It is fady to kill a lemur. The punishment is ill health, and five years in jail.
Madagascar, the planet’s fourth-largest island, floats 250 miles off the east coast of Mozambique in the southwest Indian Ocean. The Afro-Indonesian people govern their lives with a series of social taboos, or fadies. And a long-time fady, rooted in the commands of the razana, the Ancestors, is that it is wrong to kill the little button-eyed primates called lemurs.
The clocked relatives of monkeys, apes and humans are found only on this island, rafted away from the vast bulk of the African continent 165 million years ago. Yet even today, in a world of heightened environmental consciousness and recognition of the accelerating loss of species, lemurs are still being killed; sometimes served at the tables of wealthy foreigners who will pay a little extra to have a taste of the exotic. In the 1990 Marlon Brando film,The Freshman, the plot revolves around a moveable restaurant that serves endangered species to high-rolling epicureans. In a case of life imitating art, I hear a rumor that a restaurant exists in the Malagasy Republic that serves lemur.
When I approach Antananarivo, the 200-year-old capital, on an Air Mauritius Boeing 737, the air is thick with smoke, the landscape parched and coughing. As subsistence farmers below are clearing crop and pasture land and scorching trees to create charcoal, I struggle to fill out the customs and immigrations form on my lap. After 25 hours flying from Los Angeles, it is not a simple chore on the coarse, brown customs form that seems made of cheap toilet paper.
While waiting for the baggage in the Ivato International Airport I visit the men’s room, and discover in a world of disappearing species there is yet another. The attendant offers to sell me toilet paper, as there is none in the stall. “There is a shortage in Madagascar,” he explains, and I know why—it is being used for customs forms.
Within an hour I am on another Air Mad flight to a large island off the northwestern shore of the Mozambique Channel, Nosy Be (“Big Island” in Malagasy). From the air there is muscular poetry to the brown, bare landscape, the raw red rivers, like broken veins, bleeding to the sea. Astronauts have said the Texas-sized island was the only landmass easily identifiable from space, because it is surrounded by a halo of rust-red sea, the color of the lateritic topsoil relentlessly scrubbed off its denuded surface by wind and rain.
The microcontinent of Madagascar is the most eroded place on earth. Man has grievously wounded this estate. Some estimate 90% of the Great Red Island’s forests have been destroyed, and that it continues to lose 375,000 acres a year, a rate that will insure a totally bald island within a lifetime. The impoverished farmers of preindustrial Madagascar deliberately torch the rain forests for fuel and agricultural land. After a few seeding seasons the thin soil is depleted, erosion sets in, the tired, overtaxed land is abandoned, and a new wedge of forest is obliterated, a dangerous cycle that promises to turn the land that time forgot into a dead zone.
In the 15th century Arab traders called Madagascar the “Isle of the Moon.” Today the epithet seems prophetic. The protection of the remaining woodlands is a race against starvation, ignorance and time.
As we begin our descent to Nosy Be, bright Ricky Nelson and Roy Orbison tunes playing over the loudspeaker challenge the scene below. But, as the wheels lower, the landscape turns green, and a flock of snowy egrets flutters from the parasol of a gigantic glossy frond. To further abet the mood change, as I step off the plane a lei of fresh frangipani and bougainvillea is placed around my neck by a smiling Malagasy girl. She leads me outside to a row of stands where plump, giggling women are selling stacks of vanilla, bottles of mango, and peppers in vinegar. This suddenly seems a happy place.
I climb into a red, candy-striped two-cylinder Citroen Deux-Chevaux with a $100 bill stuck on the front windshield. Looking closer I see a profile of Madonna where Ben Franklin belongs, and in place of the nation’s name are the words “Altered States of Madonna.”
We bump down a sun-roasted road trying in vain to avoid the potholes that are an unstudied endemic species in Madagascar. The edges of the road are lined with kapok and pollarded yellow-flowering ylang-ylang trees from which a perfume essence is extracted. We roll past vast sugar cane fields and balloon-sharped concrete huts built in 1921 as cyclone shelters. I check into Les Cocotiers hotel, and on the wall is a sisal fiber tapestry of a village scene, and next to it a lizard I would get to know. He hangs on the wall like a bad canvas: Art Gecko.