Searching for mammals of any kind in the tropical rainforest is problematic—it’s dark, shadowy, and the creatures you are usually after are agile, camouflaged, and skilled at not being seen as they slip away silently. Malagasy rainforests are no different in many respects, but one—lemurs are often as curious as shy. You are just as likely to bump into a lemur that approaches you as one that will spring away across the tree tops. Today we got lucky, really lucky! Red-bellied lemurs that seemed as fascinated by us, for a few minutes, as we were by them. The two photos above are the result. Created at ISO 400, f/4 at 1/100th sec. with a 200mm.
The above Diadem Sifakas photos are representative of the difficulty and reward of photographing very mobile arboreal mammals in the tropical rainforest. The first photo illustrates the typical view one gets—Diadems feed at the very top of the highest trees and offer little to work with without incredible patience. The next two photos were created at ISO 320, at 200mm. Photo #1 at 1/100th sec. at f/3.5, the photo #2 at 1/100th at f/2.8 The last is one worth emailing home about. These opportunities came after over two hours of slipping and sliding along muddy hillside trails before we finally caught a break and got up slope from the Sifakas and they obliged by leaping down from their leaf-eating tree-top perches.
The detail from the under-story of the rainforest in Mantadia National Park can be compared to the larger landscape from Nosy Mangabe (island) rainforest created a couple days ago. To create rainforest images that have texture and depth it’s critical to insure layers of green, as well as shapes and textures that the viewers understand to mean rainforest.
Heading out of the rainforest can be a bit of a shock to the visual senses. The rainforests of the world are under tremendous pressure by the poor who continually chew away at these spectacular treasures of biological diversity. On the island of Madagascar it isn’t any different. These last couple of images were from the new peasant farms cleared into the edge of the park boundary at Mantadia and of a young woman with her banana harvest from one of these clearings.
The roads that snake through the reserve
After an hour of patience and constant following their treetop leapings the Indris finally gave one small low level look. The opportunity was only about 90 seconds long, but the black and white Indris were finally against forest instead of cloudy sky.
Nosy Mangabe (Nosy means island in Malagasy) is a small rounded triangular lump nestled deep in the heart of Baie D’ Antongil (Bay of Antongil) on the northeast coast of Madagascar. Protected by law and the sea from the forest clearing that has plagued so much of the coastal tropical rainforest, it has become a favorite for visitors hoping to discover a vision of what wet tropical Madagascar once looked like. Several species of lemurs live on the island including the bizarre nocturnal Aye-aye (pronounced eye-eye), as well as chameleons and the cryptic leaf-tailed gecko Uroplatus—a lizard with no clear head or tail.
Unfortunately all those wonderful photo opportunities are a 30 minute boat ride away and like so often can happen in the coastal wet tropics, torrential and wind have swept in and I can only stare across the bay at a faint image of Nosy Mangabe in the grey. Not worth the risk of damaging all the gear with virtually no chance of photographing anything in this downpour. So we wait—a key reason to have the laptop loaded with a copy of PhotoSHop CS2… a chance to catch up on getting photos ready for this blog and other projects. In the wet tropics always come prepared to have rain down time, eventually you will clean all the gear and have time on your hands.
After a few hours the captain gives us the word and we sail for Nosy Mangabe; half hour trip is nearly an hour of rough water—I ALWAYS pack all gear in ziplocks when taxiing by water—water over the bow drenches everything. My main objective is general rainforest images and a few new photos of Uroplatus; lemurs on the island are pretty wild and fleeting, better opportunities elsewhere for the same species.
Nosy Mangabe is famous for these amazing lizards that they even have a trail called Uroplatus trail…
Note of Caution:
Not everyone selling wildlife products like their picture taken. I have found this especially true in Asian markets. Most people hocking animals and animal products tend to know what they are doing and know it is illegal or at least shady at best. As a consequence if you are planning of photographing situations like this travel in with another person. Look around a bit first, don’t just bee-line it for the stuffed animal or product. Have the other person notice the animal product first, so it seems more natural they would want their picture taken next to it as a curio.
I prefer using wide angle lenses for three reasons:
1) wide angles are smaller lenses, they look less alarming and professional,
2) they render a wide sweep which allows me to look as though I’m not solely focusing on the animal subject, and
3) they allow shooting at a lower hand-held speed, which is often necessary in dimly lit market stalls.
Over and over I found myself turning the camera towards the people. The following images are from a variety of daily scenes – most created with the 14mm. To do so requires engaging with people—such a wide lens does not allow you to stand back and abstractly peer into people’s lives. This lens was a challenge at first but the opportunity it presents has forced me to challenge my own hesitations. The Bara, like most Malagasy people, are warm and inviting and delight in having the camera and attention directed their way. And you will win over hearts and minds if after a few shots you flip the camera around and share your photos with your subjects. In the case of the Bara kids it spurred excitement, laughter and opened even more opportunities.
One photo to take note of is the little Bara girl looking up at the photographer. This was created, as many others in this blog such as the Bara and Zebu cart, although less apparent, by a technique I have devoted a fair amount of energy to developing over the past eight years—using the 14mm and wider lenses held away from my body. At first the results were poor, but the potential was obvious and I kept working at it. With digital it’s great—what you don’t like you dump—I started on film and it was costly in the beginning. What the effort delivered was an ability to shoot, with confidence, a camera extended away from my eye, held at odd angles and returning spontaneous photos that could not have been accomplished any other way. In the case of the little Bara girl the photo was created when after a couple of standard photos I squatted and showed her an image of herself in the display on the camera’s back—as I stood up she was looking for more, as she looked up and I had her attention by speaking to her, I dropped the camera along my side and tilted up and caught this wanting look.
In the case of the Bara zebu cart I was literally running backwards down the road as the boys encouraged the zebu to race faster in an attempt to run me down—with camera held down around my knees I photographed back-pedaling for my life… being mindful of the zebu’s shadows to complete the composition.
Tonight walking back from dinner in the lodge I happen to glance up at the full moon to discover a partial lunar eclipse in progress. It was news to everyone and we soon had a small crowd staring into the firmament. The following was created at 600mm with and exposure set at ISO 100, f/5.6 at 1/160th second. This is a basic exposure under most condition for the moon to render surface detail.
Buried in the sand dunes at the end of a mangrove encrusted spit it was one of the harshest living conditions one can imagine. All around the world people decide to eke out a survival in the oddest places—but thatched stick houses buried in constantly shifting dunal sands seems crazy. The Vezo people seem consumed by one thing—sailing into the Mozambique Channel and catching the next days fish.
This afternoon the wind was racing – blowing fine beach sand in everything – making photography a nightmare – changing lenses totally out the question, so I concentrated on a wide perspective—one camera body with the 14mm superwide. Inside my shirt was the camera’s only safe haven between photos. This is one of those places where you need at least a week, living with the Vezo, and the combination of harsh conditions, the drama of survival and the contrast of sea and dunes would create amazing images.
Lemurs – Ringtail Lemurs – running everywhere on my cottage roof! Welcome back to Madagascar Mr Ellis.
As cute as these fellows appear in the Disney Movie “Madagascar” and in real life – at a quarter ‘till five in the morning they are not cute. They are every bit their Catta catta scientific names. Like cats they go scrambling across my roof first right to left then left to right and every other trip a chorus of deep whining “meows”. It’s been ten years since I was here last, and this much has not changed.
Ring-tails are the famous lemurs of Berenty Private Reserve. This about as far away from the Northwest as one can wander; I’m in the far southern extreme of the island of Madagascar, and the island is on the far southern extreme of the SW Indian Ocean. From the Pacific NW of the USA it’s a journey—some 27 hours of air travel and you arrive in the capitol Antananarivo (‘Tana’ for short); in the middle of the night.
Two days ago I landed in Tana and after a day of time zone and bearing gathering I caught another flight south 400 miles to the 17th Century outpost of Ft. Dauphin. Its here the French in 1642 thought they would make a go of it, build a fort (Ft. Dauphin) and see if they couldn’t control the sea traffic sailing past, ships destined for the spices of India and Indonesia. In the days and weeks between watching for the occasional ship, there were strange and bizarre plants and animals to discover—and the monkey-like lemurs were immediately captivating.It’s these same lemurs that draw most visitors, especially photographers, to this far end of Madagascar. About 50 miles west and inland from Ft. Dauphin is Berenty, a sanctuary for three species of arid species: the raccoon-looking Ring-tailed lemur, the brown teddy bear-like Brown lemur and the dancing and acrobatic Verreaux’s sifaka (a special type of lemur). Photographically Berenty is the best place to come. All three species of lemur have had over four decades of habituation to researchers and visitors and are not camera shy. In fact, for camera crews and photographers it makes absolutely no sense to try anywhere else if your focus is one of these three lemur species. Long telephotos certainly give the wonderful portrait look and an 80-200mm will do everything you need, but this is a great opportunity to practice doing wildlife photography with a wide angle or super-wide. My traveling companions are all equipped with 20mm’s and wider and ALL are using them liberally.
How to get to Madagascar?
Unless you speak fluent French and are well skilled at traveling in the developing world AND have plenty of free time, it’s best to book your Malagasy experience through an agent. Even then you need a good guide on the island. We used Classic Escapes out of New York City (800-627-1244 or www.classiescapes.com) to book the whole trip. They have been focusing on nature and wildlife travel for years and service much of the zoo and aquarium travel trade.
Plan on spending $5-7,000 or more for a two week experience.
From the USA it’s 25-30 hours travel time via Paris. Air France flies six days a week into the capitol of its former colony Antananarivo and there are two or three upper class hotels in the city worth staying at. We were based at Hotel Colbert which has full service and an internet business center – how this blog and photos got back to Pro Photo Supply.
Best time to visit Madagascar?
April through September is the winter dry season. Temperature-wise it is pleasant 80-85F during the day and 50’s at night. Towards the end of winter the arid areas in the south and west (Berenty and Isalo) become a bit worn and look in need of rain, the wind also blows steadily.
The remnant Eastern rainforest areas (near Perinet, Ranomafana, Nosy Mangabe) remain wet and lush throughout the year. Prepare for the tropical rainforest like you would anywhere else in the world; rain can fall anytime, carry plenty of Ziploc bags, a water-resistance pack to hide gear in from the rain, and good walking boots for slipping along muddy trails and through wet vegetation.
Few animals are as photogenic as habituated lemurs. I’m certain wild lemurs are fun too, but they keep their fun to themselves. At Berenty the lemurs share everything they are doing within a few feet; a 200mm is the longest lens you really need. Berenty is surrounded on three sides by endless acres of sisal plantation (a main crop from which ropes are made) and on the eastern boundary by the Mondrare River; the result is the lemurs have no where to escape and so live protected in the gallery riverine forest of Tamarind and Terminalis trees that dominate the reserve. A small section of ‘Spiny forest’, a unique collection of spine laced cactus-like plants native to Madagascar, edges the perimeter between the gallery forest and sisal. Only the Verreaux’s sifaka and two nocturnal species the white-footed sportive lemur and the grey mouse lemur dare roam about the prickly spiny forest.
Staying at Berenty Special Reserve
Small individual cottages, basic but comfortable, with twin beds are the only accommodation. Fees are $60 per night. There is a central dinning area for all meals and a separate bar breakfast area. Staying is a package deal —room and board—unless you are planning a long filming project and then its best to contact the Berenty staff for special arrangements.
Over the next few weeks Gerry Ellis will be writing and photographing from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. Fourth largest island in the world, a bit larger than California, Madagascar is best known for its charming little primates called lemurs. Wonderfully photogenic and found no where else in the world, along with nearly 90% of all the plants and animals on the island, lemurs draw photographer, film crews and adventurous travelers from around the world.