A Few Days in the Berenty Reserve, Madagascar

Cliff and I have spent the better part of the last 2 weeks taking 6-seater planes around the northern part of the large island-nation of Madagascar, just off the east coast of Africa. Near the tail end of our time on this remarkable land mass, we hop on a plane and head south from Tara to Fort Dolphin in Tolagnaro. It is now just a few hours by van until we reach our destination, the Berenty Reserve. I know we will run into large colonies of ring-tailed and white sifaka lemurs down here. Another attraction, however, is the tombs, landscapes, village people and Boabab trees that make this area special as well.

The history of this reserve dates back to 1936 at which time the De Healme family founded a sisal plantation adjacent to the Mandrare River in agreement with the Tandroy Tribe. Today I'm seeing the incredible Spiny Forest of southern Madagascar that includes ancient tamarind trees and dried open scrub. There are numerous fruit bats as well as 103 bird species here. It is now clear to me why many television programs featuring ring-tailed lemurs are shot in this location. 

As we tour the area, it is quite evident that this is an important research hub. Scientist and students from all over the world congregate here to conduct field work on different forms of lemur society. Due to rich, well watered soil in a dry land, this gallery forest holds dense, natural lemur populations, perfect for study.

Cruising around this area, I am amazed at the diversity of the Malagasy people. Our guide tells us that there are 18 ethnic groups that vary widely in appearance, traditions and beliefs. While 50% have been converted to Christianity, the remainder live in old traditions, characterized by unique beliefs and legends.

The first thing that I notice is that each tribe has a distinctive look, including facial features and unique clothing. Merina, the largest tribe, originally migrated to this island from Indonesia. Having dominated the country from the 16th century until it was designated a French colony in 1987, they settled in and around the capital, Antananarivo. Eventually, their society was split into three classes: the Andriana (nobles), Hova (free men) and Andevo (slaves).

Besides seeing the lemurs and the natives, another really cool thing we come across are the tombs. I'm told that the Antandroy people, a nomadic group of Madagascar, has inhabited the southern part of this island since the 17th century. Members of this ethnic group demonstrate great respect for their ancestors. They have complex funeral rites, utilizing elaborately decorated burial monuments.

Continuing on through the Spiny Forest, I love the majestic baobab trees that make this area very distinctive. These are icons of the African continent, from which many traditional African remedies emanate. A prehistoric species, the baobab is believed to be 200 million years old, antedating the splitting of the continents. Despite the extremely arid climate, this tree has adapted to its environment and is considered a symbol of life in harsh circumstances. Baobab trees survive for up to 5,000 years by absorbing and storing water in their vast trunks during the rainy season. This allows them to produce a nutrient-dense fruit in the dry season which sustains them, hence the name, "Tree of Life."

Our time in the Berenty Reserve is coming to a close. We return to our spartan accommodations to have dinner and then retire to our mosquito nets to get some sleep. Madagascar is an enormous island, and the southern tier has really shown me how diverse the geography is here. I look forward to reviewing my photos of this trip on my way back to the USA.