Madagascar – Berenty – Pied Crow vs Chameleon Showdown (One of the coolest things we’ve ever seen)

The following morning we headed to Berenty, a private wildlife reserve in southern Madagascar where we had reservations waiting for us in what is a very touristy destination, or well, at least as “touristy” as Madagascar can get. Lemurs are notoriously easy, along with a few birds, so we opted to spend one night to enjoy what the reserve has to offer, despite the relatively high price tag associated for such comfortable accommodation. I was surprised to learn that given the amount of unique plants and animals, notably lemus, that the country of Madagascar has not exploited these biological treasures and turned into a region fueled by ecotourism. Sure, tourists come to Madagascar. Sure people want to see lemurs. But the wealth of the few foreigners is hardly making it to the pockets of our everyday Malagasay family because eco-tourism occurs on such a small scare compared to what some lodges have been able to do in the Amazon for example. I was surprised there weren’t more eco-lodges and resorts, but on the flip side, when I really started to think about it, the fact that all of the native habitat has essentially been chopped down eliminates the possibility of starting more. All that being said, The de Heaulme family, owners of Berenty Estate, founded a sisable plantation in 1936 beside the Mandrare river in agreement with local clans of the Tandroy tribe. Per their website, there they conserved 1000 hectare (~250 acres) of natural forests maintained as reserves to the present. The largest fragment, the 200 hectare Berenty Reserve proper, includes closed canopy gallery forest of ancient tamarind trees, drier open scrub, and the surreal “spiny forest” of southern Madagascar. It is home to six species of lemur, the south’s largest colony of Madagascar fruit bats, and 103 bird species, 56 of whom breed in the reserve.

Berenty is a neat place but also a rather funny one considering most of the plants and animals found there have been introduced. Truthfully Berenty is more of a zoo than anywhere else we’d visited, but it is the place to come if you want to see lemurs up close and personal while staying in fancy accomodation and therefore is high on a lot of tourist circuits. I can’t knock Berenty completely because it is a very enjoyable place. Eating a nice meal and drinking safe juice is a nice change of pace given that the food in rural Madagascar has to be some of the worst we’ve had in our travels to date. For the average Malagasy individual a typical breakfast would be one or two day-old fried dough balls that are all but flavorless while still managing to leave a terrible taste behind, or a flattened rice patty that tastes awfully similar to cardboard with a side of tea or coffee made with water that was collected from a stream that the local population of Zebu defecates in. One can only hope that the water was boiled for a considerable amount of time or else the local cuisine may come with a side of gastrointestinal distress. We have been able to find fried bananas on occasion, but unless they are made fresh even they can taste quite bad. We arrived in Berenty and it felt like we had stepped into a different world. Perhaps my opinion is skewed because we’ve been camping at all of the national parks so I haven’t seen the tourist accommodation, but our room in Berenty was easily the nicest place we have stayed at in all of our travels this year. And the food was equally enjoyable. We were shown to our room which happened to be larger than our whole apartment when we lived in Hawaii. The king-sized bed was luxurious in itself but was topped with down pillows and soft sheets. The “room” had a separate sitting area with adjoining patio and the whole thing was pleasantly aesthetic with fancy décor and photos of lemurs on the walls. And it was pricey, at $50 a night. That might not sound like a lot but considering the average Malagasy individual makes less than $1 per day, $50 is a lot of money. We initially planned to come to Berenty to search for birds (surprise, surprise) but as it turns out, we already had picked up all of the birds that we could get as potential lifers at other locations! Now it seemed we simply were coming to Berenty to relax and hang out with lemurs, which was alright by all because Berenty is the place to have down time if you have down time!

Ross and I did a walk that first afternoon and soon were joined by Josh but Geoff opted to stay back and rest, fully cashing in on this reprieve from long days out in the field. We didn’t see much but did have nice views of a nesting Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk. Our guide showed us to the trails and we had nice views of Giant Coua and learned that not much conservation is being done with the native species. Apparently several dozen Spider Tortoises and RadiatedTortoises are kept in pens but are never re-released to the wild. Also two crocodiles are in small cages and there’s been rumors that the owner at one point wanted to bring in Gorillas to really add to his zoo. Thankfully that horrible idea never came to fruition.  After our walk about where we had views of Madagascar Flying Foxes (large bats) and day roosting Totoroka Scops-Owls, we took a break for lunch and met back up that afternoon to visit the spiny forest and search for Running Coua. The spiny forest at Berenty was not nearly as picturesque as the forest in Andohahela but was enjoyable nonetheless. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the octopus trees weren’t greening up yet.  We managed sightings of a Subdesert Brush Warbler before finally catching up with a Running Coua, which Geoff and Josh had seen in Andohahela but Ross and I still needed to see. The evening ended with views of slightly more wild Verreaux’s Silfakas, and rarest of all a wild Spider Tortoise! Only very lucky visitors will stumble upon one of those, or so our wildlife guide book says.

We did a night walk with our guide before dinner and once again the Madagascar Nightjars proved to be brazen and on more than one occasion nearly landed on our heads while we were playing their calls! We were out searching for night goodies on the spiny forest trails but only turned up two chameleons, a mouse lemur and finally got Geoff views of Totoroka Scops-Owl, but a highlight was surely when Ross spotted a roosting Running Coua! We went back to the hotel and had a nice dinner before Ross and I headed back out once again and had a whole slew of White-browed Owls calling and perching above our heads!

Our last morning in Berenty was a very chill one that Ross and I spent meandering the trails searching for lemurs. We weren’t exactly expecting to have one of the coolest experiences ever. We were walking down a trail when Ross heard some lemurs calling in the distance that he hoped to go photograph. I stopped him because a Pied Crow was sitting in the middle of the trail playing with a branch. I told Ross I would rather watch the crow so we decide to check it out a bit closer. Turns out that the branch the crow was playing with had a Oustalet’s Chameleon on it! The crow likely broke the branch off of the tree and now was working to break off smaller branches so the chameleon would have less to hold on to. We watched the crow drag the branch back and forth until he eventually got it out from under the chameleon and that was essentially game over. The crow then grabbed the chameleon by the tail and proceeded to pick it up and drop it a few times. We were feeling a bit sad for the chameleon but such is the circle of life. It was one native species eating another. Perhaps if it was a common introduced POS (such as a Common Myna) attacking a rare endemic we would have intervened, but more often than not it is best to just let nature play out the course. It was still super neat to see and we walked away wondering how we ever got so lucky to witness something so neat! (The more time you spend outside the higher the chance to have the opportunity!)

Berenty was both relaxing and exhilarating and although we only picked up a single new bird, it was still more than worth it when it comes to watching Verreaux’s Silfakas “dance” across open areas or seeing them leap from tree to tree or Ring-tailed Lemurs run down the paths with their ringed tails high in the air. The most memorable mammals of Madagascar were abundant and we thoroughly enjoyed our time, but instead of spending the whole afternoon we opted to get on the road early and headed back to Fort Daulphin, where despite a lot of wind, finally managed good views on the endemic race of Kelp Gull. From here it was off to our next destination, the southwestern part of the country! Stay tuned!