Seeking the world's strangest primate on a tropical island paradise

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
April 17, 2005

In Search of the Aye-aye
September 7, 2005 [updated]

The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). Photo copyright David Haring of the Duke University Primate Center

Madagascar has been called the "land that time forgot" for its collection of unique and often downright bizarre plants and animals. Around 75% of the species on the island are found nowhere else on Earth, putting Madagascar atop the list among the world's most biologically diverse countries. Madagascar is famous for its lemurs, a group of primates endemic to the island.

Among these lemurs is one of the planet's strangest beasts, the aye-aye. This nocturnal and reclusive lemur looks like it has been assembled from a variety of animals. The aye-aye resembles a large house cat but with the face of a ferret or weasel, bat-like ears capable of rotating independently, teeth that grow constantly like those of a rodent, piercing green eyes, and black hands featuring a bony middle finger reminiscent of a dead twig. The aye-aye uses this finger for locating insect larvae that lurk deep inside tree bark, seeds, and fruit. As it climbs along a tree branch, the aye-aye taps the bark while listening for cavities in the wood. When it hears something potentially appetizing beneath the surface, the aye-aye gnaws away at the wood in search of its prize. Studies suggest that the aye-aye is capable of sensing insect movement at a depth of 12 feet.

The aye-aye's biology is so strange that scientists did not know what to make of the animal when it was described in 1782. Scientists first classified the aye-aye as rodent before realizing that it was just a really peculiar lemur that deserved its own family, Daubentoniidae. In the past, there was a second, larger species of aye-aye. But this species, like more than dozen other species of large lemurs, went extinct after the arrival of humans in Madagascar less than 2000 years ago.

Befriending an Aye-aye
Gerald Durrell's encounter

The late Gerald Durrell, a prominent naturalist, had an amazing first encounter with the aye-aye. He describes his experience in his book The Aye-aye and I, "Then, to my alarm, it discovered my ear. 'Here' is seemed to say to itself, 'must lurk a beetle larva of royal proportions and of the utmost succulence.' It fondled my ear as a gourmet fondles a menu and then, with great care, it inserted its thin fingers. I resigned myself to deafness -- move over, Beethoven, I said to myself, here I come. To my astonishment, I could hardly feel the finger as it searched my ear like a radar probe for hidden delicacies. Finding my ear bereft of tasty and fragrant grubs, it uttered another faint 'humph' of annoyance and climbed up into the branches again."

The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). Photo copyright David Haring of the Duke University Primate Center
Today, like many of Madagascar's species, the aye-aye is at high risk of going extinct. Habitat loss, combined with persecution by locals as an omen of bad luck (see box) has decimated aye-aye populations across Madagascar. In an effort to stave off its demise, in 1966, six animals were moved to Nosy Mangabe Special Reserve, an island lying about 2 km off the coast of Maroantsetra in northeastern Madagascar in the Bay of Antongil. The ecologists hoped to establish a breeding population of aye-ayes before the species disappeared from the mainland. It has since been found that aye-aye have a wider distribution than initially believed.

In late October 2004, I traveled to Nosy Mangabe, which is one of the best places to see wild aye-aye today. The island, forested with tropical rainforest and having a rich history involving 17th century pirates, lies close enough to the town of Maroantsetra for a day trip, though an night-time stay is crucial if you hope to see the aye-aye. There are no lodging facilities on the island for visitors (a small research station is available for visiting scientists), but there are several covered platforms where you can pitch tents as well as restrooms and showers.

This was not my first visit to this island nor my first attempt to see the aye-aye. During my 1997 trip, I spotted a pair of aye-aye along the beach of Nosy Mangabe as well as enjoying a rare sighting of a mother with baby along a road outside Andasibe park -- we nearly ran over them as we motored back to our lodge on a cold August night. Both sightings proved to be remarkable experiences.

Nosy Mangabe

[top] Nosy Mangabe seen from the beach near Maroantsetra; [middle] Beach on Nosy Mangabe; [bottom] Map of Nosy Mangabe Photos copyright Rhett Butler.
I arrive on Nosy Mangabe following a few of days on the Masoala Peninsula. The Masoala has Madagascar's largest protected tract of rainforest and accordingly, some the highest diversity of species on Earth. It is a beautiful area; the forest extending down to the long white sand beaches, and just offshore lie coral reefs and breeding grounds for humpback whales.

After setting up our tents, we spent the afternoon exploring Nosy Mangabe and observing some of the island's other wildlife. In addition to the nocturnal aye-aye, other lemurs on the island include the black-and-white ruffed lemur and the white-fronted brown lemur -- both of which are active during the day. Black-and-white lemurs are also found on the mainland of Madagascar, as far south as Ranomafana National Park. Strangely, despite the island's proximity to the Masoala peninsula, black-and-white lemurs are not found there. Instead they are replaced with the red ruffed lemur, a closely related, but genetically distinct lemur with dark red fur. Like the aye-aye, some mystery surrounds the black-and-white ruffed lemurs of Nosy Mangabe. No one is sure how long these lemurs have been on the island. Some believe they were introduced in the 1930s, but others point to reports from British indicating their presence as far back as the 17th century.

The forests of Nosy Mangabe are home to a spectacular array of other animals including divergent geckos, color-shifting chameleons, brightly-hued frogs, and a multitude of insects. Among the best-known of the island's creatures is the Uroplatus gecko, an animal so well-camouflaged that it disappears against the trunks of trees. It is difficult to believe that this cryptic lizard is in the same family as the neon green day geckos found on nearby palm trees around the island. Due to their remarkable characteristics, both these animals are highly sought in the pet trade. Overzealous collecting for the international reptile market has significantly reduced populations of some "herp" (reptile and amphibian) species in Madagascar. My local guide Armand comments that in the past, he has seen locals collecting reptiles and amphibians from Nosy Mangabe and protected areas on the Masoala peninsula.

More pictures from Nosy Mangabe

Eco-tourism in Madagascar

Armand has been a guide in the Masoala region for over ten years -- before the peninsula was even designated as a national park. Over the years he has led dozens of dignitaries and world-renowned scientists through the rainforests and coral reefs of Masoala. Guiding is a well respected and well-paid occupation in Madagascar and for good reason -- ecotourism is one of the great hopes for the economic development of the country.

In Madagascar you are required to have a local guide when you enter a protected areas. This is to ensure both your safety and enjoyment of the surroundings as well as to provide employment opportunities for local people. Because the country is very poor, conservation efforts have a direct impact on local people who would otherwise use natural areas as a resource base for their everyday livelihood. As Masoala - The Eye of the Forest puts it "Everyone who lives on the Masoala peninsula lives directly from the use of natural resources. Almost no one at Masoala has the option, let alone the means, to become a lawyer, doctor, journalist, pilot, bus-driver, secretary, mechanic or librarian, let alone to aspire to a leisurely retirement. Average life expectancy in Madagascar is about 56 years. Everyone's survival strategy is therefore centered in one way or another around natural resource use." Therefore, providing economic incentives for local people is a key to making conservation successful in Madagascar. Ecotourism may be the best way for local people to directly benefit from protected areas while maintaining protection.

Ecotourism is indeed growing in Madagascar. According to the Bradt guide to Madagascar around 50% of visitors to the country now visit a protected area when they visit the country (up from 20% in 1995). Responsibly managed ecotourism can generate substantial amounts of revenue and employ large numbers of local people without causing significant environmental damage. And because ecotourists pay to see a country's natural beauty, local people are motivated to conserve the environment around them. Ecotourism can help assign value to an ecosystem and most ecotourists are willing to pay directly for preservation in the form of park entrance fees and the hiring of local guides.

In Madagascar, local communities benefit directly from ecotourism through their 50% share of park entrance fees (park entry fees are divided equally between the national parks service, ANGAP, and local communities), sales of handicrafts and "tourist items," and employment as porters, wildlife guides, park rangers, workers in the service force of hotels, restaurants and lodges. The guide training programs implemented by ANGAP helps the local community as a whole through the education of its members. With an education and a understanding of multiple languages, the future holds increased opportunities for Malagasy children.

Education also helps conservation efforts in a region where there is often a lack of communication with outlying communities. In the early days of Masoala, people in these remote areas did not know what they could and could not do within the boundaries of the park. Lemur hunting, illegal tree felling, and other activities continued not necessarily out of malice towards the park but as a result of ignorance. Today, park managers rely on radio broadcasts to reach outer communities to explain regulations concerning the park as well as convey both the importance and uniqueness of the Masoala. With an understanding that the wildlife around them is found only in their backyard and that foreigners are willing to pay unimaginable sums of money and travel incredible distances just to see these creatures, locals are instilled with a sense of pride in their native fauna. The realization of the economic potential of their surroundings helps cement the importance of maintaining a healthy forest.

In search of the aye-aye

Back on Nosy Mangabe, Armand and I enjoy our evening meal of rice -- the Malagasy staple food -- and locally-caught fish. As night falls the forest comes alive with the high-pitched squeaks of tiny mouse lemurs and the metallic drone of cicadas. We set out through the forest. It is warm and quite humid. There are few insects and again I have left the insect repellant behind knowing that it won't be needed in the forest; the mosquitoes are few and far between this time of year. As we heads towards the aye-aye-frequented areas, we see a number of frogs and Uroplatus geckos, which are now active and have no use for their camouflage as they hunt insects.

We visit a tree on the beach which is a favorite hunting ground for the aye-aye. Peering up into the tree with our head lamps, we look for the characteristic yellow eye-shine of the aye-aye. Lots of mouse lemurs dashing about, but no aye-aye, so we head back up into the forest to another tree where the aye-aye has been active recently. We know this, because earlier in the day Armand pointed out recently gnawed fruit on the ground below the tree.

When beetles attack!
Longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae) in Madagascar
We're climbing over some tree roots when we hear a loud buzzing sound almost like a distant helicopter. The vibration is followed by a "whump!" noise. Armand stops and turns with a puzzled look on his face. Another "Bzzzzz .... whump!" and Armand is suddenly hopping around shaking his leg furiously trying to dislodge a giant beetle that has attached itself to his bare skin. He reaches down an plucks the beetle off his knee rubbing the affected area. "Bzzz... whump! Bzzz ... whump! Bzzz ... whump!" There is a frenzy of colossal beetle activity. Then one lands directly on my face, its barbed legs digging into the skin around my check bone. Armand's mouth is agape as I hand him my camera and say "Quick, take a picture" but alas the beetle takes flight as he shoots. As quickly as the excitement began, it is over as the beetles disappear into the night.

We wait under the aye-aye tree. After about an hour as Armand is gently snoring -- he's still behind on sleep after an all-night funeral from a few days prior and our marathon night hikes and early mornings -- I hear the sound of falling fruit. I quietly get up and look for the aye-aye through a pair of night vision binoculars. I can't see any movement in the tree top. Armand wakes himself up with a loud snore a few minutes later and concludes the aye-aye is not coming tonight; we should head back. He's not convinced of my falling fruit claim.

Early the following morning we return to the aye-aye tree. On the way, we look up at some aye-aye nests for evidence of recent activity; the aye-aye will repair its nest every morning and an active nest will have fresh green leaves. We spot a nest with green leaves.

When beetles attack!
Longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae) in Madagascar

Upon reaching the tree we find dozens of freshly chewed fruit remains -- the aye-aye was there last night. Armand says that a group of researchers tranquilized the animals two weeks ago and they have been shy since. It is possible that I spooked the aye-aye when I stood last night and that it then waited for us to leave. So close to seeing Madagascar's strangest animal--but now I have another reason to return to the world's most interesting wildlife destination -- the island that time forgot, Madagascar.

Other things to do in the area:
  • Whale-watching: the Bay of Antongil supports a large population of humpback whales. US-based nonprofit, the Wildlife Conservation Society, runs a research center on Nosy Mangabe and is currently working on the development of an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan for the bay. The best time to see the whales is July through September.
  • Masoala: Between its long white sand beaches, coral reefs, and primary rainforest, the Masoala peninsula is a spectacular place to visit. Expeditions can be arranged through outfits based in Maroantsetra although Cortez Travel can set something up from the States. The Masoala is only accessible via boat.
  • Maroantsetra: Maroantsetra is the starting point for trips to the Masoala and Nosy Mangabe. It's a pleasant Malagasy town that is increasingly reliant upon ecotourism as a source of revenue. Maroantsetra and the surrounding area is a good place to buy vanilla beans.

    Other places to visit in Madagascar:
    Travel in Madagascar promises to be an interesting experience. Madagascar's wildlife is among the best in the world in terms of diversity, abundance, and approachability and travel to Madagascar for this purpose is most rewarding. Madagascar also offers spectacular landscapes, an unusual history, and a countryside full of generally friendly and wonderful people.

    For more ideas on Madagascar take a look at Visiting Madagascar: Where to go and what to do on my WildMadagascar.org site.

    Why the aye-aye is a target

    Madagascar is a land filled with superstition, magic and taboos -- known as fady -- which vary from place to place. A widely held belief on the island is that the aye-aye is a magical beast whose mere presence spells death for a member of the community. Whenever an aye-aye is found it is immediately killed; a tradition when coupled with habitat destruction has left aye-aye populations in a precarious state. Only time will tell whether this practice can be broken and the aye-aye can continue to persist in Madagascar.

    Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (April 17, 2005).

    Seeking the world's strangest primate on a tropical island paradise.