Jewels of the bamboo forest I
Emmanuel Van Heygen
From the bustling streets of Brussels to the untamed wilds of Madagascar, the Exo Terra Expedition team’s journey was nothing short of extraordinary. Our adventure commenced with a leap from Belgium, touching down on Réunion Island, only to connect the following day to the mystical Nosy Bé, Madagascar’s crown jewel.
Upon our arrival at Fascene Airport, we were embraced by our spirited Malagasy team. Together, with vehicles packed to the brim, we ventured towards Ambatoloaka. This small resort town, though touted as Madagascar’s tourist hub, offers a raw, untouched charm unlike any other. One might expect opulent resorts, but instead, we found a quaint hotel that humbled many. Here, modern luxury intertwined with nature – our first day gecko greeting us from the ceiling!
Positioned by the shimmering beach, this once-sleepy fishing village resonated with tales of transformation. As tourism slowly trickled in, many locals swapped fishing nets for serving tourists. However, boats gliding by painted a picture of the island’s true essence: fishing remained its lifeblood. Our early preparations saw us bartering with local women, their heads adorned with baskets brimming with fresh produce.
As the sun dipped, we huddled with Monsieur Nazer, our local logistics maestro. Plans were laid, fuel estimated, and with fatigue setting in from our travels, we succumbed to a peaceful sleep.
Dawn heralded a new chapter as we set sail towards Nosy Komba. By noon, the island welcomed us with open arms. Dubbed ‘Lemur Island’, today the lemurs eluded us, but the beach yielded a treasure trove of reptilian wonders. From skinks sunbathing on the rocks to our first vibrant day geckos, every discovery was magical. Our quest in a bamboo grove for rare geckos remained unfruitful, but a stunning panther chameleon sighting more than made up for it.
With the sun guiding us, we sailed for a short 30 minutes to Ankify, each moment echoing the promise of more discoveries to come.
Nestled within the lush expanse of the Sambirano Delta, the Ankify Peninsula hides nature’s secrets in its dense thickets. As the speculated homeland of the brilliantly colored day gecko, Phelsuma klemmeri, our excitement was palpable. As our vehicle trudged into the bamboo-laden interiors, the world outside seemed to dissolve.
Phelsuma seippi, a vibrant relative of our sought-after Phelsuma klemmeri, greeted us first. But it wasn’t long before the true gem revealed itself—Phelsuma klemmeri in its full radiant glory! The bamboo thickets not only sheltered this gem but also housed the Phelsuma laticauda, another day gecko variant.
Madagascar’s serpent residents hold a curious distinction: they lack the deadly venom typical of their counterparts elsewhere. However, one intriguing exception greeted us—the Malagasy hognose snake. In a twist of nature’s humor, while observing this snake, we chanced upon another klemmeri. Our expertise was tested as we navigated bamboo crevices, eyes peeled, seeking the elusive geckos.
To our wonder, the region was abundant in gecko diversity. Alongside the giant Phelsuma madagascariensis grandis, we hoped to glimpse the diminutive Phelsuma vanheygeni—a species our Exo Terra team had first identified in 2004.
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. While males flaunted their colors, the elusive females remained a mystery.
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. While nightfall brought discussions and forest expeditions, dawn unveiled the peninsula’s untouched splendor. As if to bid us farewell, a Malagasy hognose snake slid past our camp, leading us to a young Panther Chameleon, the fabled Pink Panther, extending the known range of this magnificent creature.
Bordered by the forest and the beach, the region was adorned with blooming endemic orchids from the Angraecum genus—an entrancing sight we had to leave behind as we set our sights on Bezavona.
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.
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.
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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