The Ampasindava Peninsula
Emmanuel Van Heygen
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.
The following day looked more promising as the sun’s strong rays woke the team members up early. This early start made it possible to reach our final destination, a mountain ridge covered with pristine rainforests, the same day. The first part of this journey was easy, or at least not tiring, since it was done by pirogue up the Kongony River. This river is one of the only places in Madagascar where the Nile crocodile is still found in large numbers—considering the size of the pirogues (smaller than the largest crocs), a scary thought!
The second part of the journey was a combined crawl and climb of 10 km up to the mountain ridge, located at an altitude of 500 meters. A small area in the dense primary forest was cleared of twigs, branches and lianas to build the second campsite. The clear skies this time made it possible to light a campfire and prepare one of the freeze-dried meals, a Spaghetti Bolognese.
The meal gave the team the strength for the first nightly survey around the campsite. Since this area remained unexplored by herpetologists and biologists, we were still determining precisely what species to expect, but we suspected the occurrence of Uroplates sp. or Malagasy leaf-tailed geckos. The problem in finding these geckos is their incredible camouflage capability. They blend perfectly with the tree’s bark, lichens, and mosses when resting on a tree trunk. They are much easier to spot during their nighttime activity hours, thanks to their specific shape and white bellies. Several giant leaf-tailed geckos, Uroplates henkeli, were found hunting for insects. The search for the small leaf-tailed, Uroplates ebenaui was unsuccessful, but other gecko family members like Paradoera oviceps and Geckolopis maculata were located.
The following day everyone was anxious to explore the area by daylight, and the blue sky looked very promising. The survey areas were determined at breakfast, crackers with honey, and the planning for the next few days was set out. The first micro-habitat to research was a huge bamboo patch within the pristine forest. It was medium-sized bamboo, about 5 cm (2″) thick and 6-7 meters high, that grew tightly together. The dead bamboo poles lay crisscrossed, intertwined like a game of Mikado. The first reptile to be sighted was again Uroplates henkeli, sleeping on a green bamboo. The reptile was easily spotted as its brown camouflage colours and pattern contrasted with the leafy green bamboo. Around the same time, the first rainforest species of day gecko was found, a Phelsuma seippi that also seemed to prefer medium-sized bamboo. A heavy rain shower made an early end to this exciting survey.
The afternoon showers created the perfect conditions to spot amphibians at night. That night, the humidity rose around 100%, and a chorus of hundreds of frogs created an enjoyable atmosphere throughout the forest. We heard many more frogs than we saw. No wonder when you know that many of these frogs belong to the world’s smallest species and live in between the leaf litter on the forest floor. We were lucky to spot the tiny Stumpffia pygmaea (1 cm or 1/2″), Madagascar’s smallest frog. Also, tree frogs like Boophis tephraeomystax and Mantidactylus sp. were recorded for the first time in Madagascar.
The sun was already present when the team opened their tents the following day. After freshening up in the mountain stream, the group headed again for the bamboo patch that was partly surveyed the day before. Upon arriving at the site, one of the team members noticed a leech stuck to his foot. This parasite was probably waiting for a victim in the mountain stream where we had bathed earlier. The leech was removed with a hot knife, and the team could start the survey. We spotted a tiny green gecko, but before we could take a closer look, the animal vanished in the tiny leaves of the bamboo. An extended search for the animal or similar ones was unsuccessful, but everyone was determined to find one of these little green geckos. It certainly looked like an undiscovered species.
A few days later, during one more attempt to find the ‘tiny green one’ (as the team members named the elusive gecko), the team left the base camp very early to be at the site by sunrise. Every team member took up a position under a specific bamboo patch, including the patch where the ‘tiny green one’ had first been sighted.
He had to wait until 10 o’clock before the little creature finally showed itself again! But this time, it was inevitable. A new species of day gecko was discovered! It took the team a while to capture it for further investigation and photography. The joy amongst the expedition members was great, and one of our Malagasy friends ran back to the base camp to get some warm beers, semi-fresh vegetables, and two cans of sardines while others built a table, chairs and even cutlery out of bamboo. The table was covered with a giant leaf of the traveller’s palm, and suddenly this damp forest area looked like a ballroom. This had to be celebrated! As a dessert, a fresh honeycomb with deliciously sweet honey was served.
After this successful day, the Exo Terra expedition broke down the campsite. It moved southwards to the village of Bemanivika, where we hoped to get some fresh supplies like bottled water and vegetables. We knew not to expect cold beverages since the peninsula had no electricity. After we found what we were looking for, the expedition headed back into the forest to find a spot to build a new campsite. That evening, the previous day’s discovery was much talked about around the fire as it was undoubtedly the highlight of the Exo Terra expedition.
In the morning, the pristine rainforest was beautifully lit by the first sun rays that played through the lianas and leaves of the forest’s giant trees. Close to the camp, again, a bamboo patch was located, and many of us were anxious to take a closer look. All the species we observed over the past week were found here again in great numbers, including the conspicuous Phelsuma klemmeri.
Suddenly, another tiny green gecko was sighted away from the bamboo in a tall palm tree! It was basking very high up on one of the top-most giant leaves. No chance to get there, we thought. But one of the Malagasy swiftly turned into a lemur, climbed to the tree’s crown in no time; cut off the leaf; and threw it, along with the gecko still attached, down to the ground. To our surprise, it contained another tiny day gecko species, Phelsuma quadriocellata parva, which had thus far only been found on Madagascar’s eastern coast. No record of it having been spotted on the northwestern coast existed.
Over the next few days and nights, many other micro-habitats were researched, and many reptiles and amphibians were found. Because it was within the dry season, only a few chameleons were sighted, like Furcifer oustaleti, Furcifer pardalis or panther chameleon, and the tiny and rare Calumma boettgeri. We had to wait for another significant discovery on the last day in the forest. Hidden between the leaf litter, we found a more than 2 meters (7 feet) long Madagascar ground boa, Acrantophis madagascariensis waiting for prey to pass. Tired, everyone went to sleep early, since the next day we had to walk for several hours back to the pirogues waiting for us on the Kongony River.
Before sunrise, the expedition left the pristine forest areas, longing for a dive in the ocean but first having to muddle through the mangroves again. With heartache, we left the dense forest and its animals behind us. The team was quiet as we drifted slowly along the thick walls of mangrove trees in our pirogues. This silence was broken abruptly as soon as we reached the beach and the open sea again. It was the first time we could safely dive into the water without the fear of leeches and crocodiles. We all enjoyed two more days on this remote and beautiful tropical beach. Still, some of us could not resist investigating the bushes and trees behind the beach, while others enjoyed the turquoise-blue ocean.
A boat appeared on the horizon, undoubtedly travelling faster than the tiny local pirogues with their square sails. Everyone realized this was the end of an extraordinary journey into Madagascar’s remotest corners. The boat brought us back to civilization, where a hot shower and a cold beer awaited.
Emmanuel Van Heygen
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.
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.
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