Chasing the forest ghost

Marojejy and the forest ghost: The Silky Sifaka

After the long bus ride to Sambava we recharged our batteries for a few days; ate some vanilla yoghurt and food that consisted of other things then rice. We met Erik Patel who, by the university of Duke, have researched on the silky sifaka (propithecus candidus) for ten years and knows more than anybody else about the species. It’s a big white lemur and is considered to be one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world (along with the kipunji which we saw in Tanzania). Together with Erik we arranged our trip into a national park to see ”the silky” and he helped us to get the best guide, chef and silky sifaka-trackers that we could get. After two hours in taxi from the coats we arrived to Marojejy. On the short ride both Joel and I fainted to sleep, still exhausted after the 81 hour bus ride. Inside the national park there are 11 species of lemur, 150 different reptiles and even more endemic species of birds. Even though the forest have an unusually high diversity of species, we went to Marojejy with only one goal: the silky sifaka.

As usually on Madagascar, the biggest threat for the species is the wide usage of slash and burn which the local people use to make room for temporary farms. But since Marojejy is one of Madagascar’s best administrated parks and although the seize of the forests are still declining they have managed to overcome some of the many parks are facing facing. The biggest of those have been the logging if the rose wood. When Erik Patel talks about the problem he is careful and lowers his voice to a whisper:

”We have succeeded fighting the mafia here in Marojejy and Sambava. But there are always ears that can reach wrong information and in Masoala in the south they are still logging every day. Since the ‘coup de estate’ everything has been chaos and one of my friends has been forced to evacuate due to death threats.”

Unfortunatly the Chinese have been put a lot of blame on our web-page now: they are financing ivory hunt, digging after gold in the Serengeti and even on Madagascar they are doing some dirty business. About 90% of all the rose wood that is logged here goes to China where they make furniture and music instruments from the tree. It’s important though to point out that it’s Europe and North America that are responsible for the demand of products made in rose wood. In the Masoala region there is almost not a single businessman who is not involved in the industry. Different from Marojejy which is located inland, Masoala has a long coast line which makes the rose wood here easy to access and transport to other countries, thus the mafia here has been growing strong. Eric told us about a bed he found which was made from rose wood and had the bill of one million dollars. In other words; there are a lot of money in this industry sponsoring the criminal activities and even the government is involved to get their fair share. A lot of the country’s money comes from the illegal export of rosewood and the money is needed since many of the well-fare organizations have abandoned the country since the ”coup de estate” in 2009. The rose wood is now extinct outside the two national parks Marojejy and Masoala, and soon it’s probably only found in Marojejy.

Back to the bright side: Marojejy and its surroundings is the first place on Madagascar where we see a real rain forest. Forest which densely covers the hill sides all the way down to the valleys. This park has higher biodiversity than any other forest Biotrotters have visited before.

To get to our camp we had a 12 kilometer hike waiting for us. Easy? Well, the rain was whipping down and as usually in the rainforests the leeches flew upon us in the hunt for blood. On the way we say lot’s of rarities such as pygmy kingfisher, blue coua and leaf-tailed gecko. Colorful millipedes were easy to spot as they shone in red, black and orange and the panther chameleon males were chasing females in their brightly colored red and green dress. When there is a lot to spot it takes a long time walking even though it’s just 12 km. It took us over seven hours and one battery sets before we reached the camp without even seeing our main goal the silky sifaka.

Madagascars variation of vegetarian food is very poor as we have mentioned earlier. Thus we talked with excitement about the supper, the good food we were going to eat now that we had bought many kilos of beans! We arrived to the camp and just prepared to go to the dining table when our guide walked up to us and asked: Have you bought anything to eat except rice??!


Somehow we had left all our beans, fruits, pasta and so on back in our hotel in Sambava. We simply had to continue eating rice with rice for another day!

Our silky sifaka trackers did what we hoped for and found them already the first day. For seven hours in our already wet clothes, we followed the sifaka up and down the hill sides to admire its beauty. It has become Biotrotters hobby to photograph primates. They are more active and challenging to photograph as they jump around between the trees. Hard but fun (and unfortunately blurry and distorted for the most part).

At the camp I (Wilhelm) got a little bit too excited photographing the view over a waterfall. I slipped and fell down in high speed. Though I was convinved I would manage to stop the fall at the first part which was less steep I failed. Somehow though, I got a hold of a crack in the mountain with my feet and managed to stop the fall.

Not only is Marojejy a national park, it’s also a mountain,: and so we wanted to climb it. On the first days hike wore all our packing up to the last camp before the top and while we were to busy looking where to put our feet, we forgot to watch our head and banged our wood against the forests wood. At dusk the red bellied lemur came really close to us and watched us as we ate our beans, tired but happy. It’s hard to take care of your stuff in the rainforest. Nothing really dries here and if it rains continuously every day, everything you have will be wet sooner or later. To wake up in the morning and put on black, muddy and wet socks is not very intimidating, but we were still motivated since the sky was clear blue for the first time during our visit in Marojejy! And luckily the weather did not change until we reached the top which is supposed to be very uncommon. 2152 meters above sea level rises the grass covered top and we let our eyes rest over the rocky mountains and the deep green forests.

One thing which makes Marojejy and the silky sifaka especially important to protect is that no species of sifaka can be kept in captivity. Their diet is such a complex mix of fruits and leaves that it’s impossible to recreate it in zoos. Erik made a big effort to find out exactly what the silky sifaka ate and found out that they eat fruits or leaves from more than 120 different plant species!

Something else that also makes the silky sifaka unique is that it’s the only species in the world that loses its pigment. There are known examples of individuals within species that this happends to such as rhinos or Micheal Jackson, but that everybody within the species loses pigment is truly unique. Why is that? There are theories but it remains unknown. One of the most popular ones are that they need to provide themselves with higher levels of D-vitamin which is usually better absorbed through brighter skin.

Today it remains only 300-2000 silky sifakas. The size of the total population is uncertain since it’s very hard to calculate it due to the low density of the species. The good news is that it’s estimated that the population have increased the last six years (when the estimation was 100-1000).

On our way rumbling down the mountain, our guide spotted the silky once more. It was sitting in a tree top but still below us cause of the steep hills. When it saw us it quickly jumped away to a place where it could not be seen. We started searching for it and found them again – this time only a few meters away. The silky sifaka isn’t as shy as some other animals we’ve seen but it chooses when it want to be watched and when it doesn’t. When it jumps away from you, you simply have now chance what so ever following the group. So how come then that the silky sifaka, one of the worlds most endangered animals, can be so unafraid of humans? For an unknown reason, it’s known that most lemur species gets habituated quicker then other primates. Why remains unknown and rather then questioning we preferred to enjoy their company for almost 30 minutes!

After five days in Marojejy we got to see almost everything we wanted. For once, this was also a really big and cool rainforest! As usually we happened to run over some chickens on our way back to Sambava, and unfortunately a snake.


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