The Indri Whisperer of Madagascar
Rambo is maybe 27 or 30 years old. He lives in the tree canopy, in the Mintsinjo Conservation Area in the Andasibe commune of Madagascar. Rambo is an indri, the largest members of the lemur family. It has a bobtail and, with its green bugged eyes, it looks like a hybrid between a panda and a human. Pierre, on the other hand, is 40 years old and works as a nature guide in the Mintsinjo. Seventeen years ago, Rambo and Pierre started to ’work’ together. By now they know each other thoroughly and their trust is mutual.
One early morning, the indris are still sleeping. Pierre walks with steady steps on a path in the rainforest. He has offered to show me, a photographer, some indris. After a thirty minute walk we detect one; the other five are spread out in the woods because of last night’s rainfall.
I prepare my recorder because the indris are supposed to sing in the morning. Soon we hear a magical sound, something like a mixture of whale sound, howler monkies’ shouting, and wolves howling echoes in the forest when Rambo’s group sings. I feel my blood stopping during the five minutes it lasts.
The indris repeat their same morning routines every day: after the song they come down from the canopy to the level of approximately 5 meters where they spend ten minutes on their ’toilet’. Meanwhile, Pierre walks around and collects leaves that will enable him to get Rambo, David, and the others to come down for a meal.
But they make us wait. I wait nervously because I do not know how the indris behave. What if they come down while Pierre is not here? Or if they just drop down and disappear in the heights again, not giving me a chance to take pictures? Little did I know that the animals do not come down from the trees on a whim but only due to a deliberate communication between them and Pierre.
Soon, Pierre returns with a huge bunch of leaves from at least five different plants. The variety ensures that if the indris are not interested in one kind, there is another available. They like best the new, slightly reddish leaves.
Pierre and I sit in total silence and stare to the top of the trees where we can see five indris enjoying fruit. The wait seems endless and in my mind, I say many times: ”Come down, please”. Pierre sits completely still for longer than one hour. All of a sudden he jumps up and runs to the bottom of a tree. While he is waving the bunch of leaves, David comes down towards Pierre’s extended arm.
Learning to know each other
The story began 17 years ago when Pierre started working for the Mitsinjo Conservation Association. He took visitors out to the rainforest to watch the indris, but more often than not, people could not see any and were disappointed. Thus Pierre and his senior colleague Joseph Randrianatoandro were tasked to go out and follow and observe the indris. So every day for three years, they went to the forest before the indris got up and then followed them all day long until the indris’ bedtime.
Gradually these lemurs got used to the two men and started to approach them. For the following four years, Pierre and Joseph trained the indris to come and eat the leaves, which they first handed out with a long stick and gradually shortened it until they used just their arm. Four years later, the hard work paid off: Rambo came all the way down to the ground and took fresh leaves from Joseph’s hand.
Words are not enough to describe the happiness Joseph and Pierre felt at that moment, and Pierre still tears up when he describes it. He thinks that it is incredible, that the indris would trust him. But by now Pierre and Joseph have managed to gain the trust of two groups of indris, who are gradually getting used to visitors.
Over the years, Pierre has seen both births and deaths among the indris. Once, a female indri was pregnant and when she was due, she was high up in the canopy with all other group members surrounding her. Pierre could hear her scream with pain for ten minutes, followed by a moment of quiet and then by the scream of a baby. Pierre could actually not see anything because he did not have binoculars, and so he just had to be convinced that a baby was born. None of his colleagues would believe what he witnessed but after two months, they actually saw the baby tucked under the mom’s belly.
Once Pierre saw a conflict played out between two indri groups: The alfa female of Rambo’s group was fighting with her neighbor ’lady’, whose baby fell to the ground and died. The mother disappeared into the woods and was never seen again, while the new female had established her position in the group. But up to this day, she is not ready to come down to the ground to eat leaves from a human hand.
They are coming
Let us get back to that moment: Pierre stands under the tree and hands out leaves. David comes down and reaches his hand towards the branch Pierre is handing out. David eats with pleasure and looks around as if recognizing that everything is ok. Pierre gestures to me to get closer to him. David doesn’t seem to mind me approaching and continues munching while staring straight into my soul with his green eyes. To me the situation is so extraordinary, that I almost get confused with all the buttons of my camera. Fortunately, David remains calm and eats slowly, thus enabling me to get the photos. All of a sudden, however, David decides that enough is enough, jumps a couple times, and disappears into the rainforest.
I am wondering if another indri would still come down for a meal. ”Of course, Rambo will still come”, Pierre says and returns to the woods to gather more leaves. And after approximately two hours the same scene repeats itself when Rambo comes down to eat from Pierre’s hand. Again and again trusting Pierre, Rambo reaches out to him. After ten minutes, however, Rambo returns to the forest.
Back at our vehicle the incredible experience replays in my mind and does not leave my retina. I have never seen this kind of trust between a human and an animal. In order for Pierre to be able to learn more about the indris in the high trees, I give my binoculars to him.