It is fady to kill a lemur. The punishment is ill health, and five years in jail.
Madagascar, the planet’s fourth-largest island, floats 250 miles off the east coast of Mozambique in the southwest Indian Ocean. The Afro-Indonesian people govern their lives with a series of social taboos, or fadies. And a long-time fady, rooted in the commands of the razana, the Ancestors, is that it is wrong to kill the little button-eyed primates called lemurs.
The clocked relatives of monkeys, apes and humans are found only on this island, rafted away from the vast bulk of the African continent 165 million years ago. Yet even today, in a world of heightened environmental consciousness and recognition of the accelerating loss of species, lemurs are still being killed; sometimes served at the tables of wealthy foreigners who will pay a little extra to have a taste of the exotic. In the 1990 Marlon Brando film, The Freshman, the plot revolves around a moveable restaurant that serves endangered species to high-rolling epicureans. In a case of life imitating art, I hear a rumor that a restaurant exists in the Malagasy Republic that serves lemur.
When I approach Antananarivo, the 200-year-old capital, on an Air Mauritius Boeing 737, the air is thick with smoke, the landscape parched and coughing. As subsistence farmers below are clearing crop and pasture land and scorching trees to create charcoal, I struggle to fill out the customs and immigrations form on my lap. After 25 hours flying from Los Angeles, it is not a simple chore on the coarse, brown customs form that seems made of cheap toilet paper.
While waiting for the baggage in the Ivato International Airport I visit the men’s room, and discover in a world of disappearing species there is yet another. The attendant offers to sell me toilet paper, as there is none in the stall. “There is a shortage in Madagascar,” he explains, and I know why—it is being used for customs forms.
Within an hour I am on another Air Mad flight to a large island off the northwestern shore of the Mozambique Channel, Nosy Be (“Big Island” in Malagasy). From the air there is muscular poetry to the brown, bare landscape, the raw red rivers, like broken veins, bleeding to the sea. Astronauts have said the Texas-sized island was the only landmass easily identifiable from space, because it is surrounded by a halo of rust-red sea, the color of the lateritic topsoil relentlessly scrubbed off its denuded surface by wind and rain.
The microcontinent of Madagascar is the most eroded place on earth. Man has grievously wounded this estate. Some estimate 90% of the Great Red Island’s forests have been destroyed, and that it continues to lose 375,000 acres a year, a rate that will insure a totally bald island within a lifetime. The impoverished farmers of preindustrial Madagascar deliberately torch the rain forests for fuel and agricultural land. After a few seeding seasons the thin soil is depleted, erosion sets in, the tired, overtaxed land is abandoned, and a new wedge of forest is obliterated, a dangerous cycle that promises to turn the land that time forgot into a dead zone.
In the 15th century Arab traders called Madagascar the “Isle of the Moon.” Today the epithet seems prophetic. The protection of the remaining woodlands is a race against starvation, ignorance and time.
As we begin our descent to Nosy Be, bright Ricky Nelson and Roy Orbison tunes playing over the loudspeaker challenge the scene below. But, as the wheels lower, the landscape turns green, and a flock of snowy egrets flutters from the parasol of a gigantic glossy frond. To further abet the mood change, as I step off the plane a lei of fresh frangipani and bougainvillea is placed around my neck by a smiling Malagasy girl. She leads me outside to a row of stands where plump, giggling women are selling stacks of vanilla, bottles of mango, and peppers in vinegar. This suddenly seems a happy place.
I climb into a red, candy-striped two-cylinder Citroen Deux-Chevaux with a $100 bill stuck on the front windshield. Looking closer I see a profile of Madonna where Ben Franklin belongs, and in place of the nation’s name are the words “Altered States of Madonna.”
We bump down a sun-roasted road trying in vain to avoid the potholes that are an unstudied endemic species in Madagascar. The edges of the road are lined with kapok and pollarded yellow-flowering ylang-ylang trees from which a perfume essence is extracted. We roll past vast sugar cane fields and balloon-sharped concrete huts built in 1921 as cyclone shelters. I check into Les Cocotiers hotel, and on the wall is a sisal fiber tapestry of a village scene, and next to it a lizard I would get to know. He hangs on the wall like a bad canvas: Art Gecko.
At lunch I spy another vazaha, a paleface, and wander over to join George Rosemond, a retired surgeon from Philadelphia. In a country that has only allowed tourists since 1984, it now sees about 200,000 visitors a year, and a fraction of these are Americans. If George and I had passed one another in Philadelphia, we would have gone by without a nod…but here we practically embrace, and spend minutes sharing travel hints and tales. We then order the local special, a pork stew with sticky rice spiced with green leaves from a flower called anamalaho, which leaves tongues stinging as though stuck in an electric socket. This leads us to a couple of bottles of Eau Vive, French bottled water. But we soon discover that beer in Madagascar is cheaper than bottled water, so we switch to hearty Three Horses beer, into which George pours his own airline-sized bottles of Canadian whiskey.
Several bottles of Three Horses lead George to tell me of his ordeal in getting to Madagascar. A week earlier he made the same grueling flight I had to Mauritius from the U.S., but when he caught his connecting flight to Madagascar, he was unaware there was an intermediate stop. When the plane landed, he followed the crowd, went through immigration, where his passport was stamped, and proceeded to customs. When his bags never appeared, he exited customs to see if the promised travel agent was there to meet him. But there was nobody. So, he flagged a taxi and asked to be taken to the Antananarivo Hilton, as described in his itinerary. But the taxi driver, who spoke only French, shook his head no, and left. Bewildered, George sought out an airline employee, who courteously listened to his plight, then smiled and explained that George was unfortunately not in Madagascar as he thought. He had stepped off the plane one stop too soon, and was on the French Overseas Department of Réunion Island.
Now George has been in-country for ten days with Lemur Tours and is joining me for an exploration of Nosy Be and its adjacent island, Nosy Komba. To get to the dock we drive through the hot, rickshaw-filled streets of the eponymously named Hellville (Admiral de Hell accepted cession of the island to France in 1841), and among the rosewood canoes we board a motorized pirogue named Pirate. Madagascar was once a veritable den of pirates, especially during the end of the 17th century. With its many hidden coves, ample supplies of lemur meat, fruit and water, the island provided a perfect base for privateers of every stripe. Madagascar then reverberated with debauchery, violence and brutality; some argue things have not improved in the stripling years of the 21st century.
It is a 45-minute sail to the volcanic outcropping called Nosy Komba, and along the way the dolphins leap at our stern as though encouraging the voyage. Once on the busy beach we wade through women snugly wrapped in lambas (technicolored cotton shawls) and warm-faced, barefoot children whistling through bougainvillea blossoms, all chatting in a mellow, polysyllabic tongue related to a language in central Borneo. Behind the main village of Ampangorina we step past an old blind man strumming a resonating tubular bamboo box with metal strings called a valiha, and into the black lemur reserve.
Scores of Margaret Keane critters loll in the crotches of trees, swing from rafter-like branches, bounce lightly through the trees like arboreal kangaroos, and scramble to human shoulders to beg bananas with big, irresistible, imploring eyes. The males are truly black, sable-furred from head to toe, faces punctuated with wide, inquisitive, lemon-colored eyes. The white-bearded vulpine females sport fashionable golden-furred coats, and earmuffs of white Einstein hair.
Diurnal and fruit-eating, these creatures are remarkably trusting of people. Not a trace of fear fogs their translucent eyes, a result of an isolated evolution without predators since the Age of the Dinosaurs. Conservationists say 80% of the flowering plants (some 10,000 species) and 90% of the beasts on this singular outpost, including the 31 species and 40 subspecies of lemurs, are found solely on Madagascar, and its satellite islands. The area is the most outlandish living laboratory of evolution in the world, far more than the Galapagos. It is, in a way, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World.
When the cataclysmic forces of plate tectonics tore the island from the African continent, its cargo of plants and animals merrily evolved on a parallel but separate track from the rest of the Earth’s ecology. “It is as if time had suddenly broken its banks and flowed down to the present in a completely different channel,” wrote naturalist Alison Jolly in her classic book, A World Like Our Own. Because of the island’s unequalled levels of endemism, razing a patch of irreplaceable primary forest, or poaching an animal, can have more devastating repercussions here than just about anywhere. Several new primate species have been discovered in this natural attic in the last few years. The rosy periwinkle, the source of a medicine used to treat childhood leukemia, grows here. It’s quite possible a cure for the Zika virus, or some other scourge, might be in a patch of forest about to be burned.
While we disport with the black lemurs, a local guide, Pierrot, tells me that the tradition among the Nosy Komba villagers is strong: “If you feed the lemurs you will be rich; if you kill one, you will become sick and die.” I ask Pierrot if he has heard of a restaurant that actually serves lemurs. As far as he knows, no such eatery exists.
Under an old fig tree cabled with lianas we lunch on carangue fish. Not far away a white-necked pied crow waits patiently for our scraps. It is hard to imagine, looking over the curved, coconut-palmed white beach to water like tourmaline glass, that this is an Eden on the edge, with several species already pitched into the abyss.
Some have likened those who hunt lemurs to the Nazis. In 1934 Hitler devised a plan to deport European Jews to Madagascar, where it was hoped they would all die from tropical diseases. But when the British took the northern part of La Grande Ile from the Vichy government, the plan was abandoned. In its place Hitler sanctioned the Final Solution.
The following day I fly back to Antananarivo, and I hook up with a guide named Serge, who lost his left eye to an arrow playing Cowboys and Indians when he was a small boy. Serge’s surname is Harizo, a name he claims is one of the shortest in the country (the king who conquered and united the highland clans in 1794 was named Andrianampoinimerinadndriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka). I ask Serge if he knows of the rumored restaurant. He says he has, just recently, but doesn’t know if it really exists, or where it might be, but he promises he will put the word out, and help me try to locate. I7n the meantime, he will take me to the special reserve at Perinet, 60 miles to the east, halfway to the coast.
As we bowl down the road that switchbacks off the eucalyptus and pine-lined Hauts-Plateaux of Antananarivo, there is a haze both inside and outside the car: outside from the incessant burning, inside from Serge’s cigarettes. Even though Serge has met less than a score of Americans in his guiding career, he has seen enough to make observations, and one is that to Americans smoking is fady. I agree and ask, if out of cultural deference, he might put out his smoke. He does.
The trip takes us past gneissic slopes covered with coarse grass and lavaka, great fan-shaped erosion gashes in the hillside, looking like fleshy wounds inflicted by some savage giant. And then there is the burning. In the distance the fires are a necklace of streetlights. Up close, the defoliated, barren landscape is much uglier.
Once at Perinet we take a nocturnal walk down the Ancienne Route Nationale Numero Deux, into the protected montane forest. The silence is carpet-deep, and our guide, Laurette, speaks in a cathedral hush as she sweeps a weak flashlight across the trees. Every few minutes her narrow beam catches the round, hot-coal eyes of the world’s smallest primate, the reclusive antigi or mouse lemur, about the size of a newborn kitten; and those of the fat, brown, greater dwarf lemur, as well as the eye shine of tiny tree frogs and chameleons (two-thirds of the world’s chameleons slink on this islands alone, including the biggest and the tiniest).
In the morning I awake to the strange calls of wild lemurs, and am quite excited with the sounds, until Laurette tells me all I am hearing are chickens. Then, after a breakfast of boiled zebu milk, litchi nuts, and an inedible barnyard egg omelet fried in palm oil, Laurette takes me to stalk the wild indris, the largest of the lemurs. We walk over the Sahatandra River, beyond the entrance to the reserve—the river, says Laurette, where her cousin Joseph, the best wildlife guide the area had ever produced, was murdered in a jealous rage by two other guides incensed over Joseph’s success.
A flock of raucous black parrots flap over us, and I watch a malachite kingfisher levitate over the river. A cuckoo shrike with a long, dark tail flutters nearby. As we turn into a glade of creaking bamboo, a blizzard of butterflies briefly eclipses the view (there are 3000 species of butterfly in Madagascar, of which 97% are endemic). We hike past a tall, wire-mesh structure, where an attempt was made to keep indris in captivity. The complex diet of the animals includes fruits and leaves from some 60 trees, only a sampling of which grew in the large cage. When several indris died in the coop, the experiment was cancelled.
We stop next at a thorny-fingered tree from which Laurette plucks a foot-long virulent green Parson’s chameleon from its uppermost branches, and poises it on her sweater. As if on cue it blinks and rotates its bulging red eyeballs in independent directions, and takes on the brown of the sweater. Then she points to a native crow-like bird with a deeply forked tail and a silly crest. It is a drongo, which has, she says, a very human-like wail. Like lemurs, it is fady to kill drongos. Legend has that in the 17th century pirates raided the region looking for slaves. When the villagers fled to the jungle, some of the women with babies couldn’t keep up, so they hid in the bushes. As the pirates were passing, a baby cried, and they stopped to investigate. Then they heard the cry again, but noticed this time it came from a bird. Thinking they were duped by the bird, they turned and left, and the mothers and babies were spared. Since then drongos have been considered sacred.
Laurette moves with a feline grace through the tangle, and I awkwardly stumble behind. After we crawl through the damp, orchid-festooned forest for an hour, the air splinters with the spine-chilling, unearthly call of the indri. The sound grabs me by the scruff of the neck and points ears skywards. The word “lemur” is from the Latin for ghost, and the aural-linked etymology seems clear as the calls seem to echo from the hereafter. They are loud, eerie and childlike, sounding to me like some kind of sad human saxophone.
The ghostly symphony lasts only three minutes, then abruptly stops, leaving behind the susurrus hum of insects and the flatulent honks of frogs, feeble by comparison. Laurette makes a loud kissing sound, followed by an exhaled “haaaaa”—the call of love, she explains, and they respond with more fortissimo musical wailing. The indri song, often compared to that of the humpback whale, is one of the loudest sounds made by an animal, one that peals through the forest for nearly two miles. It seems the plaintive sound of a besieged species.
Laurette calls the indri babakoto (loosely translated in means “ancestor”), and explains that they are fady to eat, as the people believe they are directly related to the animals. But even though it is fady to kill these in-laws, and quite illegal, every year many within the reserve are lost to poachers, the “killer apes,” who can traffic the meat for the comparative fortune of $1 a pound. I ask if she has heard of an eatery on the island that buys the rustled lemurs to then cook and serve to unscrupulous customers. She says there are many rumors, but that nobody she knows has yet found this awful place.
We finally sight four of the boy-sized, tailless indris, two of each sex, with panda markings, teddy-bear ears, and haunting amber eyes. Their fur is thick and silky, predominantly black, with patches of white on their backs, rust on their tummies, and slated by gray around the bar, black muzzles. Four stories up, they ricochet from precious hardwood to hardwood, though a palisade of trunks, one after another, as though catching the same bus to work. At one point the rain forest suddenly seems to be weeping, and Laurette turns to me with a broad grin across her moon-shaped face. The indris are urinating, something they do in unison, and by schedule, every morning, creatures of habit. Then they are off again, using powerful thrusts of long, agile, black-socked legs to make graceful, acrobatic flings. They look so cuddly, so human, that it is easy to see why the locals believe indris are ancestors. It is difficult to fathom how they could be hunted for food.
I take the narrow-gauge train, nicknamed Fandrefiala after a long, slim forest snake, back to Antananarivo. A poster beneath the steeply peaked, dormered roof at Andasibe (Big Station) proclaims FOREST, HEART OF MADAGASCAR, a propaganda piece designed to motivate a change in thousand-year-old habits. Yet on the way back the passengers’ faces became soot-streaked from the trees burning out the windows, and flakes of forest flutter through the car like pages of a yellowing book. Outside is a charred, ravaged wasteland, acres and acres of smoldering devastation. Much of the native forest is aflame from farmers engaged in the ecologically disastrous technique of slashing and burning new croplands, mostly to grow dry rice. Others are burning select eucalyptus and tamarind for charbon, charcoal. It takes about ten trees to create a four-foot-high sack of charcoal that sells for about $1 a bag. “Forest in a sack,” Serge calls it.
While Madagascar is one of the richest nations in the world in terms of nature and biodiversity (the 18th-century French scientist Philibert Commerson called it “the naturalists’ promised land”), it is one of the poorest economically, with an average per capita income of just $250. The country has been independent since 1960, yet under an old French law still on the books contraceptives are illegal in Madagascar, so the typical rural family has eight or nine children. The country posts an alarming 3 ½ percent annual population growth—in the last 20 years the population has more than doubled to over 24 million, threatening to capsize the boat.
In order to cook the rice necessary to feed so many children the parents need fuel, and the fuel of choice, because it is cheapest, is charcoal. Thus, for most in Madagascar, environmentalism is a long-sighted luxury that clashes with current crying needs; the next meal is the priority. In 1986 over 40,000 people died in a famine in the southeast, and out the train window I see countless children potbellied with malnutrition. But if alternatives to existing practices aren’t adopted, the present will be a burnt sacrifice to the future. Incinerating one’s own environment is the ultimate self-immolation. H.R.H. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and founding president of the British National Appeal, the first national organization in the World Wildlife Fund family, once watched a flaming forest in Madagascar and said to His hosts, “Your community is committing suicide.” But even His Highness could offer no viable alternatives, no ready solutions. It is a tragedy without villains, a war against an enemy with no face.
I spend the night in Antananarivo, and out my window a blue haze of smoke drapes itself around the flowering jacaranda trees, the spires of churches, and the roofs of the motley, orange-tiled homes. At breakfast I ask Serge if he has had any luck locating the restaurant. He hasn’t, but is still trying, and hopes to find it by the following week.
In the warehouse-like airport I linger at a gift shop featuring belts ($50), wallets ($80), purses ($176) and briefcases ($300), all made from the skins of crocodiles whose forefathers swam from Africa during the Pleistocene. Now crocodiles have been hunted out almost everywhere on the island, except in a few lakes in the north, where they are revered as ancestors, and sometimes as profitable components of luggage.
The next stop on my survey is the southeastern tip of Madagascar. Fort Dauphin, on the opposite end of the island, is 999 miles from Nosy Be. Fort Dauphin and San Francisco are geographical antipodes, the farthest points on the planet from one another.
The flight down the island first passes over a puzzle of emerald-green rice paddy rectangles, then over a faded landscape with a threadbare coverlet of green, the tattered felt of an old billiard table. But as we cross the Tropic of Capricorn the felt fades to parchment, creased with chasms. The last minutes of the flight we sail over a lacerated folding desert that pours into the sea at the country’s oldest town, named after the Dauphin, the six-year-old prince who was crowned Louis XIV of France just as the first French settlement was being established in Madagascar in 1643.
Once a thriving port, it is now a harbor in an advanced state of decay, and famous for its winds. True to reputation, it is dark and blustery upon arrival, with purple-bellied clouds pressing ozone into my nostrils. I quickly pile my luggage into a white Renault station wagon and head north for the 50-mile, two-hour drive to Berenty, just as the last rays of the sun stipple the craggy granite mountains. Driving towards Berenty on a stormy night is like driving through a war zone. With the windows down I can hear the stutter of axes and the steady tears of saws between the peals of thunder. On each side I see fires lashing at the sooty night, burning to bring up new shoots of grass for goats and humped zebu cattle to graze. The lyre-horned zebu, more than a source of dairy and meat, are talismanic units of wealth, used to pay for marriages and funerals, and there is continued pressure to breed more. These fires are singeing the edges of the wildlife reserve, perhaps burning away species yet to be discovered. When Indonesian explorers first paddled twin-hulled outrigger canoes to the island around A.D. 1000, Madagascar was cloaked in virgin rain forest. Since then a pygmy hippo, an aardvark, two species of giant land tortoise, three species of bird (including the Aepyornis maximus, or elephant bird, a flightless creature weighing 1000 pounds and over ten feet tall that gave rise to the legendary giant roc of Sinbad’s second voyage, according to Marco Polo, who heard the tale from Arab traders,) and fourteen species of lemur have disappeared, their habitat burned for farmland and fuel, overgrazed by livestock, and their doom hastened by overhunting. Lemurs today are the most threatened mammal species in the world. Of the world’s 103 different species of lemurs, 23 are now considered ‘Critically Endangered,’ 52 are ‘Endangered,’ 19 are ‘Vulnerable’ and two are ‘Near Threatened,’ all clinging to the sides of a shot and sinking ark.
Near ‘the tree where man was born,” a bowl-shaped baobab, we take a right turn onto a pitted dirt track. It is a four-mile trundle through the species-unique spiny desert and across a neatly manicured sisal plantation to the 1,100 acres of private reserve owned by the wealthy de Heaulme family. These gardeners of Eden decided to protect the various species of the area back in 1936. A bony-faced, straw-hatted man wrapped in a blanket and wielding a spear is guarding the entrance, but as soon as he sees my white face, he lifts the barrier and says, “Salaam.” I am exhausted, so after dinner and a beer, I retire to a pillow filled with dry grass in my bungalow.
The morning next I awake to a furry little dog-face with bright Bart Simpson eyes staring at me from the doorway. It is a ring-tailed lemur. Then I hear the pitter patter of little footsteps on the roof…dozens of them, more ringtails, scampering, tap-dancing, insisting I get out of bed. I pull on my shorts and step outside to an alien panorama. There are scores of cat-sized prosimians with long snouts and squirrel-like tails bouncing everywhere. There are three species within 100 yards of my bungalow. Child-sized, creamy-furred, western sifakas are performing ballet-like sideways leaps across the road; red-fronted lemurs are swinging like circus children from octopus trees; and dove-grey ringtails, velvety tails curled like upright question marks, are frolicking around the grounds, snatching bananas from the accommodating Homo sapien visitors. Several have month-old babies clinging to their backs like miniature jockeys. It looks like a scene from the movie Gremlins, only here, on Main Street in Lemurville, all the critters are agreeable and nice.
At breakfast I meet the Breakfast Club, a group of habituated lemurs who shamelessly seduce visitors into sharing the fare. I also meet a group from Earthwatch (the Boston-based work-study group) on a two-week tour. After the repast, we all head down to the narrow gallery forest along the Mandare River, an exuberant brushstroke of life on an otherwise bleak canvas.
It is a special day. A researcher explains that the females in the troops are dominant, and will win any battle of the sexes. Members of a troop of twelve snack on the bean-like fruits of the tamarind trees, anthropomorphically sun themselves, perform dazzling acrobatics, groom one-another, engage in energetic play, mark territory boundaries with scent glands in the base of their tails, and sound calls of alarm when a harrier hawk swoops overhead. I hold a banana to one, who scampers over my shoulder from a bauhinia tree, and peels back the skin with human-like hands with black fingernails. As he chews, his round, lustrous eyes stare at me like a little Rodney Dangerfield begging for respect. Though the ringtail is only inches from my face, I stare back across a vast evolutionary distance. Still, there seems to be a flicker of recognition, and as I wonder how any caring human could kill and eat a big-eyed being who looks like a blood-related baby, the lemur seems to look back and wonder as well. I reach over and touch the long, prehensile fingers of his little hand, and they are cold.
Towards the end of the day, while lounging in front of a pit crawling with brown-backed radiated tortoises, I ask the woman researcher overseeing the Earthwatch group if she has heard of a restaurant that serves lemur. She scowls. “If there is such a restaurant, I would gladly go and burn the place down,” and she stomps off towards her quarters.
The next day I am back in Antananarivo, where the morning mango rains have washed the streets, but not the air. Serge tells me he has found the restaurant and will take me there for lunch. It is Friday, when the world’s largest open-air market takes over the streets, and so it is a slow drive to the Ambodifilao section of town, an area of decaying, pastel Gallic buildings with pointy roofs and second-story wooden balconies. The scene seems a watercolor in the smoky, diffused light.
There, on a narrow storybook street, is the Restaurant La Tulipe, subtitled Chez Claudine, with the tagline “Cuisine Chinosie, Specialties Gibiers”—Gibiers meaning “game.” We are a bit late for lunch, arriving around 2:00 pm, but there are a few stragglers, all European, finishing meals.
We take seats in the open-air section and look at the menu. It features cuisses de Nymphe L’ail (frog legs in garlic), and Pigeonneau frits, but no lemur, or “Tarzan,” as the waiter calls the animal. At first he claims they don’t serve Tarzan. But then, after much insistence, he excuses himself to speak to the owner. A few minutes later he returns to ask if we would like to try radiated tortoise, bats or boas, none of which is on the menu. We say no, that we are really interested in lemur. He apologizes and says they are out of lemur, but if we place an order they could supply one by next week. That won’t do, as I am scheduled to depart the country the following morning, so we shrug shoulders and order crabe farci and zebu sandwiches.
Sometime into the first few bites the owner, Claudine, appears at our side. She seems quite sophisticated and friendly, a stout, jolly, middle-aged lady with two gold rings on the fingers of her left hand and a gold broach in the shape of Madagascar on her breast. She looks vaguely European. In fact, she volunteers, her father was Chinese and her mother was half French, half Malagasy, and she owned the restaurant with her Chinese husband.
Serge explains that I traveled halfway around the world to taste lemur, and that I am well-connected back in the United States; I could bring other connoisseurs who might enjoy the exotic tastes of her establishment, if only I could sample the wares. She looks at me, searching for clues of sincerity, and suddenly breaks into a radiant smile. “I think we may have some lemur frozen in the refrigerator, left over from last week. Would you like to try that?”
Yes, we nod.
“Would you like it marinated in its own sauce, or with wine, ginger and mushrooms?”
“Could we try both?”
“Of course.” And she disappears into the back.
A few beats later I ask the waiter how can we tell it is really lemur being served. He vanishes into the kitchen, and returns with a fellow waiter. Together they proudly unfurl the skin of the red ruffed lemur, an endangered species. It had been killed by Claudine’s Chinese brother-in-law, who was, they say, at that moment out hunting more.
After about 15 minutes the victuals are served, and a decision has to be made. I knew I wanted to track this restaurant down; I knew I wanted to uncover this small, perhaps symbolic, atrocity and send word to the right people of these goings-on. But I hadn’t thought of what to do if actually served the animal. I screw up my face, then look to Serge, who stares back with his one good eye. Then Claudine steps to the side of the table and stares down at us. “Bon Appetit.” Then, after a few silent seconds, “What do you think?”
I pick up the fork and pick at the tiny ribs. She hovers over us, and I take a bite. It tastes like tough beef, even smothered in sauce. I chew, then try the other plate, and Serge joins me. Claudine stands over us for several chews, and we smile thinly throughout. Finally, she excuses herself, saying she hopes I will spread the word of her haute cuisine, and send her more tourists. I nod a promise, and continue to chew. When she leaves the room I take out my camera from my pocket and take photos. When it comes time to pay the bill I can’t help but notice that Tarzan is the heftiest item, more than double any other dish. It is 12000 Malagasy ariary, about $4 in U.S. currency.
I can’t say if it is the lemur, or the crab, but I feel ill the rest of the day, especially as we tour Parc Tsimbazaza, the national zoo, and the keeper shows me the red ruffed lemur. He explains that there are presently more in captivity than in the wild as they are being poached so effectively. That evening, after a frosty glass of Three Horses beer, I compose a note to the researcher I met in Berenty, and in it I tell of the restaurant at 17 Rue Rabezavana. I tell her if she is going to burn the place down, I will gladly supply the match. It is the one place in Madagascar that deserves to go up in smoke.
A few weeks later, I receive a note back from the researcher: “It’s gone.”
Richard – thanks for sharing this awesome read. Madagascar has been on my list for years – maybe I’ll go from Thailand later this year 🙂
BTW, Beirut is pretty cool – esp along the waterfront. Great restaurants here as well. Cheers ~ Dave