The most colourful lemurs I had the luck to see were the Diademed Sifakas in Andasibe national park, which is possible to visit on a day trip from Antananarivo. They are among the largest living species of lemurs with adults weighing up to 6.5kg and reach over 50 centimetres in length not including the tail. They live in family groups of up to ten individuals and can include more than one adult male and female.
The Diademed share 90 per cent of their range with the Indri but there is no conflict between the two, even though the eat mostly the same plants. This is because they eat different parts of the plants, with the Indri feeding on leaves high up in the canopy eating about 1 kilogram per day. The Diademed Sifaka on the other hand eats fruits and flowers at a lower level of the canopy so they can coexist happily. They have a territory of up to 50 hectares and boundaries are marked by scent.
Unlike the Indri who communicate with high pitched wails and lower pitched hoots the Diademed Sifaka uses what is referred to as the “kiss sneeze” to communicate danger but I did not get to hear any of these calls when I was in the park. Natural predators include the fossa, a cat like carnivore related to the mongoose family. It is the largest endemic predator in Madagascar with adult males reaching over 8.5kg in weight.
Diademed Sifakas are to be found in the forests of eastern Madagascar and are listed as critically endangered with loss of habitat due to expanding population and illegal deforestation carried out by miners among the main reasons for this loss.
The fur colours of the Diademed Sifaka make them unique among the lemurs I have seen and they have long, soft velvety looking coats with mostly black running from the lower back to the top of the head, a largely white face and front of body and orange fur covered arms and legs.
We got quite close to the sifakas in the branches and watched as they rested after their morning feed. I counted 8 in the group with 7 either adolescent or adults and one young one. After about 10 minutes I got a real treat when the younger ones came down and started to play on the ground right in front of me. They were a tangled matt of multicoloured fur, eyes and tails as they rolled around and wrestled with each other in a group of three. At one point one reclined against a tree with its hands behind its head, resting like it had done a long day’s work.
“They only come down to ground level and play like this when they feel safe,” Herman said to me, and I certainly felt privileged to witness this kind of behaviour. They occasionally stopped and looked around sometimes looking me in the eye. Being looked at in the eye by a lemur is one of the nicest things I have ever experienced with their permanently surprised looking eyes and face framed in a line of fur it is truly unforgettable.
After playing on the ground for about 15 minutes they went back to join the rest of the group who were up in the trees keeping an eye on things while the younger ones had some fun. The adults tired from eating and the others tired from a combination of wrestling and feeding all found comfortable branches and started to go further into relaxation mode. I Even got a picture of one mother sitting on a branch with her eyes closed while a baby nestled into her front.
Even though this one of the busiest parks in Madagascar there are relatively few tourists and I could watch individual families on my own with only my guide Herman for company. A visit to the Diademed Sifakas really is a magical morning.