascar’s largest predator), various spiny tenrecs, birds and reptiles aplenty. The diverse flora includes three of the six endemic Malagasy baobabs. We recommend an overnight stay in the campsite, but you can visit Kirindy on a full-day excursion.
ANKARAFANTSIKA NATIONAL PARK (Ampijoroa)
This outstanding example of western Malagasy tropical dry deciduous forest is 2 hours from the port Mahajanga. Lemurs include the Coquerel’s sifaka, mongoose and brown lemurs, and various nocturnal species. The giant hognosed snake, rhinoceros chameleon and fringed gecko are among the interesting reptiles. Rare birds include the Madagascar fish eagle, white-breasted mesite, Coquerel’s coua, Schlegel’s asity and Van Dam’s vanga. At the campsite, you can visit the Durrell Wildlife Trust’s breeding project for rare Malagasy tortoises and turtles.
ANKARANA NATIONAL PARK
The landscape is extraordinary and dramatic in this limestone massif, with its fields of razor sharp pinnacles called tsingy. Below, the massif is pierced by caves and canyons. Between sheer cliffs, sunken tropical deciduous forests harbour rare wildlife. The reserve is known for its large concentrations of crowned, Sanford’s and sportive lemurs, as well as ringtailed mongoose, fosa, tenrecs and Madagascar striped civet. There is good birding and prolific reptile and invertebrate life. There are few trails in the reserve, vehicular access is limited to the dry season, and accommodation is in campsites.
ANDRINGITRA NATIONAL PARK
This recently gazetted national park, 46 km south of Ambalavao, protects some of Madagascar's most impressive scenery. The second and third highest peaks - Pic Boby and Pic Bory stand within its boundaries. The area is characterised by remarkable granitic domes, exquisite waterfalls, verdant valleys and, at the highest altitudes, remote heathlands. This is the one place in Madagascar where snow has been known to fall and temperatures can fall below zero on winter nights.
Andringitra is best visited from late August to March, when small wildlife is most active and most flowering plants bloom. Lush mid- and high-altitude rainforest is rich in fascinating small wildlife and the massif is known for its frog, bird and orchid diversity. The lemurs, which are not habituated to the presence of humans, include bamboo lemurs and ringtails. Andringitra is a favourite with hikers and walkers.
There are campsites and a WWF 'gite' or mountain hut. We arrange fully organised camping in Andringitra, all meals and equipment provided.
These 740 hectares conserve the last original Sambirano forest remaining on Nosy Be island, inhabited by black lemur, Nosy Be sportive lemur, panther chameleon and Malagasy tree boa. The survival of the black lemur is threatened by loss of habitat. Sadly, the award-winning Black Lemur Forest Project , which represented the black lemur’s best hope of survival, is no longer in operation.
The snorkelling is superb from this reef-ringed, marine reserve island. A small patch of forest provides roosting sites for fruit bats.