A community reserve in Madagascar where locals and lemurs thrive

Tangles of lemurs flap their ringed tails in the air as they bury their adorable little snout in the freshwater lagoon of Anga for a midday drink. The lemur’s white, fluffy, triangular ears point to the sky, while dry forests and hills gently roll up to the massive granite boulders that dominate the landscape behind.

Madagascar is a huge island – 10% larger than France – and it boasts some of the richest and most diverse biodiversity in the world. Due to the island’s isolation, 260 miles (420 kilometers) off Mozambique’s west coast, nearly all of the species inhabiting the Great Red Island, dubbed rust-colored laterite soils, are endemic. According to the WWF, 92% of Madagascar’s mammals, 95% of reptiles, and more than 40% of bird species can be found on the island and nowhere else.

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Join a small group of adventurers on this truly remote journey through two wild national parks, spotting lemurs as you go. Led by local guides.

These species include the devilish leaf-tailed gecko, easily recognizable by its wilted leave, the fossa, a predator somewhere between a cat, dog and weasel, and the striped lowland, a strange little animal somewhat like a hedgehog dressed as a bumblebee. They also include half of the world’s chameleon species and, of course, the country’s most famous species – the lemurs.

There are more than 110 species of lemurs to be found in Madagascar, from the tiny mouse-like aye-aye to the sinister sifaka cockerel, which looks a lot like an ape. The common factor is bulging eyes.

It is not difficult to see lemurs in Madagascar.

A Coquerels Sifaka lemur, native to northwest Madagascar, which can be seen in Ankarafantsika National Park.  Photo: Getty
A Coquerels Sifaka lemur, native to northwest Madagascar, which can be seen in Ankarafantsika National Park. Photo: Getty

The most popular areas for one’s viewing include Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in the southwest, home to the famous knife-like rock formations, or Ankarafantsika National Park in the northwest. But the Anja Community Reserve is a particularly interesting spot; It is unique for its role in setting a social and ecological precedent – while also providing a sanctuary for ring-tailed lemurs.

“There are a lot of lemurs in the Reserve, and they’re easy to spot,” explains Laurence Duband Schaffner, an adventure travel expert who has worked and lived in Madagascar for more than two decades.

98% of Madagascar’s land mammals, 92% of reptiles, and 41% of bird species can be found on the island and nowhere else…

Anja is a place of granite mountains, dry forests, and far-reaching views of rice paddies, just 13 kilometers south of the city of Ambalafao on National Road 7 (RN7). The reserve was established in 2001 in response to dwindling ring-tailed lemur populations across the country due to hunting and large-scale deforestation. Today, it is home to the highest concentration of ring-tailed lemurs in all of Madagascar, making it a Site of Global Importance.

A far-reaching view over the mountains from one of the hiking trails at the Anja Community Reserve.  Photo: Getty
A far-reaching view over the mountains from one of the hiking trails at the Anja Community Reserve. Photo: Getty

“Lemurs are completely wild, living in their own environment, but because they are more accustomed to humans, they can get very close,” says Shanfer. “They won’t jump on you, but it’s easy to spot them. It’s a great opportunity to see them up close and understand their way of life, because some live in pairs or with families and with children.”

Visit in time and you’ll see babies clinging to their mothers’ bellies, or if they’re a little older, riding on their mothers’ backs. Young lemurs become more independent after about a month, but even then, these lemurs spend about 40% of their time on the ground – and thus are easier to spot in Anja.

It is home to the highest concentration of ring-tailed lemurs in all of Madagascar.

“The reserve is set up and run by the local community,” says Lawrence. “It’s very important in terms of educating local people and proving to people that you can make a living protecting forests and lemurs, instead of cutting wood. You can get some money now if you chop wood, but then wait 20 years for another tree to grow there. But if you keep forests and keep lemurs, you can make a living every day for many years.”

In fact, the reserve allowed the locals to stop clearing forests to grow corn, and instead earn income from nature conservation. The reserve is an example of how humans and nature can thrive side by side.

The Anja Granite Mountains Community Reserve rises behind the houses and trees.  Photo: Getty
The Anja Granite Mountains Community Reserve rises behind the houses and trees. Photo: Getty

Visitors to Anja must be accompanied by a guide, and can choose between two hiking trails. One can be walked in an hour or two, and will take you through the two ancient Betsileo tombs, natural cave systems that harbor owls and bats. The other is more adventurous, taking a longer route to the summit of two local mountains, known collectively as Telo Mirahavavy or The Three Sisters. From the summit peaks at 1000m and 1434m – you can see the provincial capital, Ambalafao. After visiting, people return to the city, or set up camp at the foot of the mountains, and fall asleep to the sounds of the forest.

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It’s not just lemurs that have to watch out as you walk. There are also chameleons in the reserve, wonderful striped lowlands and a variety of birds, from Madagascar coucal to harrier hawks, bee-eaters and gray-headed lovebirds.

Colorful quinanas and eucalyptus plants are grown in the tree nurseries, and families of saxiculas and orchids brighten up the paths. Such reforestation efforts are necessary, given that Madagascar is a country with a significant logging problem.

“It’s related to poverty in the country,” says Lawrence. One study states that 92% of Madagascar’s population lives on less than US$2 per day. “So people can’t focus on the long or medium term – they have to find a solution to subsist on a day to day basis. Woodcutting brings money very easily to the family. So most of the remaining forest is in national parks and private or community reserves – but it’s now working really well at showing people that this is a long term income.”

View of rice fields and mountains from Anja Community Reserve.  Photo: Getty
View of rice fields and mountains from Anja Community Reserve. Photo: Getty

Creating a nature-based circular economy in Anga gave local people an income based not on exploiting nature – but on protecting it.

“More and more people are becoming aware of the fight against deforestation here and realizing the importance of the forest, but it’s a poor country, so you always have to balance that with people’s daily needs,” says Lawrence.

Andringitra is the high mountain area, with Peak Bobi at 2,658m high…

Madagascar’s tourism industry is still not massive, so ecotourism projects like this one are not prevalent. However, the possibility of hiking, cycling, and diving is increasingly attracting adventure-minded people to the island.

“Madagascar is a huge playground,” says Schaffner. “Anything is possible here. It’s a land of opportunity, and even though the island is bigger than France we’re still a small country in terms of tourism. The biggest year we’ve ever had was 2019, and we still only had about 350,000 tourists here.”

By contrast, more than 10 million people visited the Louvre in 2019. The National Gallery in London had 4.1 million visitors, and Stonehenge had 1.6 million visitors.

Sprinkle greenery in the mountainous region of Andringitra National Park. Photo: Getty

“This means that it is very difficult to develop the travel and tourism industry quickly, but hotels – as well as the skills of guides – have increased a lot in the past two decades.” The export of spices, particularly vanilla, remains Madagascar’s most important economic sector, and there is also a mining industry. “So you have tourism, it employs about 100,000 people,” Lawrence says.

Madagascar is an island of contrasts – of arid desert, lush rainforests, bustling cities, and tranquil coral reefs. In Andringitra and Isalo National Parks alone, you have two national parks that are 125 miles (200 kilometers) apart, and they could be in different vegetation.

“Andringitra is the high mountain area, with Peak Bobby at 2,658 metres,” says Lawrence. It’s the beauty of the climb, which includes scrambles and views of Isalo. “In July and August — the winter season for us — the temperature can drop to zero, and you have plants that are tropical but can withstand the low temperatures.” This is a desert of abrupt cliffs, lakes, rolling hills, and volcanic formations, with great views, but little wildlife. “While Isalo is considered a low-latitude region, and in summer it can reach 40 degrees Celsius. It’s an eroded massif, so it’s nothing like the endringitra, but there are several types of lemurs and it’s rich in birds.”

An endemic Madagascar hoopoe spotted in Isalo National Park.  Photo: Getty
An endemic Madagascar hoopoe spotted in Isalo National Park. Photo: Getty

For the best results, Schanffer recommends exploring Madagascar on bike or on foot.

“You will walk through these villages and meet people who will ask you about your time in the country. It is easy to have a real, honest relationship with the people.”

Go trekking and discover lemurs in Madagascar | Much better adventures

Join a small group of adventurers on this truly remote journey through two wild national parks, spotting lemurs as you go. Led by local guides.

In the small rural communities, amidst the hills, people grow rice, groundnuts, cassava or sweet potatoes for a living. “You see another side of the country,” says Lawrence, “and when we have lunch in the village, the money goes directly to them. They work with us too, as local guides and porters, providing local food.”

“For me, Madagascar is the beginning of no end. I’ve been here for 27 years and I still have a lot to discover. Really the people here are very nice. They may be poor from a European perspective. They don’t have a lot of money – but when they go into the bush, they’re rich.”

inspired? Discover our new trekking adventure in Madagascar, organized in partnership with Laurence Duband Schaffner, explore Anja Community Reserve, Isalo, Andringitra and more!

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