Dawn breaks like a sliver of crimson on the horizon over the land we leave behind, as we cross the Indian Ocean into the dark skies over Africa. As night sky pales to a clean blue, we see vast lands below shrouded by white clouds. In the distance, south of Nairobi, Kenya, a great mountain rises. After a brief transit at Nairobi airport, we fly across the ocean again, past the islands of Zanzibar and the Comoros, into the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar, the land of the leaping lemurs.

The smallest primate in the world is a lemur. At 30 grams, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur is just a tad heavier than a sparrow. Imagine a miniature tennis ball, covered in a soft pelt of brown and cinnamon and creamy white, which has sprouted delicate limbs and clasping hands, a long furry tail, and a little head that turns to look at you through large, lustrous eyes. Like all other lemurs—including the iconic ring-tailed lemur, the aye-aye and sifakas, dwarf lemurs and sportive lemurs—this lemur’s natural range is confined within the island of Madagascar. The largest living lemur in Madagascar is the indri. At seven kilograms, the indri weighs as much as a healthy, six-month-old human infant. But instead of a crawling or bawling child, imagine a wild primate, dressed in striking black-and-white, capable of prodigious leaps from tree to tree and endowed with an incredibly loud and mesmerising singing voice.

In October 2012, one month before our visit to Madagascar, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and the indri, along with four other lemur species, were listed among the world’s 25 most endangered primate species. Madagascar’s count of six species was higher than that of any other nation. The list, made under the umbrella of the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was preceded by a July 2012 assessment for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which placed 91 per cent of the 103 extant lemur species in threat categories ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. All lemurs larger than the indri are already extinct.

Located in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s Mozambique coast, Madagascar has been an island for over 80 million years and has suffered, like many other island environments, a history of extinctions. Sub-fossil remains show that after human colonisation around 2,500 years ago, 17 species of giant lemurs, some as large as gorillas, along with elephant birds, hippopotamuses, and other species faced extended declines and went extinct.

Our journey to Madagascar had begun in the Western Ghats, a range of old mountains along India’s west coast. There, as wildlife scientists and spouses, Divya Mudappa and I have been working for over a decade, studying the effects of rainforest fragmentation on wildlife such as birds and arboreal mammals, and trying to ecologically restore the degraded rainforest fragments that remain within a landscape of tea and coffee plantations.

Both Madagascar and the Western Ghats are recognised as global hotspots of biological diversity. Both have historically lost over three-fourths of their natural forest cover and continue to face forest loss and fragmentation because of mining, plantations, agriculture, industry, and infrastructure development.

In Madagascar, we wear our tourist hats to look for lemurs and other wildlife, but put on our field biologist hats to learn more about the challenges of conservation and restoration and how people are trying to meet them in the island nation. As it turns out, both are lucky hats for us. Madagascar is not just a place of the extinct and the endangered. There is space for rapture and revival, too.


Our first impression of Madagascar, as seen from the air, is bleak. We see little forest and only strips of woody vegetation. The landscape appears scarred. There are dark, burned patches—including recent slash-and-burn tavy fields near villages—and scattered fires smoulder for charcoal. The hill slopes are furrowed by erosion, with small landslips and gaping gullies.

Madagascar has a history of extinctions. Sub-fossil remains show that after human colonisation around 2,500 years ago, 17 species of giant lemurs, some as large as gorillas, along with elephant birds, hippopotamuses, and other species faced extended declines and went extinct.

On the roads in the central highlands around the capital, Antananarivo, open grasslands extend into the distance and the trees that remain, except in the secondary forest patches and riparian strips, are all alien eucalyptus, pine, and wattle. Our first impression is of a land that bears only remnants of its original vegetation, like fragmented memories of once-widespread ecosystems.

Looking at the landscape, we wonder about the prospects for restoration. In Madagascar, it seems impossible to restore such a wounded landscape. Yet, the land is only wounded. A body that can be wounded—that can bleed—can also heal, and what is healing in Madagascar? What can be healed and how many scars will remain?

Our first impression is already changing as we head east from Antananarivo after a day of heavy rain, to Analamazaotra and Andasibe Mantadia National Parks—the forests of the diademed sifaka and the indri.

Almost as soon as we arrive at Analamazaotra, we chance upon a group of common brown lemurs, a handsome species about the size of a small house cat, with a brown body, long, bushy tail, and a face and crown that are charcoal black. They pass through the canopy of trees just outside the office of the Association Mitsinjo, a non-profit organisation established in 1999, now working on conservation, nature-based tourism, and ecological restoration. We have come there to learn about their work, introduce ourselves, and find a guide who can take us into the forest. The office sits at the edge of a tropical evergreen rainforest about 1,000 metres above sea level, near the village of Andasibe.

Entering the Mitsinjo office, we talk to the president of the association, Jean Noël Ndriamiary. We know little about their work and have had no prior contact. It is a chance meeting, no appointment taken, but Jean Noël is courteous and patient as he describes how Mitsinjo protects and manages the Analamazaotra Forest Station, a 700-hectare tract of forest west of the 810-hectare Analamazaotra Special Reserve. The latter is managed by the Madagascar National Parks authority along with about 15,000 hectares in Mantadia to the north.

Over the last century, the forests were exploited for timber, by the Merina monarchy in pre-colonial days, and more intensively by the French colonial administration after 1896. Mining—for graphite, nickel, and cobalt—and other development activities reduced the forests further and only fragments, such as Andasibe and Mantadia, remain.

Mitsinjo is trying to reverse the degradation by planting native seedlings from its nurseries to restore or reconnect forest fragments, revive animal corridors, and rebuild local livelihoods by involving local people in conservation research, restoration, and nature tourism.


The guide Jean Noël arranges for us, Justin Claude Rakotoarisoa, works with Mitsinjo as a lead research technician in studies on amphibians and other species, and he knows his plants and lemurs well. We step out to watch the common brown lemurs moving through the trees at the forest edge. There are five, although there appear to be others further away. As the lemurs move, they pause occasionally to grasp and pull leafy twigs to their mouths and nibble at the leaves. This species still has a relatively large range in the northern part of Madagascar. It is also among the more fortunate lemur species—in the IUCN Red List, it is still listed as only Near Threatened.

Not all lemurs in Madagascar are that lucky. The astonishing diversity and precarious conservation status of lemurs has only come to light in the last two decades.

Lemurs are a peculiar group of prosimian primates whose closest living relatives are small, nocturnal primates: the galagos or bushbabies that one may see jumping branch to branch in the African bush, the pottos of Central Africa and lorises of Asia—graceful, elusive animals that softly melt away into the dark forests.

In the mid-Nineties, primatologists recognised around 32 lemur species. New discoveries, taxonomic reviews and resurrections have pumped up that list to the present 103 species in five families, an exceptional diversity of primates for any region of the world of
comparable size.

 Madagascar’s bounty of lemurs, with 91 per cent of species threatened, represents the highest concentration of endangered primates in the world. Several species have been the focus of conservation and restoration efforts in Analamazaotra, including two found only in the rainforests in the northeast, which we have come here to see—the diademed sifaka and the indri.

From the balcony of our room in a lodge near Andasibe, in the trees across the river, we see large black-and-white lemurs: indri. It appears to be a mated pair—among primatologists, the indri holds an as yet unassailed reputation for monogamy—with two adolescent offspring from previous years. The dark face, tufted ears, and green eyes give the indri an endearing but other-worldly appearance, like a koala with a black-and-white pelage and piercing gaze. The male, a wedge of white fur on his back, sits on a horizontal branch and swivels his head around scanning the branches. He reaches out to a twig with a flush of new leaves, breaks it off, and munches contentedly. Adult indri thrive on a diet comprised mainly of young leaves, supplemented by fruits and flowers.

Unlike the other lemurs, the indri lacks a long tail. Through binoculars, I see the tail is a rather comical stub, but the long legs folded by the side of the body suggest the dormant power of a coiled spring or catapult. The indri rest for a while after feeding and then begin to move into the forest. The male starts from a sort of hugging crouch on the vertical tree trunk and, with a powerful push of his hind legs, launches himself into the air towards a tree almost ten feet away, turning in mid-air to land vertically, grasping the trunk with his hands.

With hardly a pause he is off again, almost as if he is bouncing or ricocheting from tree to tree. Good tree climbers push with their legs while climbing, not pull with their arms, I recall, but even the best human tree climber cannot leap like the lemur.

The leaps are spectacular, but it is the song that we’re really hoping to hear. The indri’s song is famously loud, reportedly carrying for over a mile. They are modulated long calls of a few minutes duration, part roar and part wail, mixed with plaintive hoots, like a wayward clarinettist improvising in the canopy. Early studies by Jon Pollock and more recent research by scientists from the University of Torino, Italy, and Université de Mahajanga, Madagascar, suggest that the song is complex and may have several functions.

When one or more indri start to sing, they may be voicing their territorial claims or announcing their reproductive status, age and sex to neighbouring groups of indri. They may be calling to bring dispersed members of their group together, or simply responding spontaneously to some other sounds in the area. The calls are heard more often in the morning as one or more individuals in the group call together.

For now, we are denied a performance; the indri move away in a few bounds and all we hear is the soft thump of their landings and the shivering rustle of leaves as they disappear into the forest.


The Analamazaotra Forest Station has 21 to 32 indri in at least seven groups, according to a paper by Randall Junge and colleagues published in 2011. How many are left in the wild in Madagascar remains unknown. The indri populations face multiple threats. Forest loss and fragmentation is the real killer. According to a 2007 study, Madagascar’s forest cover declined in the latter half of the 20th century from around 1,60,000 square kilometres to around 99,000, or less than 17 per cent of the island area.

The 2011 study compared indri in relatively undisturbed forests with individuals living in the forest fragments of Analamazaotra and found that the latter suffered from more parasites, physiological changes such as an elevated immune response possibly due to infection or inflammation, and a two-fold increase in concentrations of minerals such as nickel and cobalt in blood serum, possibly due to mining in the vicinity. In places where the traditional taboo or fady on hunting has faded, indri are hunted for their skins and meat. In some areas, the insidious spread of invasive alien species threatens the future forests of the indri.

In the afternoon, the topic of future forests is on our minds as we enter Analamazaotra with Justin Claude to look at plants and discuss forest restoration. The trail winds through a dense undergrowth of evergreen shrubs in the moderate shade cast by the spreading branches of young trees. As we walk, the rain clouds gather overhead and thunder grumbles in the skies.

In the undergrowth, Divya sees a familiar plant and stops. This looks like tea, she says. The same tea plant, Camellia sinensis, that grows in scrupulous rows on the slopes around our home and research station back in India, drawing the geometric patterns of manicured gardens on the face of mountains. Yes, it is tea: brought to Madagascar to be cultivated, perhaps from its home in Assam in India, or China, or arriving like us, via Kenya.

Yet the tea is cultivated in India, in Asia, with deliberation and purpose—grown on erstwhile forests and grasslands, claiming space and sun to itself, generating leaf as a commodity that will travel as widely as the great travellers of the world. But here, in Madagascar, although the tea was brought to be exploited as crop and commodity, it has slipped the shackles of cultivation and is now spreading on its own. Flourishing as an alien plant, the tea invades the forest under-storey.

Justin Claude talks to us about tea, one of the most desired plants in the planet, in the same breath as he does about Lantana camara, one of the world’s most undesired weeds. We have to remove these invasive plants, he says, before we carry out our restoration of the rainforest with species native to Madagascar. Otherwise, native plants have little chance of establishing.

As Divya photographs me standing neck-deep in a swarm of vigorous tea plants, outnumbering native seedlings in the undergrowth, we begin to better appreciate the concern that tea may affect forest regeneration. Also apparent are the difficulties involved in Mitsinjo’s restoration work: first remove weeds, then prepare sites and plant native seedlings from the nursery, then follow-up with site maintenance and monitoring. And then there is the long wait: for the plants to grow into future forests.

We exchange notes on restoration with Justin Claude, explaining how, in the landscape of the Anamalai hills in India, we restore fragments of rainforest and small strips along streams within extensive tea and coffee plantations, selecting only unplanted or abandoned areas—the blanks on estate maps.

There is a strange and opposing symmetry in this, I reflect. In Analamazaotra, you remove tea from the forests; there in Anamalai, we keep and restore the forests that remain in the midst of tea plantations. We explain that tea is not an invasive species in India, but we still have to uproot Lantana and other redoubtable alien plants on the list of the world’s worst invasives—first freeing native plants from smothering tangles to enable their growth, and then planting other native species that were once part of the rainforest canopy but are now missing.



In the Andasibe-Mantadia landscape, working with government authorities and local people, Mitsinjo is trying to restore around 3,000 hectares of degraded forest and corridors between fragments. For four years beginning in 2006, using seedlings of over 150 native species raised in over two dozen nurseries, Mitsinjo planted a quarter of a million tree seedlings each year to restore about 1,050 hectares of rainforest. Justin Claude tells us that they also work now within forest reserves to restore cyclone-damaged patches. In Malagasy, Mitsinjo’s restoration project is called Tetik’asa Mampody Savoka or “bringing back the forest”. The word mitsinjo itself, which means to look ahead, envisage the future, seems most apt.

Early the next morning, we head to Mantadia National Park on the narrow 20-kilometre road built for the operations of the graphite mine. On the slopes, forest vegetation lines the ravines and ridges. Freshly cleared and burnt tavy fields appear as stark, black trapeziums set in a mosaic of green hues representing fallows in various stages of re-growth—growing until they reach a stage when the Malagasy farmers can cut the vegetation again, burn the dry slash to enrich the soil with organic matter and nutrients, and begin their next cycle of cultivation.

From the road, Justin Claude points to sites smothered by weedy tangles and adjoining areas where Mitsinjo carried out restoration work and plantings a few years ago. In the latter, we see rainforest tree saplings emerging above the under-storey and beginning to spread their branches. Our thoughts go to a similar restoration site in the Anamalai hills in India and the knee-high seedlings we planted there a decade ago. Some are now small rainforest trees over 20 feet tall and flowering. The rough bark of one even carries the scratch marks of a resident leopard.

Standing at the forest edge, mulling over the tavy and fallows on the cultivated slopes and the tea and forests in the restoration sites, it seems to me the same principle of revival is at work on either side. One uses and directs the process of natural re-growth and soil replenishment to grow crops in repeated cycles, the other uses and assists the process of natural recovery to grow forests in the long term. With sun and rain and replenished soil, or weed-free patches of native earth, plants can grow and establish themselves again, standing testimony to the enduring potential of the land for recovery.

Yet, creating the conditions for recovery requires considerable human effort and involvement.

Is it right to be so anthropomorphic about land? Why describe land like the body of a person, as gouged and wounded, as scarred and healing, or as suffering losses and carrying memories?

Such a perspective can be misleading. Since colonial times, visitors to Madagascar have noted the scars on the landscape and the fires of the slash-and-burn tavy fields, often linking the two and thereby implicating Malagasy people as the primary agents of land degradation. Anthropologists such as Gillian Feeley-Harnik of the University of Michigan have questioned the depiction of Madagascar as a “wounded body bleeding into the sea”, with “raw wounds” caused ostensibly “by its human inhabitants”.

Suggesting that such graphic descriptions blind us to the island’s ecological history and realities, Feeley-Harnik and other social scientists and ecological historians such as Lucy Jarosz, Christian Kull and Joe Peters propose a more nuanced view of landscape change, especially loss of forest cover and soil erosion. In their view, colonial capitalism and changes in land tenure, the expansion of cultivation of coffee and other export crops, the logging of forests for timber and for railroads, political instability and growing indebtedness, all influenced forest loss in Madagascar.

As for the obvious erosion gullies, studies by geologists and soil scientists—including Neil Wells, Benjamin Andriamihaja and others—indicate that human disturbances may account for less than one-fourth of the gullies. Erosion gullies existed even before human occupation and may signify a natural feature of the island and its evolving geomorphology.

Yet the tendency to anthropomorphise land and landscape is compelling. Aldo Leopold, ecologist and advocate of the American wilderness and an early exponent and practitioner of ecological restoration, spoke of land as an organism, describing conservation problems such as soil erosion and species extinctions as “symptoms of land sickness” or “ailments of the land”. In his classic book, A Sand County Almanac, he wrote, “In general, the trend of the evidence indicates that in land, just as in the human body, the symptoms may lie in one organ and the cause in another. The practices we now call conservation are, to a large extent, local alleviations of biotic pain.”

It is from such a perspective that Leopold issued his call for an ethic, a land ethic, where humans are not conquerors of the land-as-commodity but are citizens of the land-as-community. The anthropomorphic perspective is then a device—a visceral one perhaps—which enables us to connect to land, to belong to it, and recognise that, as human beings embedded within it, we can creatively work for its renewal, for healing.

As a heuristic or metaphorical device, it provokes a response consistent with rational, yet deeper, even spiritual and moral, perceptions. People are viewed not merely as agents of land destruction, they are potential participants in its recovery. It is the “process of assisting the recovery” of degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems that defines ecological restoration.


In the 1970s, hunting and forest loss drove two species of lemurs to local extinction in Analamazaotra-Andasibe: the diademed sifaka and the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur. For more than a quarter century both species were absent here. Today, both are staging a comeback, Justin Claude tells us, thanks to a reintroduction project. Lemur troops were selected from other forest fragments in the same region, including from near Mantadia, which were threatened by encroachment, mining, and agriculture, then caught as family units and translocated to Analamazaotra-Andasibe.

In 2006 and 2007, under a collaboration called the Madagascar Biodiversity and Biogeography Project of Henry Doorly Zoo and Madagascar National Parks—and with the blessings of Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Tourism—the reintroduction project brought and released 27 diademed sifakas and seven black-and-white ruffed lemurs. Now, they have settled down and are even breeding; by 2009, two pairs of twins of black-and-white ruffed lemurs and seven diademed sifakas had been born.

There have been only a handful of attempts to relocate or reintroduce lemurs in the wild in Madagascar. In one earlier effort, 13 black-and-white ruffed lemurs bred in captivity in Western zoos were released into Betampona forest in eastern Madagascar to augment an existing wild population. In another, the entire population of 28 collared lemurs were moved out of a forest destroyed by burning for charcoal to a new protected forest site at Sainte Luce in southeastern Madagascar. The lemur reintroduction project in the Analamazaotra forest was the first effort that brought wild lemurs back into an area of their former distribution in Madagascar. As the released individuals are now foraging on their own and breeding in the wild, the reintroduction appears to be a success.

We often see diademed sifaka around here, says Justin Claude, stepping into the forest to search for them. A few minutes later he returns and leads us a short distance into the forest. Sitting on the ground and in the low branches, we see our first troop—elegant black-faced lemurs with grey, white, and orange fur. There are several adults and one juvenile, a few in low branches of trees or clinging to the main stem, some on the ground, half-hidden in the dense vegetation, just a few metres from us.

We walk softly and talk in whispers but the sifakas are clearly habituated to human presence. The adults are perhaps released individuals, the focus of research and monitoring before and after the reintroduction: one still wears a radio-collar.

The sifakas seem to disregard us. One is draped languidly on a branch, pulling some leaves from a climber cursorily to his mouth. Three others on the ground, including the mother and juvenile, search intently in the leaf litter beneath the shrubs, poke their faces and noses down to the forest floor, probe with their hands. They pull out something, put it in their mouths and eat it with audible soft crunches.

They are eating the fruits of the tea plant, says Justin Claude. As we watch, the sifakas eat one fruit after another, apparently destroying the enclosed seed in the process. Even the juvenile sifaka follows the mother's example. By eating the fruits and seeds, will the sifakas be able to control the spread of the invasive tea, we ask, and receive only a smile for an answer as if to say, one wishes it would happen—it would make the job of conservation, of restoration, easier.

Although the population of reintroduced sifakas is increasing, there are as yet too few sifakas and too much tea.


It is time for us to leave. As the grey film of dusk descends, my thoughts go back to the diademed sifaka foraging in the Andasibe forest. A forest where alien plants flourish even as native lemurs slowly regain their footing. Then, I marvel at the irony of the young of an endangered lemur, once extinct in this area, now eating the seed of an invading plant that never existed here before.

On the trail again with Justin Claude, we pass a nursery with rows of neatly-stacked plastic covers filled with moistened soil, out of which emerge leafy seedlings intended for the future forests. We walk through a young forest lacking large trees, a forest recovering from the effects of logging or other past disturbances, from a history we do not fully understand. This is what is here, now, I think, but what precisely was at this spot, or what will be may remain unknown and unknowable.

The haunting, clarion, wail-song of the indri begins with a few harsh notes, short guttural roars which give way to long and shrill howls. I close my eyes  and listen in rapture to the song of the indri flowing through the forest, through me. The forest and the indri meld in song.

This bothers me, at first and, when I ask myself why we need to know so precisely, I have no firm answer. After all, even successful restoration creates only ecosystems bearing a resemblance—differing in degree of similarity in habitat structure or composition of species mix—to the original ecosystem. Time, itself, changes everything: in the future, the wider environment in which the forest is embedded is likely to be different from what it is now, or what it was, earlier. And what do we take to be the original ecosystem—as benchmark for restoration?

If pristine areas that can serve as a benchmark are unavailable, impossible to identify, or infeasible to adopt as reference ecosystems, what should we do? Some restoration ecologists such as Richard Hobbs have even proposed embracing the concept of 'novel ecosystems'. These are new, human-modified ecosystems that retain native species from the original mix, but may include an unpredictable mix of other, possibly benign, native and alien species. They make no claim of being pristine, but because they retain more species and many types of natural and man-made vegetation, they may be superior in conservation value to heavily degraded areas, single-species plantations, or weed-infested abandoned lands.

Under the steady rhythm of our walk on the trail, to the soft rustle of leaves underfoot, I lapse inward, reflecting on the limitations of ecological restoration in the absence of perfect knowledge. It helps, I think, to know the ecological history of the place, assess its present condition, and make informed projections into the future in order to anticipate, to act. But not knowing the specific trees that stood here, the specific lemur that leapt on its boughs, the exact mix of microbe and fungus and plant and animal within the ecosystem, is not so much a great failure as a continued opportunity for new knowledge.

There is value in the imperfection, in the incompleteness, in the imprecision of knowledge. Knowing what we know keeps us within the rational domain of science—the predictable patterns of nature, the achievable results of restoration. It keeps us within the realm of the observable phenomenon. Yet, knowing there are things we may never reasonably know, does it not prepare us for the unpredictable—the surprises of novel ecosystems, the vicissitudes of land and lemurs, the uncertain forests of the future? It casts us into a more intangible domain of humility. It takes us into the transcendental realm of the noumenon, the thing as it is in itself.

It is then that my reverie is interrupted by the sound, the haunting, clarion, wail-song of the indri. It begins with a few harsh notes, short guttural roars which give way to long and shrill howls. The first individual is joined by another in a resounding duet that lasts several long minutes. The song of the indri is loud, very loud, audible for perhaps more than two kilometres and we are less than a hundred metres away. We stop for a while, listening. The forest resounds with klaxon hoots, reverberates with melancholy wails. Our visual world is now overwhelmed by sound.

I close my eyes for a few moments and listen in rapture to the song of the indri flowing through the forest, through me. The forest and the indri meld in song. It may be pure expression of territory or pair-bond, of identity or cohesion, surprise or spontaneity, but if we consider what we still do not know about the indri's song, what we may never know, it may be the purest noumenon of Analamazaotra, the forest of the indri.