Wildlife in Madagascar

In the woods, a cry as piercing as an air raid siren haunts your trip for days – until you finally see its source: high in the trees, the island’s largest lemur, the indri.
Walk down a road at night in Madagascar and shine a torch into the trees: in Madagascar, the trees shine back.

You’re on a Madagascar wildlife holiday on a night safari. In the high branches, the torchlight catches the shine of two massive eyes: it’s a mouse lemur, one of Madagascar’s 107 endemic lemur species.

It’s also a surprisingly easy time to spot chameleons. Their skin reflects torchlight better than their surroundings – enough for them to stand out with a pale and eerie glow against the trees. Nature’s greatest illusionist, scuppered by a Maglite.

Since 2008, Madagascar National Parks has not allowed night safaris in the country’s parks – meaning that night time is the time for smaller reserves, like Mitsinjo Village Reserve, to shine.

Found just outside Andasibe-Mantadia/Périnet National Park, the Mitsinjo Village Reserve, whose name means ‘looking ahead’ in Malagasy, began as a guiding association set up by 13 neighbouring villages. The project employs scores of local people and runs a nursery that grows and replants native trees. It has become an ecotourism destination in its own right.

Aside from night safaris, come in the day and you might encounter greater bamboo lemurs and the very special indri indri, the island’s largest lemur and one of the largest animals on this island.

What’s special about wildlife in Madagascar?

Small & special

Madagascar’s wildlife is gemlike – small, special and dazzling under torchlight. Forget panthers and giraffes; it’s all about panther chameleons and giraffe weevils here. The largest carnivore is the endemic fossa, a small mongoose-like animal that would be a mere snack for an apex predator if it existed anywhere else.

Endemic rarities, from lemurs to weevils

Around 90 percent of the wildlife in Madagascar is endemic, which means it is found nowhere else in the world. The island’s major attraction is, of course, its 107 lemur species and, if you go in October or November, their cuddling, clinging young.

There are over 100 endemic birds and 59 endemic chameleons. As Laurenne Mansbridge, from our Madagascar wildlife holiday experts Pioneer Expeditions, puts it: “In Madagascar you can only be in Madagascar; there is nothing else like it.”

Some of Laurenne’s best memories of exploring have involved hunkering down in the leaf litter looking for giraffe neck weevils (“only the size of half your little finger but fascinating to see”) and going up close to examine strange, tiny pink planthoppers parading up a tree trunk (“they look fluffy; they don’t look like creatures, but they are”).
You’ll never see an indri unless you go to Madagascar. Despite repeated attempts, they do not survive in zoos.

New species and new extinctions

This is wildlife that makes you go ‘wow!’. But it sits in a strange balance. New species are being discovered by scientists even as they go extinct.

There were only two recorded mouse lemur species in 1992 but by 2016 there were 24. In 2020, Voeltzkow’s chameleon, which hadn’t been seen for a century, was observed again. In 2021, the nano-chameleon – small enough to sit on a thumbnail – was discovered in the north of the island. Thanks to climate change, in the same period an unknown number of other unrecorded species may have disappeared.
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Protecting Madagascar’s wildlife

The stakes for Madagascar’s conservation could not be higher; once the lemurs have left Madagascar, there will be no more lemurs left anywhere. You’ll never see an indri indri unless you go to the island. Despite repeated attempts, they do not survive in zoos.

Madagascar is in a difficult position – it must protect its unique wildlife for the sake of the world. Yet this is the fourth poorest country in the world, with a growing population. Most people are subsistence farmers – 80 percent of the population are dependent on agriculture.

Madagascar’s national parks have helped protect lemurs, as well as provide alternative income and conservation information for nearby communities. The National Association for the Management of Protected Areas in Madagascar (ANGAP) shares income from tourists with communities local to the parks.

“One of our guides and his family live in Ranomafana National Park and they do so much for the wildlife,” says Laurenne. “Anyone who lives around Ranomafana knows that these animals make money for the town.”

After the Covid-19 pandemic, the deputy mayor of a small town, Andasibe, just outside Analamazaotra Special Reserve, estimated that 90 percent of the 14,000 inhabitants had come to rely on tourism for their income. Post-Covid, tourism numbers are returning, but slowly. Whilst national parks help create employment for neighbouring villages, in other areas, Malagasy people want to manage their own land for themselves.

The rise of locally led ecotourism in Madagascar

Anja Community Reserve is a local success story. Initially funded by the UN Development Programme, the reserve is now entirely managed by the local community. The project has successfully encouraged ring-tailed lemurs to thrive here; they can be found in the reserve in a greater density than anywhere else in the country. This, in turn, attracts a great number of fee-paying tourists.

VOIMMA Reserve is another such success. Standing for vondron’olona miaro mitia ala – or “local people love the forest” – the reserve was founded in 2012 by people living next to the larger Andasibe National Park, to profit more directly from the wildlife in the area. Tourists can visit alongside visiting the national park – with a good chance of spotting indri indri.

Then there’s Kivalo. This south-western Madagascar village has created its own tourism model, funded by the WWF. Tourists can go on tours of its mangroves and enjoy largely empty beaches in the region.

That’s another appeal of smaller reserves – they are quieter, cheaper than bigger parks, with fewer visitors, and often have very well-invested local guides who are good at getting straight to the wildlife you want to see. 

Tours to meet the Mikea Forest tribes give a new perspective on how different people in Madagascar live alongside nature outside the parks. The tiny hunter-gatherer tribe live in the forest on the south-west coast, hunting and eating tenrecs (little, streamlined hedgehog-like animals), wild pigs and lemurs, whilst also farming and gathering edible tubers and honey.

Local people and local wildlife

We have complicated relationships with the wildlife we grow up with. In Madagascar, this is no different, except that the concept of fady – taboo – adds a layer of rules around wildlife too, protecting some species which certain villages have banned their villages from killing, whilst endangering others which are believed to be evil spirits.

Animals are hunted, both for bushmeat and for the illegal pet trade. “I’ve been on a road and a guide has said, ‘Oh, there’s a tenrec’ and I’ve looked and it’s a tenrec being sold for meat,” Laurenne says.
There are plenty of international efforts to practice nature conservation in Madagascar, and widespread afforestation projects to combat the country’s infamous deforestation through ‘slash and burn’ agricultural practices.

Conservation works best when it brings the community along too. Our partner Pioneer Expeditions takes guests to visit and support a local afforestation project in Sarasoa, where the valley is being greened by the planting and maintenance of hundreds of thousands of trees by residents.

“Focusing our work in one area is really making a difference,” says Laurenne. “I visited recently for the first time in 12 years and the difference is noticeable. It was a much greener valley even in October, the dry season; it really is working. That’s such a pleasure to see.”

How to see wildlife in Madagascar

“Madagascar is an incredible country,” says Laurenne, “and it’s probably more incredible because it’s not easy.”

Whilst Madagascar’s wildlife is everywhere, the country is not reputed for its infrastructure. The roads are notoriously bad – and some have gotten worse, rather than better, over time.

“With some wildlife, you have to really want to see it,” says Laurenne, describing an epic two-day expedition to the north of the island so that a birding tour could spot a particular species of duck. “There’s a forest between Ankify and Ankarana where you can find the blue-eyed black lemur. That’s on nobody’s tourist trail – it takes two days to get there now because the roads are so bad.”

If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, or a birdwatcher with a ‘life list’, then Madagascar offers adventurous settings for wooing rare wildlife – and local guides who are committed to helping you seek it out.
Wildlife does not just stay in national parks. From insects in your hotel room to birds outside the window, Madagascar’s unique animals are everywhere.
But there’s lots of wildlife for the more casual wildlife viewer too. In popular parks like Andasibe-Mantadia and Ranomafana, where there are plenty of lemur species to see, Laurenne describes a network of local ‘spotters’ who tell guides where to go to see the lemurs: “If you spend enough time in these parks, you are going to see a lot of species.”

The most important way to see wildlife is to move around and experience the different landscapes. “Each place is so very different from the last places you were at,” says Laurenne.

Madagascar’s landscapes are as unique as the wildlife they shelter: from dry forest in the north to eastern rainforest. There are spiny forests in the south, full of baobabs, where white-footed sportive lemurs leap between the prickly branches of the octopus trees, devouring flowers.

What wildlife can I see in Madagascar?

Forget panthers and giraffes; it’s all about panther chameleons and giraffe weevils in Madagascar.

Lemurs & beyond

Lemurs are a massive attraction in Madagascar, from strange aye-ayes, perhaps spotted at night, to diurnal sifaka, the ‘dancing lemurs’, hopping along the ground. Beyond lemurs, head to Kirindy Forest for fossas; you may also encounter the giant jumping rat, which can leap a metre in the air – which is probably as far as you’ll leap, too, if you’re not expecting it. Whilst most of the wildlife is small, look out for massive zebu – magnificently horned cattle – pulling carts (and possibly on the menu) all over the island.

Chameleons, snakes & frogs

Chameleons might be the most obvious attraction, but there are amazingly diverse geckos, lizards and snakes in Madagascar’s forests. There are very few venomous snakes, but local myth asserts that one, the fandrefiala, can hypnotise anyone that looks into its eyes. If you can tear your gaze away, then consider the frogs: the frog population is 99 percent endemic, from the plump, orange and aptly named tomato frog to species that haven’t yet been properly studied.

Over 100 endemic bird species

Of the 109 endemic birds, there are whole families that aren’t found elsewhere, including mesites (delicate little flightless birds), colourful fruit-eating asities, songbirds like tetrakas and allies, and ground rollers. The island of Nosy Ve is home to a colony of wonderful red-tailed tropicbirds, whilst black parrots cause a ruckus in the rainforests.

Millipedes, moon moths… & mozzies

Whilst few people would book to go on an exclusively bug-spotting holiday, Madagascar’s insects steal the show. There are enormous, glossy pill millipedes, famous Madagascan hissing cockroaches, and massive Madagascan moon moths (also called comet moths). Whilst you’re searching for giraffe-necked weevils, or marvelling at mantises, watch out for mosquitos – you’ll need to take anti-malarial drugs here.

Coral fish & whales

Reckoned, according to some divers, to rival the Red Sea, the islands off the north of Madagascar, such as the popular Nosy Be and Nosy Ve resorts, are great diving and snorkelling spots. The coral reefs are better in the north than the south – south-west Madagascar has experienced a lot of coral bleaching. Stay north to catch migrating humpback whales too. They pass Madagascar between June and September.

Tips for wildlife watching in Madagascar

Take binoculars for seeing wildlife high up in the trees, and for birdlife. Be prepared for rugged scenery, even on the roads. You may need a moderate level of fitness to fully enjoy some of the very steep national parks. Remember: if a lemur moves, you’ll need to move too and they’re not always on the path. Consider visiting a mix of national parks and smaller community-run reserves. Such places, with less formal protection, need tourists’ continued support to continue. Go where your guide tells you – and don’t trample wildlife. Studies have shown that trampled areas create microclimates in which species like rats thrive over endemics. Night safaris are good for seeing nocturnal species like the mouse lemur. Sometimes guides try and tempt them out with bits of banana – if you see this practice, call it out. Most reserves no longer allow you to touch wildlife – for your safety and theirs. Lemurs have sharp teeth and can give a nasty bite. We advise against touching wildlife on any trip, in any location. Don’t support wildlife being sold into the pet trade, or buy products made from tortoiseshell or coral. This wildlife should be worth far more wild than captive, and far more alive than dead.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Unsplash+] [Intro: Hans-Jurgen Mager] [Endemic rarities, from lemurs to weevils: Rowan Heuvel] [Local people and local wildlife: Frank Vassen] [How to see wildlife: Sebastian Klein] [Panther chameleons: Charles J. Sharp] [Millipedes, moon moths… & mozzies: Heinonlein]