The Wailing Indri
The Wailing Indri: The Indri lemur is one of the most distinctive animals I have ever heard and one of the most striking I have ever seen. Like other lemurs they are only found in Madagascar and were plentiful and widespread during the 1900s but are now rated as critically endangered inhabiting the forests and parks to the east of Antananarivo, the most visited of which is Andasibe. It is among the largest living lemur species with adults weighing 6-10kg which have bodies ranging in length from 60-75cm and up to 120cm when the legs are extended. The indri are monogamous and mate for life and a new mate is only searched for when the other one dies. Even though they are among the biggest lemurs nowadays this is tiny in comparison to the Archaeoindris lemur which weighed in the region of 160-200kg but is long since extinct due to hunting and loss of habitat.
They have an impressive appearance with big green eyes peering out from a black furry face which is framed by longer fur and little ears. This combined with a snout and a small button nose gives the Indri a look of both surprise and curiosity at the same time. Their back is black and this colour covers the shoulders all the way down towards the base of the spine. This is only interrupted only by a white stripe which stretches from the lower back about six inches upwards. The front of the body is white as are the arms and legs. The hands and feet are black and the overall appearance is something of a cross between a giant panda and a badger.
The Wailing Indri is most active in the morning and their calls can be heard just after first light. After a morning meal they enjoy an afternoon nap. They are herbivorous and like to eat younger leaves but also eat certain fruits and flowers. Families are made up of 3-5 members and are dominated by the adult female who has the first choice when it comes to food and leads the family one movement through the forest. They may also live in larger groups with a few generations when habitat fragmentation prevents them from breaking away and forming their own family units
The most unforgettable thing about these lemurs is not their appearance however but the way they communicate. The sound they make is a cross between a high pitched wail and a hoot and anything in between, depending on what they are communicating. Groups or pairs communicate back and forth wailing and hooting in different notes until they have finished. I made a recording of them while in the forest which lasted roughly one minute with each sounds carrying well beyond the territory of each group. Scientists having discovered that each type of sound means something different with a roar meaning an aerial predator such as a hawk is in the area1. To be woken by one at 5am where I was staying at the edge of the forest near Andasibe national park is a treat and an experience that it would be impossible to sleep through.
With my guide for the day, Hermann, we were in the park before 8am. It is better to be there in the morning and as the Indri rest in the afternoon. We had very little success spotting them in the very early part of the morning as they were high up in the canopy feeding but there were many other things of interest in the park besides the lemurs. One of these was an ant’s nest but one unlike I have ever seen before. It was not at ground level but high up on the branch of a tree because the forest floor is too wet to make one there.
While we walked the trails looking for them and thinking they were miles away they occasionally burst into song and I realised how close they were and how powerful a noise they make when they are near. The sound is almost overpowering but in a good way. The vocal tennis back and forth between the groups is like flicking a loud stereo from left to right speaker and back again resulting in aural confusion and real appreciation of this great noise.
Hermann and I walked briskly following the wails when his phone rang, and he answered it!!! I was thinking to myself that better be a lemur calling telling you where he is. After the phone call we hit lemur gold for the next few hours so maybe it was a lemur on the phone.
A few minutes’ walk away there was a small group of three Indri right above us in the canopy having breakfast and they didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence. As I looked up I realised the Indri don’t have long tails like other lemurs but short stubby ones that are no more than a few inches long and difficult to see from a distance. At this stage of the morning they were still higher up in the canopy feeding and there was more lemur backside than lemur face on show. At times one did look down and I saw how lovely a face they have.
After feeding they come down from the higher canopy to rest so we could get a better view of them. If they need to defecate they come down even lower, almost to eye level and do their business which happens slowly over about fifteen minutes, which one did a few metres from me. As he relieved himself he sat there quietly looking around and occasionally at me with magnificent green eyes balancing on a thick branch. After finishing he just bounded back through the trees past me and away into the distance. Up close like this I saw powerful their hands and feet are and how agile they are as they move through the trees. I have never seen or heard an animal quite like these and feel privileged to have done so.
- Powzyk, Joyce; Urs Thalmann (2003). “Indri Indri, Indri”. In Steven M. Goodman; Jonathan P. Benstead (eds.). The Natural History of Madagascar. Chicago: University of Chicago. pp. 1342–1345.1