Jewels of the bamboo forest II
Emmanuel Van Heygen
Three hours into our journey, the mouth of the Bezavona River welcomed us amidst the southern stretches of the Ampasindava Peninsula. Venturing deeper, our boat wove through thick mangrove forests until the water was too shallow for our vessel. The moment we stepped onto the land, villagers gathered around, their eyes revealing a mix of curiosity and wonder, particularly from the younger ones who had never seen a “Vaza” (foreigner). Their tales were as riveting as our journey, filled with stories of the last French settlers who had left 25 years prior.
With camp set up, our scientific endeavors began with the creation of pitfall traps to capture ground-dwelling reptiles and amphibians. Though a single tiny frog was all that was caught, the surrounding bamboo forests held more surprises. Here, we spotted the Phelsuma vanheygeni, a gecko named after the Exo Terra Manager, Emmanuel Van Heygen, from our prior expedition. Intriguingly, these geckos were seen lingering beneath various insects, awaiting what seemed like a saccharine secretion.
As we delved deeper, the Furcifer oustaleti chameleon graced our path, a magnificent creature known to traverse both warm, humid coastal lowlands and drier forests. Not far behind was the Furcifer pardalis, showing off its vibrant variance. An intense encounter came next: the sight of the snake, Ithycyphus miniatus, mid-hunt, with a frog as its prey.
Returning to our base, the intoxicating aroma of Nazir’s culinary expertise, in the form of French fries, greeted us. The cooking process became a spectacle for the villagers, drawing comparisons to “Emeril Live.” Joining us in the feast was the “Chef de Village” or village chief, who keenly listened to our tales and plans for the subsequent day.
The onset of night unveiled a new realm. Massive spiders, the Setifer setosus tenrec scouring for fruits and insects, fish-scaled geckos, and the Uroplatus, with its unparalleled camouflage, emerged. Their nocturnal antics made the evening unforgettable.
By morning, it was time to navigate back to our anchored boat, trusting the high tide would assist our exit. As villagers bid their goodbyes at the riverbank, we were relieved to find the water levels in our favor, allowing us to safely journey to Nosy Iranja. This twin-island, connected by a sand bank, awaited us with supplies ferried from our base at Nosy Be. Here, we observed the Madagascar Coucal, Centropus toulou, preying on a Phelsuma laticauda, confirming the bird’s predatory tendencies towards the gecko.
Russian Bay, with its historical resonance, was our next halt. Stories of a 1905 mutiny by Russian warship crew members during the Russo-Japanese war seemed almost palpable. Remnants of that time, in the form of the shipwreck, were still visible, adding a tinge of historical wonder.
Before leaving, a young Madagascar Iguana, Oplurus cuvieri, made an appearance, its presence in Madagascar a bio-geographic enigma given the family’s dominant existence in the Americas.
Ambaliha beckoned next. Challenged by the low tides, we had to proceed on foot for the last leg of the journey. Recollections from our 2004 visit flashed back as we reached the only store in the village. It stood as a trusted outpost, allowing us to offload some gear, ensuring a lighter journey ahead.
Emmanuel Van Heygen
“An unexpected giant crossed our path in the form of Furcifer oustaleti, Madagascar’s largest chameleon. Its sheer size was staggering! The peninsula, with its kaleidoscope of color, also showcased varying hues of the panther chameleon, Furcifer pardalis.”
Madagascar, the land of mystique and wonder, has always been revered for its unparalleled biodiversity. Every step on this island is a testament to nature's grandeur. And there, in the midst of the towering bamboo of Ampisindava, was our stage, where nature's drama would unfold.
The day's adventures guided us from Ankify to Ampopo, along the shores of the Ampasindava Peninsula. As we approached, dolphins frolicked near our boat, offering a spectacle of nature's dance. The evening saw us under the open skies of Ampopo's virgin beach, with a crackling campfire warding off nature's nocturnal visitors.
Once we reached the bamboo forests, we were again stunned by the density of day geckos. In the internal bamboo forests of the Ampasindava peninsular, Phelsuma vanheygeni is very common. It shares its habitat with Phelsuma klemmeri, Phelsuma seippi, Phelsuma laticauda and the bigger Phelsuma madagascariensis grandis. Phelsuma vanheygeni is one of the smaller day gecko species that is well adapted to living in bamboo.
Achim Lerner's initial description of Phelsuma vanheygeni in the 'Phelsuma' journal, courtesy of the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles.
The Exo Terra expedition left Paris for one of the remotest and inhospitable parts of the ‘Red Island’: Madagascar. It took the expedition team four flights, a 10-hour ocean trip and several hours by pirogue through the natural canals of the dense mangrove forests to finally install the first campsite. Although it was supposed to be the dry season, it wasn’t. Tents had to be erected in the pouring rain, and the team’s equipment was drenched. With everything soaked, the inside-out tent’s only remaining purpose was protection against the millions of biting mosquitoes. Madagascar is one of the world’s high-risk areas for Malaria, a mosquito-transmitted and often fatal disease.
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