Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Madagascar (Part Two)

Thanks to gentle nudging from a man in Iowa, here's the fossa...

The Fossa
(Cryptoprocta ferox)

Despite looking like a cross between a dog and a puma, fossa are actually members of the viverrid family – a group which includes the mongoose. They’re efficient predators, and aren’t at all fussy about their diet. Fossa will happily dine on insects, reptiles and rodents, and are agile enough to take to the trees to go after lemurs.

Near villages, fossa will also prey on chickens and other domestic animals, and as a result are hunted as vermin. In Malagasy folklore it is often claimed that fossa will attack cattle or even humans, but this seems unlikely. They do, however, have a reputation for unpredictability – there are stories of fossa wandering fearlessly into field camps, ransacking unoccupied tents, chewing boots and eating the soap.

It seems likely, however, that the real reason the animals are unpopular with the Malagasy is that fossa have great sex and people are just jealous. Firstly, the unrepentantly shameless females will sometimes mate with up to eight males a day, and both males and females are pretty enthusiastic.

Naturalist Nick Garbutt writes: “Copulation is noisy, with both sexes purring, snorting and shrieking, and, if uninterrupted by other males, can last several hours.” More often than not they do it in the branches of a tree, which is really just showing off. Fossa cubs stay with their mothers for around twelve months, meaning that females mate only every other year, which explains their joyous promiscuity when they finally get the chance.

Madagascar has a long history of interference from the outside world – the Arabs established trading posts as far back as the 7th century, the first European contact came in the 1500s in the shape of the Portuguese, and the island didn’t gain full independence from France until 1960.

Despite this, Madagascar’s indigenous culture has proved fairly robust and over half the Malagasy still practice traditional religious customs – the rest of the population are mainly Christian, with Moslems making up around ten per cent of the total.

Traditional religion in Madagascar emphasises links between the living and the dead. During the ceremony of ‘turning the dead’ - famadihana in the local language – the bodies of deceased relatives are taken out of their tombs, dressed up in nice new shrouds and carried around over the heads of the crowd for a while with much singing and dancing before they’re put back. Of the Christian clergy, the dour and repressed Protestants condemn the practice, while the Catholics, being fond of a good party, will often join in.

The Malagasy believe that their ancestors are deeply concerned with the activities of their decendants. They also, apparently, believe that their ancestors were covered in thick black fur with round, tufted prominent ears, yellow-green eyes and a bemused expression.

Next - the Indri