Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Madagascar (Part Three)

The Indri (Indri indri)

Early settlers were – perhaps understandably – uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing the island with primates the size of gorillas, and upheld new-settler tradition by systematically slaughtering them all. As a result of this attrition, the indri is now the largest lemur on Madagascar.

The creature’s name comes from one of those pleasing misunderstandings which show that naturalists can be just as reassuringly dim as the rest of us. In this case it was Frenchman Pierre Sonnerat who failed to spot that, in the native Malagasy language, ‘indri’ just means ‘there it is’. You’d have thought M. Sonnerat might have overheard the phrase before in other incidents involving shouting and pointing, but perhaps he had other things on his mind.

The correct local name for the indri is babakoto, which translates as ‘ancestor’. Indri have traditionally been protected by taboos, or fady, because of their perceived resemblance to the sacred forebears of the Malagasy.

It’s the indri’s human-like behaviour, including a predilection for early-morning sunbathing – eyes closed, legs crossed, plams of the hands offered to the sunshine – and a complex system of communication calls involving roars and wails with a range of up to two kilometres, that backs up this resemblance.

It may sound as if the indri has a pretty easy time of it compared with some of its compatriots, but of course it’s not as simple as that. There’s not much consistency across the island when it comes to belief systems, and the fady which supposedly protect the indri vary widely from one area to another. In one location it may be taboo to eat an indri, but not to catch one and sell it to someone whose beliefs allow them to put in the pot.

In almost every case Madagascar’s endangered species are victims of agricultural policy. The slash-and-burn techniques, which give temporary viability to poor soil, reduce natural habitat by destroying forests and expose the soil to erosion, damaging hillsides and silting up lakes.

With its natural habitat in decline, Madagascar’s wildlife is increasingly forced into unwelcome contact with humans. As in most other parts of the world, this is almost entirely disastrous for the animals.

Imagine the scene. A Malagasy peasant – possibly the same one who shot the jumping rat earlier, possibly not – is trudging home after a long day, tired, hungry and starting to become a little unnerved by the forest’s lengthening shadows. There might be evil spirits in these parts, or so his granddad used to say.

And then he sees it, clinging to a tree in front of him, picked out by the beam of his torch. It’s a creature so weird and unnatural that he lets out a scream of terror. Then he feels silly. He looks again. The animal is regarding him with malice and a hint of mischief from enormous eves. Then, as he stands transfixed, the creature raises a long middle finger and flips him the bird.

Coming next - the Aye-Aye