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Encounters with the lemurs of Madagascar

Madagascar is just a quarter of the size of the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet boasts an incredible number of different lemur species, each of which is completely endemic. Most famous is the indri whose calls awaken weary travellers with a rush of excitement, other famous species include the ring tailed and dancing sifaka.

Perhaps a little less known is the eerie aye aye, whose intriguing looks, including bulbous eye and a very long finger, led to much supernatural suspicion among the Malagasy people.

A safari to Madagascar in October could bring you face to face with endeering baby ring tailed lemurs.

MAD Sl Madagascar Crowned Lemur Black Lemur Hybrid Credit Shannon Wild
MAD St Madagascar Andasibe National Park Coquerel Sifika Lemur Shutterstock Mbrand85


A variety of different lemur species inhabit the Red Island, from the dwindling forests in the interior to the scrublands of the south and even in the forests and beaches of Anjajavy. Experiencing these intriguing creatures is very different to trekking the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, or orang-utans in Borneo, with such a range of species and personas to spot.

Lemurs are prosimians rather than anthropoids (humans, monkeys and apes are the latter), hence evolved earlier and have a very different way of life. Unlike all other primates, prosimians use their sense of smell to differentiate between individuals in their group and suss out what is safe to eat and females play the dominant role, defending their group and choosing who to mate with.

Primate extinction has already occurred on this island. Fossil records prove approximately 2,000 years ago 47 primate species used to exist on the island with the largest growing bigger than an adult male gorilla. Since then 85% of the island's forests have been destroyed as a result of slash and burn agriculture, 70% of the island's primate population is now in some type of trouble; several of these species are close to extinction.

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Lemur Species & Distribution

Ring Tailed lemur

Easily recognisable by their banded tails and dark, mask like eyes, ring tailed lemurs inhabit dry scrub, deciduous and gallery forests in the south and southwest of the island. More terrestrial than most lemurs, they live in groups of up to 20, mainly in Isalo, Andringitra and Andohahela National Parks and the Berenty Reserve.

Black Lemur

Males are all black and females have a brown back, a grey head, long white ear tufts and are white underneath. These cathemeral (meaning they have irregular bursts of activity) lemurs are more active during the night and inhabit forests in the northwest of the island of groups of about 7 – 10.

Red Ruffed lemur

One of the largest primates in Madagascar, these lemurs are restricted to Masoala Peninsula in the northeast. Weighting between 3.5 and 4 kg, they are characterised mainly by their rusty red coloured ruff and body, and black stomach, tail, feet and inside of the legs. They also have a white patch on the backs of their necks and may have white markings on their feet or mouths.

Verreaux's Sifaka

Also known as white sifakas, they belong to the same family as the indri. Despite being tree dwellers they do have to cross the ground occasionally, which is perhaps what they are most famous for. Standing only on their long back legs, their forearms above their head for balance they have the appearance of dancing as they jump across the forest floor. Found in the south and west of the island, they share their territory with ring tailed lemurs.


These are the largest of the lemurs, known for their strange wailing song and teddy bear like appearance. Indris inhabit the island's eastern rainforests, namely Andasibe National Park.

Bamboo Lemur

Living in small groups of up to four, they feed mainly on bamboo. The most common of these species is the grey bamboo lemur, which can be seen is several of the eastern parks. The golden bamboo lemur, however, is much rarer and mainly seen in Ranomafana National Park.

Mouse Lemur

This abundant species can be found throughout Madagascar and most easily seen in Ranomafana and Andasibe National Parks as well as the Berenty Reserve. These nimble creatures are the smallest of the primates, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur being the tiniest weighing just 30 grams, growing up to 100mm long.

Aye Aye

Despite being quite well spread, these eerie looking, solitary creatures are rarely seen. Covered in the black or dark brown fur, with white guard hairs around their neck, aye ayes have a bushy tail not dissimilar to a squirrel. They also have rodent-like teeth, round dish-like ears and beady luminous eyes. Their fingers are long and thin, the middle finger being up to three times longer than the rest to extract grubs from inside trees.. Known for being rather fearless, aye ayes are considered a nuisance by some villages and a symbol of death by others!

What is a Lemur?

Lemurs belong to the category of primates known as prosimians, which also includes monkeys, apes, and humans. These charming creatures are unique to Madagascar, having evolved in isolation on the island. Unlike their primate counterparts, lemurs stand out with their moist noses and a greater dependence on their acute sense of smell.

Where can you see Lemurs?

Lemurs, native to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, thrive in Madagascar's rich biodiversity. Explore their natural habitat in numerous protected areas such as Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, famous for its lush rainforests and Indri lemurs, and Ranomafana National Park, home to diverse species including the golden bamboo lemur. Isalo National Park offers the chance to spot ring-tailed lemurs against striking sandstone formations, while Ankarana Reserve features unique limestone landscapes and crowned lemurs. Berenty Reserve provides up-close encounters with ring-tailed lemurs and sifakas, and Kirindy Forest introduces you to the fossa, a lemur predator, among various lemur species. Ethical ecotourism is essential to protect lemurs and their habitats.

Are Lemurs Endangered?

Madagascar's ring-tailed lemurs are in a critical state, with their wild population plummeting by 95 percent to just 2,000 to 2,500 individuals over the past 17 years. There are now fewer ring-tailed lemurs in the wild than in zoos globally, totalling around 2,800 individuals, with additional lemurs in smaller collections, labs, and the pet trade. This shift from the most common captive lemur to one of the world's most endangered emphasises the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect these iconic lemurs and their natural habitats.

What do Lemurs Eat?

Smaller lemur species tend to have diets primarily consisting of fruit, insects, or sap, while their larger counterparts are mostly herbivorous, consuming plant materials like fruits, leaves, flowers, nectar, shoots, and bark.