Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, or Beza, has been a protected area since 1986 and consists of two pieces, Parcel 1 and Parcel 2. Parcel 2 is huge, a sprawling area of 500 hectares of desert-like, spiny forest, and the animals in Parcel 2 are extremely skittish of humans and livestock. Parcel 1, by contrast, is only 80 hectares, and is essentially a rectangle that measures about 0.7 km by 1.6 km. It has a system of trails on a grid, with the trails only 100 m apart. The trees along the trails are marked with color coded paint so it’s easy to find your way, assuming the lemurs don’t leave the path or venture outside the reserve, in which case, you’re on your own. The official southern and western boundaries of Parcel 1, are roads. Beyond these roads, the forest actually continues and some of the lemur groups live there, even if it is much more degraded by humans and livestock than Parcel 1 itself. The eastern boundary is the Sakamena River, which since it’s the dry season is one huge sand pit right now. When it’s running, the river is only 3-5 feet deep, but is well over 100 feet across. Near the river, the reserve consists of majestic, arching gallery forest. It’s super green and verdant, with a thick, lush canopy and tree trunks 100 m tall.
Thick vines hang from the trees and there’s much less undergrowth than the western part of the reserve, which is awesome for following lemurs when they’re on the ground; however usually they’re so high up in the trees that even with binoculars, your chances of figuring out who is who are slim. Right on the river bank is the thickest tangle of vines I’ve ever had the misfortune to follow lemurs through, and all of the vines have 1 inch thorns. You can almost hear the lemurs snicker as they head into the thickest tangles while you follow, cursing and tripping and trying not to lose sight of those black and white tails.
As you move west, away from the river, the forest dries out, and the canopy shrinks until the tallest trees are only 40 m tall and the undergrowth literally explodes until by the western edge, you’re fighting for every foot. And, for the cherry on top, the term ‘spiny forest’ is not a joke. While most of the tree trunks lack spines (most, not all), anything under 2 m is typically covered in them: small spiky ones, large spiky ones, small hooked ones, etc. Despite several days of over 100 F and high humidity, I wore long sleeve shirts over my tank tops because then I only came out of the forest sort of scratched up. The alternative was to be cooler sans overshirt, but to walk out of the forest hemorraging and possibly in need of a blood transfusion. Ok, it wasn’t that bad, but go chase lemurs at a dead run for 100 m and it will definitely feel that way.
Despite the thorns, the forest is gorgeous. It is peaceful and full of lemurs. There are at least 10 groups of ring-tailed lemurs, and over 40 groups of Verreaux’s sifaka, plus nocturnal lepilemurs and mouse lemurs. That means hundreds of lemurs in this one square of forest and its surroundings! It’s like lemur paradise. Exotic birds are everywhere and if you are lucky, you might even glimpse a chameleon, for which Madagascar is famous, or highly endangered radiated tortoise the size of a basketball. There are no large predators except the fossa, and feral dogs, neither of which are a worry for people unless you worry about your research subjects getting eaten.
Both the ring-tails and the sifakas have been studied here for almost 3 decades, and they are extremely used to humans. We clumsy humans do not disturb their daily routine as they forage, nap, fight, and play. If they are on the ground and you crash through a particularly thick tangle of thorns, they might run up the nearest tree. If they are already in the tree, they usually just give you the most disgusted look for interrupting their breakfast. Because both the sifaka and ring-tails are the subject of long term capture studies, they all have collars with numbered dog tags. This is totally great for identifying individual animals, except when you’re on the wrong side of the ID tag and can’t see the number. Imagine your frustration when, after spending an hour looking for any group of lemurs, you finally spot some! Then you wait for one to finally come out of the foliage where you can actually see the collar, wait for several more minutes while cricking your neck staring straight up for the lemur to finally turn the ID tag enough to see one side, and then you discover it’s the blank side. Fortunately, lemurs move around a LOT, so you’ll get another chance to ID that one…provided you can keep track of it as it disappears into the very thick canopy of course.
Next up, the Camp!