Sir David Attenborough: Tales of a young naturalist in Madagascar

Magical Madagascar: nowhere in the forests and plains of Madagascar would we find any of the creatures we had left behind in Africa: there were no monkeys, antelopes, elephants or large carnivorous beasts prey.

The island of Madagascar, on a map of the world, seems to be nothing more than a small, insignificant chipped fragment of the eastern flank of Africa.

In fact, it is huge: 1,000 miles long and four times the area of ​​England and Wales.

My BBC cameraman, Geoff Mulligan, and I had flown in from Nairobi with the feeling that we were approaching a whole new world.

Nowhere in the forests and plains of Madagascar would we find any of the creatures we had left behind in Africa: there were no monkeys, no antelopes, no elephants, no great predatory carnivorous beasts.

Magical Madagascar: nowhere in the forests and plains of Madagascar would we find any of the creatures we had left behind in Africa: there were no monkeys, antelopes, elephants or large carnivorous beasts prey.

Magical Madagascar: nowhere in the forests and plains of Madagascar would we find any of the creatures we had left behind in Africa: there were no monkeys, antelopes, elephants or large carnivorous beasts prey.

In the short two-hour flight that we had just done, in fact, we had traveled 50 million years of evolutionary time and now we were entering one of the wilderness rooms of nature, a place where old and outdated life forms they have survived since they disappeared from the rest of the world, among them the beautiful lemur in its many facets.

Geoff and I could hardly contain our impatience to see them.

We had planned in the next three months to film as many of these wonderful creatures as possible and, if possible, take some examples to take to the London Zoo.

It is an idea that sounds extraordinary to us now: in these days zoos do not send collectors of animals to capture rare species, and they are also right. But this was in 1961, and things were different.

World War II had led to the death and destruction of tens of thousands of animals around the world, and each zoo was eager to replenish its reserves and continue to push the limits of scientific discovery. But as it happened, our plans had a setback almost immediately.

"I'm sorry," said Monsieur Paulin, director of the scientific institute of Madagascar, "but I must ask you not to catch any lemurs at all." It is forbidden by law to even keep one as a pet. I ask you as a naturalist not to hinder our attempts to preserve these rare animals. "

What could we do but agree?

Going back in time: the two-hour flight we had just done, in effect, we had traveled 50 million years of evolutionary time and now we were entering one of nature's wooden rooms, a place where ancient life forms and outdated had long since disappeared from the rest of the world still survive, including the beautiful lemur in its many aspects

Going back in time: the two-hour flight we had just done, in effect, we had traveled 50 million years of evolutionary time and now we were entering one of nature's wooden rooms, a place where ancient life forms and outdated had long since disappeared from the rest of the world still survive, including the beautiful lemur in its many aspects

Going back in time: the two-hour flight we had just done, in effect, we had traveled 50 million years of evolutionary time and now we were entering one of nature's wooden rooms, a place where ancient life forms and outdated had long since disappeared from the rest of the world still survive, including the beautiful lemur in its many aspects

"Film it, of course," continued M. Paulin. "Such records will be extremely valuable, since very few people have done it, I will give you permission to collect other animals that are not endangered, and arrange a guide and an interpreter." It was as good as his word.

A few days later he had provided a Land Rover, the promised permits and a young scientist named Georges Randrianasolo. His eyes shone when we told him our plans. Like us, he could hardly wait to start.

The peaceful landscape changed dramatically the farther south we drove. On each side of the road stood rows and rows of unbranched, 30-foot-tall plant pillars, each heavily armored with thorns.

This was the didiera tree, and Georges was confident that among the surreal foliage we would find the first of the creatures we were most anxious to see: the lemur with a strange name, more like a monkey, the sifaka.

Standing, less than 2 feet tall and named for the strange sneezing noise it produces, this charming animal is covered in silky snow white fur except for a reddish brown head patch and a black face jet. He is famous as a phenomenal jumper, and carries an almost mystical aura.

We set off early in the morning in our search for sifakas (lemurs). The forests were unpleasant places to work, with the thorns of the didiera and the thorns that grow between them, catching our clothes and tearing our flesh

We set off early in the morning in our search for sifakas (lemurs). The forests were unpleasant places to work, with the thorns of the didiera and the thorns that grow between them, catching our clothes and tearing our flesh

We set off early in the morning in our search for sifakas (lemurs). The forests were unpleasant places to work, with the thorns of the didiera and the thorns that grow between them, catching our clothes and tearing our flesh

We left early in the morning in our search for sifakas. Forests were unpleasant places to work in, with the thorns of the didiera and the thorns that grow between them, trapping our clothes and tearing our flesh.

For an hour we made our way through the dense and vicious forest. Later, I saw a clearing and I did it gratefully.

I was about to go out into the sunlight when I saw in the clearing, standing next to a low, flowering bush, three little white figures.

They were busy plucking the petals from the bush with both hands tucking them into their mouths. I was frozen, and for half a minute the animals continued to feed. Then Georges, coming behind me, stepped on a twig, startling them.

They immediately left, jumping on the ground with their long hind legs together and their short arms held in front of them, for everyone as three people competing in a sack race.

It was the beginning of a wonderful episode in our travels.

Day after day we filmed these wonderful creatures.

Standing with just under 2 feet tall and the name of the strange sneezing noise it makes, this charming animal - a sifaka - is covered in silky, snow-white skin except for a reddish-brown patch on the head, and a jet black face. He is famous as a phenomenal jumper, and carries an almost mystical aura

Standing with just under 2 feet tall and the name of the strange sneezing noise it makes, this charming animal - a sifaka - is covered in silky, snow-white skin except for a reddish-brown patch on the head, and a jet black face. He is famous as a phenomenal jumper, and carries an almost mystical aura

Standing with just under 2 feet tall and the name of the strange sneezing noise it makes, this charming animal – a sifaka – is covered in silky, snow-white skin except for a reddish-brown patch on the head, and a jet black face. He is famous as a phenomenal jumper, and carries an almost mystical aura

Every afternoon, at about four o'clock, a family of five descended to the village to feed on the fruits of the tamarind tree. For an hour or so they sat down to eat satisfied above us before returning to the safety of the didiera trees.

But one afternoon two of them, a couple, stayed behind. The woman sat on a horizontal branch, swinging her legs and combing her hair with her teeth. We saw that the man was approaching from behind. She seemed not to notice that he was there.

Suddenly, he threw himself at her, almost pulling her from the branch, and expertly gave her an orange half. She rolled, broke free of his grip and caught his head in the elbow of his left arm. He writhed, wrapped his arms around her waist and squeezed. I could have sworn he was laughing.

For five minutes they fought, but even though sometimes they closed their jaws to each other, this was not a proper fight. Surprisingly, they were playing.

It is common to see younger animals doing this, practicing the skills they will need as adults. But the examples of adult animals that play to enjoy in nature are extremely rare. There is rarely time for recreation in the ruthless world of nature.

There could be no doubt that they were pieces of a giant egg

But our sifaka did not seem to have to face the problems that plague most of the other animals. They did not need to look for food: mangoes, tamarinds, flower petals and green shoots abounded. Nor were they perpetually persecuted by fear or the need to hide, since they have no natural enemies.

Most significant of all, they lived in families, not troops.

If you observe a troop of monkeys, there is a strict hierarchy. Each monkey is aware of his position, shrugs his shoulders at his superiors and harasses without mercy those below him.

But there was none of this with the sifaka.

His family life seemed to be based purely on affection. During the many hours we watched them, we never saw them fight, and many times, as now, we saw them playing or caressing each other.

It was a lovely show that I felt very privileged to have been able to witness.

From the strange woods of Didiera, we headed west towards an even more arid environment. Often, the wheels of our car had a foot deep in the sand.

From the strange woods of Didiera, we headed west towards an even more arid environment. Often, the wheels of our car had a foot deep in the sand (photo 2018)

From the strange woods of Didiera, we headed west towards an even more arid environment. Often, the wheels of our car had a foot deep in the sand (photo 2018)

From the strange woods of Didiera, we headed west towards an even more arid environment. Often, the wheels of our car had a foot deep in the sand (photo 2018)

We had arrived in this inhospitable desert only for one reason: to look for the largest eggs in the world, those belonging to the now extinct Aepyornis.

The Arab folk tales are full of references to this gigantic creature.

"It is so strong that it will catch an elephant in its claws and take it high in the air and drop it to be destroyed," wrote Marco Polo, explorer of the thirteenth century. "After having killed him, the bird pounces on him and eats it to his liking".

The truth of the matter was finally established only in the 19th century, when a group of huge bird bones was recovered from a swamp in central Madagascar. Of them it was clear that the local giant had been an ostrich and was not flying.

It was almost 10 feet tall and weighed 70 staggered stones. It is likely that these magnificent creatures have been extinct for more than 1000 years. Despite how huge Madagascar is, no part of it is so little known as to hide a creature the size of an Aepyornis.

However, gigantic eggs can still be found, and I hope we will discover, if not a complete one, at least a small fragment in the sand around the dry bed of the Linta River.

We had arrived in this inhospitable desert only for one reason: to look for the largest eggs in the world, those belonging to the now extinct Aepyornis. The Arab folk tales are full of references to this gigantic creature (in the photo of 2017)

We had arrived in this inhospitable desert only for one reason: to look for the largest eggs in the world, those belonging to the now extinct Aepyornis. The Arab folk tales are full of references to this gigantic creature (in the photo of 2017)

We had arrived in this inhospitable desert only for one reason: to look for the largest eggs in the world, those belonging to the now extinct Aepyornis. The Arab folk tales are full of references to this gigantic creature (in the photo of 2017)

The sun shone fiercely from the cloudless sky, ruminating the dunes when Geoff and I began our search. Hour after hour we advanced slowly, the sand gave way with each step, so that walking was doubly exhausting.

More than half a day had passed before he finally found something: three small objects the size of a tenpence piece and twice as thick. On the one hand, they were opaque, on the other pale yellow and with a different grain.

There could be no doubt that they were pieces of a giant egg.

Despite all the difficulties and discomforts, I was ecstatic.

While Geoff and I sat enthusiastically examining our findings, a small boy with a ragged head, dusty and naked except for a necklace of blue beads and a loincloth, came towards us driving a herd of goats.

I called him and showed him our treasure.

"I'm looking for a big egg," I said in my faltering French. & # 39; These little pieces are not good. I'm looking for large pieces.

The whole egg was an amazing size: one foot long and with a powerful circumference of 32 inches. For me, the tangible reality of the Aeporynis was as strange and exciting as any myth or folktale could be (photo 2015)

The whole egg was an amazing size: one foot long and with a powerful circumference of 32 inches. For me, the tangible reality of the Aeporynis was as strange and exciting as any myth or folktale could be (photo 2015)

The whole egg was an amazing size: one foot long and with a powerful circumference of 32 inches. For me, the tangible reality of the Aeporynis was as strange and exciting as any myth or folktale could be (photo 2015)

He looked at me completely bewildered. "Oeuf," I said seriously. "Grand oeuf." But no flicker of expression passed through his impassive youthful face.

I tried one more time, waving my hands to indicate the shape and size of the object I was looking for. But it did not help. The boy looked past me, noticed that his goats were drifting away and ran away.

Back in the camp, I showed the fragments to Georges with considerable pride.

Although out of modesty I did not put it into words, I hoped to be able to suggest that I had been remarkably clever in discovering these little pieces in the vast desert wasteland.

When I woke up the next morning, a tall, emaciated woman was standing in front of the store looking at me through the mosquito net. On his head he carried a large basket.

I got off my sleeping bag, trying to gather my wit to face the inevitable conversation in French. But I did not need to have worried. The woman did not need words. She simply took the basket from her head and poured a cascade of egg fragments on the ground. I looked at them, stupefied.

Not only was it clear that the little shepherd had understood exactly what he had said and spread the news, but it was equally evident that, far from having his eyes closed to find my three fragments, it had been completely the opposite. This woman had collected at least 500 in a few hours.

The largest lemur of all, measuring 3 feet tall, is the only one without a long tail. According to local legend, if you threw a spear, you could trap the weapon and throw it at you with great strength and infallible precision (in the 2017 photo).

The largest lemur of all, measuring 3 feet tall, is the only one without a long tail. According to local legend, if you threw a spear, you could trap the weapon and throw it at you with great strength and infallible precision (in the 2017 photo).

The largest lemur of all, measuring 3 feet tall, is the only one without a long tail. According to local legend, if you threw a spear, you could trap the weapon and throw it at you with great strength and infallible precision (in the 2017 photo).

From that moment on, we could not stop the flood of projectiles poured into the camp when one villager after another arrived with more and more fragments of eggs. At the end of the day, the pile was more than a foot high.

While we contemplated this, the little shepherd reappeared carrying something wrapped in a filthy piece of cloth. He left it on the ground and untied the knots.

Inside there were about 20 pieces, some quite small, but others the size of small plates, and twice as many as we had seen.

We spread the pieces in the sand, and we looked at them in amazement. Was there enough to make a reasonably complete whole? It was like a puzzle, only it was much more difficult and exciting. After a few minutes of trial and error, I discovered two sections whose angular edges repeated to each other. They were adjusted together, and I fixed them with adhesive tape.

Then I saw another pair and a fifth piece that fit the first two. At the end of an hour we take two cups. I took one in each hand and carefully put them together. They coincided perfectly, only a few small sections were missing.

The whole egg was an amazing size: one foot long and with a powerful circumference of 32 inches. For me, the tangible reality of the Aeporynis was as strange and exciting as any myth or folk tale could be.

While holding that glorious egg in my hand, I had no difficulty imagining the moment when the bed of the Linta River was filled with a brown and unruly flood and giant birds, almost 10 feet tall, waded magnificently through the marshes.

Madagascar is the ancestral home of the chameleon family. It was here that these strange reptiles evolved for the first time, and from here they spread across Africa and to the continents beyond.

We were extraordinarily fortunate to be able to spend so much time with the beautiful and attractive sifaka

Even today, the island still contains more species than exist in the world outside its coasts, and among them are the largest (more than two feet long) and the smallest (no more than an inch and half), the most vividly colored, and the strangest of all the many members of this varied family.

Georges emphasized that several spectacular species abounded in the forest around the cabin where we had made our camp. Maybe they were, but they were very difficult to find, not so much because of their famous ability to change the color of their skin to match their surroundings, but because of their habit of remaining completely immobile between the tangled branches.

However, after a day of searching, we acquired enough skill to detect them, and soon we had collected a collection of more than a dozen, many, in fact, that outnumbered the improvised cages we had built.

Not to mention the fact that it took us hours every day to find enough insects to feed them all.

I devised a method that I thought would perfectly solve both difficulties in a stroke.

Dragging an old galvanized iron bath from the hut, I prepared a tall, dry and twiggy branch in the middle, on which I tied one or two pieces of raw meat. Then I filled the bathtub with water.

"The two factors that we have to take into account," I said, explaining the clever wit of all this to Geoff, "are the first, that chameleons live on flies, and second, that they can not swim." Put them on this branch and, as the only way to escape is through the water, they should remain there.

"Also, the idea of ​​escape will not occur to you, because this is a chameleon's paradise, raw meat will attract hordes of flies, thus providing a constant source of food for them and getting rid of the business of fetching crickets and grasshoppers every morning. "

Geoff expressed an appropriate admiration, and together we took the chameleons out of their cages and put them on the branch. There they clung, looking angry at each other as we sat proud to see them explore their new comforts. One or two walked down the branch, inspected the water and retreated, exactly as planned.

But then the whole group gathered at the top of the branch and began to march in line along a solid twig that projected more than two feet beyond the tub.

Would he have our luck, and lead us to his even more intriguing and mysterious cousins?

One by one they jumped at the end like divers leaving the crowded board of a pool.

I was amazed. Never before had I seen a chameleon show any sign of being able to jump. We put them one by one, but it was pretty clear that my elegant construction was a total failure.

Nor was it more effective in providing them with food. Not a single fly approached raw meat, even when I covered it with honey.

We put the chameleons back in their cages and undertook the laborious business of finding their dinner. We were often looked at in our efforts in absolute horror by the locals. They were horrified by our foolishness to have something to do with the chameleons. These creatures were not only poisonous, they said, but extremely evil.

Touching one was crazy. Nothing would convince them otherwise.

However, we were able to change this opinion to our advantage when our car was forced during a visit to a small town in the center of the island.

Fortunately, the thieves had ignored all the cameras, movies, and recording devices and stolen only our food and a pair of highly discredited suede shoes.

But they had broken a window to enter, so it was impossible from then on to make the car safe.

The solution was simple. We took out every night the biggest and virulent chameleon of all our chameleons and we sat him in one of our camera boxes in the middle of the pile of luggage that filled the back of the car.

We left him there, frowning furiously and rolling his eyes. Nobody came back to interfere with our car. The time was urgent: we had been in Madagascar for several weeks without seeing the animal he most wanted to shoot: the so-called "dog-headed man" of Madagascar, correctly known as indri.

This is the largest lemur of all, it is 3 feet tall and is the only one without a long tail. According to local legend, if you threw a spear, he could catch the weapon and throw it at you with great strength and infallible precision.

Seeing one would be the highlight of our trip. We were extraordinarily fortunate to be able to spend so much time with the beautiful and interesting sifakas. Would he have our luck, and lead us to his even more intriguing and mysterious cousins?

  • Adapted from Journeys To The Other Side of the World: New adventures of a young naturalist by Sir David Attenborough, published by Two Roads on September 6 at £ 25. © David Attenborough 2018. To request a copy for £ 20 (offer valid until on September 8, 2018, free P & P) visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.

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