Guide to Wildlife Watching and Photography in Madagascar
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Guide to Wildlife Watching and Photography in Madagascar
Observing and photographing wildlife in its natural habitat in most parts of the world requires being in the right place at the time, patience, perseverance and of course luck. However Madagascar is one of those few places where the wildlife is remarkably obliging and often very accessible.
Madagascar is a huge draw for anyone interested in wildlife but those keen on photography too will be particularly in their element. Key sites to consider from the photography perspective include the Berenty Reserve, Kirindy Reserve, Andasibe/Voihamana Reserve, Anjajavy, Mandrare River Camp, Kianjavato Reserve and the Palmarium Reserve.
(Black-and-white ruffed lemur)
When to Travel
Wildlife activity is at its peak from the third week in September to the beginning of December. This is Madagascar’s spring and when baby lemurs are born, birds are on their breeding territories and the hibernating dwarf lemurs, tenrecs and majority of reptiles and frogs will be active and most visible.
Late October and November can bring some showers and this is always a consideration, but the increased wildlife activity outweighs the risk of some showers. An umbrella can be a very useful additional for night walks in the rainforests. The rainfall often encourages the frogs to come out in abundance and most of the smaller creatures are easily photographed under an umbrella if it is raining on your walk as they are usually close up. For nocturnal lemurs and looking up into canopy the umbrella technique can still shelter your camera and binoculars but it’s not so ideal. Therefore having multiple night walks in areas that could be wet at night will increase your chance to have some dry nights as well.
(A pirogue on the white sand beach of Nosy Ve – Anakao)
Where to Travel
Madagascar is vast and unfortunately still has a poor road infrastructure and at times relatively unreliable domestic flight network, making it both challenging and tiring to include multiple destinations over a large area in a short time. It can therefore be more rewarding to focus on key species and habitats that are of most interest and allow longer in each National Park for greater exploration.
Below are some of the top species to see and where to find them:
Ring Tailed Lemur
These iconic lemurs are often top of the list of species to see and make for very rewarding photography subjects as they are both very beautiful and curious. Below are some of the best locations to see and photograph them:
- Berenty Private Reserve (Excellent for getting up close with very habituated ring tails in ideal open gallery forest with sandy backgrounds and soft sun lighting. They are very abundant and see to see on wide flat and easy trails. It is worth noting that they are less healthy here though due to an introduced fruit they eat, which causes fur loss. (4 hours drive from Fort Dauphin)
- Mandrare River Camp: A fantastic location for seeing ring tails in patches of gallery forest in dappled sunlight and also in spiny forest Octopus trees, which make for great settings. The forests here are protected by the local Tandroy tribe. (A 4-hour drive from Fort Dauphin or a charter flight)
- Anja Park An excellent community managed reserve to see very relaxed ring tails in open woodland and sometimes on rocky outcrops with granite mountain backdrops. The ring tails here are stockier and have thicker fur due to the adaptation to the mountainous terrain. (accessed on the overland route between Tana and Tulear)
- Camp Catta A rustic lodge tucked between the Tsaranoro Mountain and the Andringitra National Park that has near resident ring tails in the grounds and in the nearby forests. (Accessed on the overland route between Tana and Tulear)
- Isalo National Park Ring tails can be found in the woodland along the Canyon des Makis trail within the National Park. (Accessed on the overland route between Tana and Tulear)
Famous for their “dancing” leaps across the ground and all round athletic behaviour, they are one of the most entertaining lemurs to watch.
Top locations to see them include the following:
- Berenty Private Reserve The best location to see the impressive dancing behaviour.
- Mandrare River Camp This is the best location to see Verreaux’s sifakas in the eerie spiny forest where they can be watched and photographed leaping between the spiny cacti-like Octopus trees.
- Kirindy Reserve Home to a habituated population that can be found close to the lodge. (A 2.5 hour drive north of Morondava)
- Zombitse Voihbasa National Park Here a small population of dark morph Verreaux’s sifakas can be found in this wildlife rich transitional forest. (A 2.5-hour drive from Tulear).
Madagascar’s most mysterious and elusive lemur, the aye aye is a fascinating primate and a real curiosity of evolution. These nocturnal, almost gremlin like lemurs are extremely rare to see and sadly still persecuted in some areas of their range. There are four key locations in which to see and photograph this remarkable species.
- Farankaraina Forestry Reserve At least eight aye ayes are living in the rainforest here and are regularly seen on night walks as they feed at favoured fruiting and insect rich trees. Two attempts are recommended, but the accommodation is very basic. Sightings are usually high in the canopy.
- Palmarium Reserve – Aye Aye Island The best location for photography as coconuts are placed in a forest clearing on small forested island providing superb eye level views. Flash photography is now allowed but illumination from torches provides enough light. (4 hours East of Andasibe or 8 hours from Tana.)
- Kianjavato Forest Reserve excellent sightings in the canopy of truly wild aye ayes sometimes fitted with GPS collars but with strenuous and slippery walking conditions)
- Anjajavy Private Reserve (Two aye ayes fitted with GPS collars have recently been reintroduced to the dry forest reserve but can be elusive and don’t currently offer good photography opportunities).
Madagascar’s top predator, the charismatic fossa (fosa) is a very impressive carnivore looking somewhat like a cross between a miniature puma and giant mongoose. It is in fact a member of unique family of carnivores found only on Madagascar. They are very difficult to see anywhere, but the Kirindy Reserve, 2.5 hour’s drive north of the town of Morondava where they are very common and reliable. Although they can be seen year round April – December is the best period and during mid November sometimes mating can even be seen. There are several individuals that spend time around Kirindy Lodge at dawn and again from 1700 in the evening. They visit the restaurant and rubbish dumping area, looking for food and water and allow a close approach offering good photography. It is important not to get too close though and give them space especially if they have young.
The huge tail-less indri is often the highlight sighting on a trip to Madagascar. Their powerful whale-song-like cries at dawn can reduce visitors to tears of joy. They are most easily observed in the rainforests of Andasibe, where the community run Voihamana (VOIMMA) and Mitsinjo Reserves are top spots for getting close and good pictures. Here local guides and rangers have habituated several family groups so that they are now very comfortable feeding just a few meters away from enthralled onlookers. These reserves along with nearby Mantadia National Park are quieter and less busy than the popular Perinet (Analamazotra) Reserve.
Black and White Ruffed Lemur
The fluffy black-and-white ruffed lemur is fairly widely distributed through Madagascar’s Eastern rainforests, but is highly endangered and nowhere common. They are a canopy dwelling lemur and often on the move, but with some perseverance can be observed and photographed while resting on large branches and feeding on fruits.
Below are the best locations for a sighting:
- Kianjavato Forest Reserve This is perhaps the best location to observe this species, as several groups are habituated and frequent the lower trails of the reserve. Some individuals have been fitted with GPS collars for research. (A hour 30 minute drive to the East of Ranomafana National Park)
- Mantadia National Park The ridgeway trail of this primary forest National Park is a reliable spot to find this agile species. The trail can be steep and getting good views and photographs can be a challenge, but well worthwhile. (A 1 hour 30 minute drive along a bumpy track from Andasibe)
- Ranomafana National Park This large National Park also has fairly steep trails, but in general the going is mostly moderate. The black and white ruffed lemurs here are less easy to connect with as they roam areas that often not easily accessible. (Accessed on the overland route between Tana and Tulear)
- Nosy Mangabe This rainforest cloaked island has a small population of this species and they are relatively easy to find, but tend to stick high in the canopy.
- Palmarium Reserve This species has been introduced to this small private reserve and they are very habituated here, even often joining guests in the lodge grounds. This is a perfect location for those interested in taking up close and artistic pictures, but not in a fully natural or wild setting.
Red Ruffed Lemur
Surely one of the most beautiful of all the lemurs, the red ruffed lemur is a very striking animal and restricted to just the Masoala Peninsula on the remote North East corner of Madagascar. They can be fairly easy to see in the Masoala National Park between September and December when family groups are vocalising, making their location easier to track. It is worth noting that there is often very low light under the canopy of the tall trees in this ancient forest and red ruffed lemurs rarely come down to the ground or understory, so photography can be more challenging.
This is the smallest species of lemur and one of the most colourful and photogenic. They are found only in the dry deciduous forests of the North West.
- Anjajavy Hotel and Reserve: The sifakas are daily visitors to the grounds of this high comfort hotel and regularly bound across the ground in the garden area known as the oasis. This is a perfect location to take action shots and portraits of these beautiful lemurs. (Accessed on private flights from Tana on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays)
- Ampijoroa Forest Station: This is the headquarters of the Ankarafantsika National Park and the mango trees around the park office are a roost site for the sifakas. This is a great location to get some mid leap photographs of the sifakas in early morning or late afternoon light.
No trip to Madagascar would be complete without seeing a range of its most celebrated reptiles; the chameleons. Madagascar is home to over half of all the World’s chameleons (thought to be around 150 species) including the largest Parson’s and Oustalets’s and the smallest; Brookesia micra.
Top Reserves for Chameleons include the following:
- Montagne D Ambre: Home to 11 species including the beautiful panther chameleon and a number of localised endemics such as Calumma amber. One of the highlights though is the population of Brookesia pygmy leaf chameleons which are easily found by the skilled local guides. The Brookesia tuberculata which is one of the tiniest reptiles on the planet.
- Mitisinjo and Vohimana Reserves in Andasibe: These two community run forest reserves allow night walks within the forest, ideal for finding many of the smaller creatures and the huge Parson’s chameleon is most numerous here.
- Other top locations include the Masoala National Park, Lokobe Reserve, Ranomafana National Park and Montagne d Francis.
These nocturnal reptiles are among the most superbly camouflaged animals on the planet. They have long flattened bodies, huge colourful eyes and jagged tails that almost perfectly resemble leaves. Spotting these geckos during the day is very difficult as they cling motionless to a branch or tree trunk where they blend into the surroundings, but with the expertise of local guides they can often be tracked down. They are most easily spotted at night though.
Top locations include Montagne D Ambre National Park and the private park of Domaine de Fontenay Lodge in particular. The Mossy leaf–tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) is particularly common here and the spearpoint leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus ebenaui).
Another key location to see plenty of leaf-tailed geckos and their colorful day gecko cousins is the wild Masoala Peninsula and nearby Nosy Mangabe Island and Farankaraina Reserve. Here the giant leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) which grows to 11 inches is particularly abundant along with the lined flat-tail gecko (Uroplatus lineatus) and Phelsuma day geckos.
For the spectacular satanic leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) the rainforests of Ranomafana are a great location to encounter this fascinating species with eyelash projections above its eyes.
To encounter a wide range of Madagascar’s endemic frogs and other reptile species, the Andasibe rainforests are an excellent spot to encounter spectacular but tiny species like the colourful Boophis family. This group of large eyed and colorful frogs includes some stunningly attractive frogs and on night walks in Voihmana, Mitsinjo and around Andasibe village, species such as Boophis viridis, Boophis Pyrrhus and Boophis rappoides are among the highlights to look for. Looking inside bromeliads and pandanus plants are a great spot to find these frogs and damp evenings in October, November and December are the best times.
The palm and orchid rich Palmarium Reserve is another great spot for frogs with the striking blue-black reed frog (Heterixalus madagascariensis) a notable highlight here.
Another of Madagascar’s special wildlife groups are the tenrecs, small insectivorous mammals, resembling shrews and hedgehogs that have diversified into at least 21 species. They have taken on the same ecological role as shews and hedgehogs within Madagascar but are usually very hard to find.
The spiny lowland streaked tenrec is the most commonly encountered species with the rainforests of Mitisjono and Voihamana in Andasibe and Masoala and Ranomafana National Parks are particularly good spots to see one. Common tenrecs are also encountered in the same locations less often while the Kirindy Reserve is a good location to encounter a greater hedge tenrec and the spiny Forests of Ifaty and Berenty are the best sites for the lesser hedgehog tenrec. Travel between September and April for the best chance of seeing one of these snuffling creatures of the forest floor.
Madagascar’s birdlife is a huge draw with five endemic bird families and at least 120 endemic species to enjoy. Taking in a range of different habitats: lowland and montane rainforest, dry deciduous forest, spiny forest and transitional forest will enable you to see a wide range of the endemic bird families and most striking species. Below is an overview of some of the key locations:
Ankarafantsika National Park
Highlights of this dry deciduous forest include the Madagascar fish eagle, Schlegel’s asity, white-breasted mesite and red-capped coua. The more secretive bird specialties here include the localised Van Dam’s vanga and Madagascar jacana.
Ifaty Spiny Forest
The spiny forests here are home to a selection of unquie species specially adapted to this arid ecosystem. The highlight is the spectacular long-tailed ground roller, which although elusive is a joy to watch and photograph. Other species to look for include the sub-desert mesite, banded kestrel, running coua and nearby the localised Verreaux’s coua and red-shouldered vanga at La Table and Madagascar plover along the coast.
Ranomafana National Park
A classic example of high-altitude rainforest with large areas of primary rainforest and an impressive list of birds. The stunted forest along the quieter Vohipara Circuit is a prime location to find secretive forest dwellers such as rufous-headed ground roller, brown mesite and the rare yellow-bellied sunbird asity although these species are very skulking and hard to photograph. The beautiful pitta-like ground roller is more conspicuous and easier to photograph through the park.
Mantadia National Park and Antavalobe Reserve
A must visit location for those with an interest in Madagascar’s endemic birdlife. Highlights include the shy scaly and short-legged ground rollers, blue, red-fronted and red breasted couas, velvet asity, collared nightjar, nuthatch and blue vangas and Madagascar pygmy kingfisher. The remote old growth forest at the little visited Antavalobe Reserve now supports a tiny population of helmet and Beriner’s vanga. This wonderfully colourful species is most easily seen in the Masoala National Park though where it occurs in greater numbers.
What to Bring
For most lemur photography which will be in trees and sometimes on the ground, a 100 – 400 mm telephoto lens on a full-frame DSLR or mirror less camera or a 100 – 400mm zoom lens will give the best results. For most birdlife this will also produce good picture results, but a 1.4 tele-converter or even larger lens can be useful as often some bird species will be small and higher in trees or feeding in wetlands.
A macro lens also comes in very useful in Madagascar as so much of the wildlife fascination includes some tiny Brookesia chameleons, tiny endemic tree frogs, skinks and geckos as well as insects like the peculiar giraffe-necked weevil.
A wide range lens can also be used in many situations, not just for the many varied landscapes and scenery that Madagascar has to offer but also for the wildlife in some situations. With some species such as the larger chameleons, a posing indri, leaping sifakas, a resting fossa or frogs and leaf-tailed geckos a wide-angle lens can be great for showing the animal within its habitat context.
A tripod can be useful in some situations in particular for aye aye photography at the Palmarium Reserve a tripod is useful for stabilization under the low light conditions.