There is nothing dangerous or threatening in Madagascar. On mainland African safaris you have to stay in a vehicle, because lions will eat you and hippos will trample you and rhinos and buffalo will charge. In Madagascar, the animals will only look at you with wide-eyed wonder. In most of Africa there are poisonous snakes and frightening scorpions, but in Madagascar there is nothing venomous. The Malagasy are the nicest people in the world, thrilled that you have come so far to visit. You go there for the lemurs, the island’s odd primates, who are shy and mild but untroubled by your visit, and the people are the same. There’s something miniature and unspoiled about life in Madagascar.
The world’s fourth-largest island is another Galápagos, called by some ecologists "the eighth continent." It broke off from Africa’s eastern coast some 160 million years ago and developed in isolation; 80 percent of Malagasy plants and animals are endemic, and it rivals Brazil in its biodiversity. The bizarre flora and fauna seem to be the result of a mad collaboration among Dr. Seuss, Jim Henson, and God. Humans have been here for only 2,000 years, and though they have eliminated some species, they haven’t dominated nature; there’s simply too much of it and too few of them. The biologists who work in Madagascar are passionately devoted. Alison Richard, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge (the de facto university president; Prince Philip is chancellor), goes every year to sustain her lemur research despite being the busiest person in England. Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, found time when not administering one of the world’s largest conservation organizations to write Lemurs of Madagascar, and he visits every few months.
A friend with whom I was traveling had been in touch with Russ, and he escorted us our first day, supplementing the excellent advice from the staff at Explore, Inc., the friendly and very capable Colorado-based safari company that arranged our trip. We flew from Antananarivo, the capital—known for short as Tana—to Diégo-Suarez, at the northern tip of the island, and checked into the nearby Domaine de Fontenay, a simple but lovely hotel run by a couple who do the superb cooking themselves. Russ took us for a walk in Montagne d’Ambre National Park, and we saw a number of Sanford’s lemurs. Russ has introduced the bird-watching idea of making a primate life list, and got us interested in cataloguing the species we saw; by the end of the trip, we were up to 22 kinds of lemurs. I had not expected to get excited about lizards, but Russ helped find a Brookesia minima chameleon, one of the smallest vertebrates on earth, which lives only on Madagascar and does not survive well in captivity. It was perfectly formed and less than an inch long, including its tail. It could (and did) perch on the tip of my thumb very comfortably, with room to strut up and down. Then we saw other chameleons of various shapes and sizes and colors, and Russ was very game about picking them up; they wandered up and down our arms and legs—the biggest was 16 inches long. They were amazing colors, with tails that rolled up like fiddlehead ferns.
That night, using flashlights, we went for a walk through a private reserve attached to the hotel. We saw nocturnal sportive and mouse and dwarf lemurs whose eyes glow back when you shine a beam at them, like reflective strips at the edges of roads, and we saw all kinds of geckos and chameleons, including the leaf-tailed gecko, whose huge tail resembles a mottled brown frond. We saw a moth that looked like a sample of Florentine paper, and another that seemed to be made of translucent moiré. The area had not been explored much by night, and there were astonishing variants of known lizards. Russ showed us what made them distinct and proposed that one was a new species and that we were the first to record it. I felt like Darwin. Madagascar has so many creatures that don’t exist elsewhere that it’s hard to keep track, especially because parts of the island are only semi-explored. New species are found regularly, and some that were supposed extinct have been rediscovered. "The taxonomy of dwarf lemurs is a disgraceful mess," Russ said.