By Safina Center Fellow Ben Mirin
When we arrived in Anja Community Reserve it was hard to breathe. Fire was sweeping up the face of the mountain and the entire reserve was wreathed in smoke.
“Another hundred meters lower and it will be on the lemurs,” Dina our fixer said.
In a predominantly agrarian country like Madagascar, fire is a critical economic staple. Artificial grass fires clear land for new pastures that feed zebu, the cattle which symbolize wealth and currency across much of southern Madagascar. But for the villages surrounding Anja the forest and its lemurs are also a major source of income. Approximately two hundred people visit Anja every day, and the community is producing more and more tour guides to meet the demand. At last count, from a population of about five hundred people, forty-nine were guides in the park.
As we fixed our binoculars on the conflagration we counted dozens of people beating back the flames with sticks. Moments later our guide for the park, Meza, came to meet the team. He had come straight from the mountain and his red jacket was covered in soot.
“Most of the community is up there, maybe four hundred people,” Meza said. “I am very tired.” The fire had grown bigger as the wind carried it over the rocks, and it was utterly shocking that he’d come to greet us at all.
Fire is not the only point of economic tension facing Anja. The reserve was founded in 1999 to protect an endemic species of baobab tree. Its name is the amalgam of the tree’s Latin name, Andasonia za, and is pronounced “Anza.” But the tree no longer grows there.
“Now the only baobab left in [the region] is a small one planted at the guide office,” Meza explained when he met us the next morning. The night before we had sent him home as quickly as possible, but there was no telling if he had retired for the night or hiked back up the mountain to control the blaze.
“People used to take the tree for wood, and people buy wood in Ambalavao,” he explained, referencing the larger region where Anja is located.
“[Until the park was created] local people also hunted lemurs for food. I’ve never eaten it, though.”
In many parts of Madagascar lemurs are protected from hunting by local customs as much as they are by national parks and reserves, but in Anja maintaining the park is essential for the lemurs’ survival. After seventeen years of protection and ecotourism they’ve become habituated to the presence of humans. It makes viewing the lemurs easy, and possibly hunting them even more so.
Ring-tails spend more time on the ground and travel in bigger groups than any other lemur species. Finding them is easy thanks to their near-constant contact calls, and when you’ve found one there are usually dozens more that will come your way until you’ve become surrounded on all sides. During our two days in the reserve, we tracked five groups through every stage of their daily routines, from sunning themselves atop Anja’s massive boulders at dawn, to feasting on fruiting trees and playing in the leaf litter to drinking from the flooded rice and bean fields on the forest edge. When family groups overlapped on their routes down the mountain, the calls of one group would excite the other, and in Anja’s small patch of forest the action almost never ceased.
“People stopped hunting the lemurs when Anja was founded,” Meza said on the last day. We had ventured higher into the mountains to complete our catalog of local sounds with a recording of ring-tail alarm calls. A storm had moved in, and without raincoats to cover the microphones we had taken shelter in a nearby cave beneath a lemurs family’s roosting boulder. Now that some time had passed, I asked him about his experience fighting the fire in more detail.
“Those fires were probably set by another community from the other side of the mountain,” he explained. After seeing the burned face of the mountain it was hard to believe the fire had been for agriculture. Maybe it was an act of reckless destruction, or even a jealous strike against the communities that profit from the forest.
“They are not connected to the park, but every association was there [to fight the fire].”
We shared a moment of joy and relief as we watched our final group of ring-tails retreat up the rock face for the night. Given the conditions in which we had met, it was a surprise and a privilege to have witnessed so many lemurs behaving naturally in their forest home.
Meza turned to me as the rain started to die down.
“That was the first time I fought a fire, and when the second one started last night it was raining, thanks to God.”
Ben Mirin is a Safina Fellow and National Geographic Explorer currently leading an expedition to record sound in Madagascar.