In 1992 a book came out written by the eccentric and far sighted conservationist Gerald Durrell. It was called the – The Aye Aye and I. The book not only immortalised an island in the Indian Ocean, known as Madagascar but also the weird and wonderful creatures on it. An island Gerald describes as a, “badly presented omelette…….stuffed with goodies.”
After reading this book, Madagascar became a bit like the holly grail for me. But I just never imagined I would ever get to go to the big red island. I would never see the, Aye Aye and all his cousins and would have to content myself with regular rereads of Gerald’s book.
Then when my mother died, I was left a sum of money and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I took extended leave and booked myself on a conservation project to Madagascar. Thereby combining my love of travel and wildlife in one trip.
My journey was to an island where 90% of its wildlife is not found anywhere else on earth. Home to 50 varieties of lemurs. I was pretty sure that I would get to see a few of them.
But unfortunately Madagascar also has more endangered species of mammals then anywhere else in the world. The slash and burn tactics of the farmers which Gerald mentioned has not stopped and has bought so many more animals into closer contact with humans and therefore into more conflict. One such creature that is suffering is the Fosa.
A relative of the mongoose, the puma like creature is almost a legend. When you talk to Malagasy people they hiss the word almost in fear dragging the vowels out Foooooossa. This was the animal I would be researching on the conservation project. Gerald had described the carnivore when they had caught a mother Aye Aye and the baby had run away. He was concerned that the Fosa would “slap him down with a velvety paw and engulf him with one great, pink gulp.”
My first encounter with the Malagasy wildlife was with lemurs, on a small island off the coast of Nose Be called Nose Komba. I sailed across the small stretch of water to a hot, sandy beech. The lemurs that lived there were. White Fronted Brown and The Sacred Black.
It was an impromptu lunch meeting, the Lemurs jumped gracefully down from the mangrove trees and began eating fruit from out of my hands and the whole event would not have looked out of place at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. They chittered and chattered, picking up pieces of food and running up and down the table with enthusiastic glee. It was a wonderful introduction and I couldn’t wait for further encounters of the Lemur kind.
I travelled to Majunga for my rendezvous with the conservation team I would be working with. It was from here that Gerald travelled from up to Tamatave to begin his search for the Aye Aye. I think little had changed since his visit.
In Gerald’s book he virtually bumped into the ghost like Fosa whilst out looking for lemurs. “It was relaxed and perfectly at ease: No furtive glances over its shoulder, no ear twitches, no tensing of the muscles. It looked as if it had been invited”
Gerald sits and watches as the cat washes himself, “lifting his plump paws to be licked….curry combing its tail assiduously.” Oh how I wish I had seen such a creature.
But for me it was not to be. No glimpse of the athletic cat that legend said came like a phoenix from out of fires at night to devour whom he may.
I spent weeks trekking through what remained of the Madagascar forest, vainly hoping that I would catch a glimpse of the islands largest natural predator. By the end of it I had only festering blisters to show for my dedication.
But the experience was wonderful, slowly seeing so many of the strange creatures mentioned by Gerald in his book.
Whilst at camp we had a journalist arrive from Boston who shocked me by saying he didn’t know who Gerald Durrell was. I could not believe that someone writing on wildlife conservation could be so ignorant of such a legend.
But by the time he started to record the sound of clucking chickens penned up alongside the latrines, I realised that I probably would be wasting my time trying to introduce him to any of Durrell’s books.
I was convinced also that all his traipsing around the chicken pens was putting off any visit from the Fosa and I secretly started to get one of the local Malagasy kids to find snakes to divert his attention.
My disappointment of not seeing a Fosa in the wild did not continue for too long after the conservation project. I continued to travel around Madagascar and saw at least 20 varieties of the 50 species of Lemur found on the island. Some were so cute that they would not have looked out of place in a child’s nursery at home.
When arriving at Maroantsertra to go and watch what the Malagasy people call the “festival of whales“.
I was told by the lady at the check in at the hotel rather sweetly, “No all the whales have gone.”
I had visions of whales packing their suitcases a week before my arrival
and setting home after their festival to continue what whales do best. But surely they all didn’t disappear at the same time? She was adamant there were no whales, “they have all gone home”.
“They can’t have all gone at the same time I wailed (sorry about the pun). I pondered about what kind of games whale babies played on their holiday. Huge sandcastles built the size of Everest all washed away by the evening tide. I heard their complaints as daddy whale said, “That’s it kids, back to the depths of the ocean.”
And then I remembered Gerald had mentioned Nose Mangabe and the Aye Aye. The island had become a sanctuary for the nocturnal Lemurs.
I hired a boat and went across to the island. I refused the first boat offered because of the fact it had a bloody great hole in it the size of one of the baby whales at the festival I missed.
But then a local fisherman said he would take me over and help me set up camp. And so I found myself on camping out on a little secluded beach and searching for the Aye Aye in true Durellian style.
My excitement was barely containable when one night I caught my first glimpse of the Aye Aye, his red eyes glowing in the darkness like some evil spirit from an adult fairytale. Durrell had described this animal as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Peering down from the tree it looked like some alien inspecting the human race and by the look on its face as it turned tail back up the branch it had decided that we were really rather inferior beings. And not worth a second glance.
My time in Madagascar had allowed me to see the smallest chameleon to the largest snakes. I saw the pigmy lemur to the most iconic of all the Aye Aye. Gerald was right the omelette really is stuffed with goodies.
I was lucky of that I knew. Lucky to have heard of Gerald and lucky to have followed in just a few of his large and numerous footprints.
My obsession with the Fosa followed me home to England, and eventually I found my self staring in at one of the animals in Sandwich, Kent. At a place called the Rare Species Conservation Centre. I finally got to see the almost mythological mongoose like cat of Madagascar. Fur the colour of baked treacle. This “femme fatale” seemed to be frowning, as if her natural order of things had been displaced somehow, which of course it had.
Her long tail was meant to let her swing with ease through the forest of an island in the Indian ocean, the garden of Eden, but now it swished through the safety of ,“The Garden of England”.
My journey had come full circle. But as Gerald would say, “Circles have no end”.
Want to read more about the Fosa ?Well read my – The Killing Machine of Madagascar Published in the short story anthology – See you are here. Published by Early Works Press available on Amazon.