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Madagascar’s lemur is protected by a legend

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 863 published on  29 July 1978.

Lemurs, picture, image, illustration

Ring-tailed lemurs at play by Wilhelm Kuhnert

Stealthily, the hunter crept through the forest in Madagascar. A rustling in the branches made him look up and there, hastening away for safety, was a monkey-like creature with long, lithe limbs and a face like a dog’s.

It was an indri, a member of the lemur family. Raising his spear, the hunter was preparing to throw it when a half-forgotten tribal legend raced through his mind. He had heard the fathers of his tribe say that an indri was sacred. For this reason, it should not be hunted. And if a hunter were foolhardy enough to throw a spear at it, the indri would grasp the spear and hurl it back at the hunter.

Perhaps such legends were true, he thought. In any case, he decided to take no chances and went on his way – and the indri was saved by a legend.

This is among the many tales told about the indri, which could not really use a spear to kill a man. It would be more likely to hurry away to a safe hiding-place in the trees.

Indris wander in small groups through the volcanic mountains of Madagascar, a large island off the south-east coast of Africa. An indri stands about a metre high and has long, black legs and virtually no tail – just a stump.

Swinging by its large hairy hands and feet, the indri moves swiftly through the tree-tops, feeding on leaves, fruit and shoots. It picks these with its hands, which are well developed and have strong thumbs, and puts the food in its mouth.

Sometimes this method of feeding makes the indri seem almost human, although this impression is offset by its agile, monkey-like build and its face which resembles a dog’s.

In fact, the people of Madagascar call it “the dog of the forest”. The name by which we know it was given to it in an unusual way. When a European was being shown the wildlife of Madagascar by a local guide, the guide exclaimed in Malagasy, “Indri izy,” meaning, “There it is.” The European mistook this for the animal’s name, and the mistake has been perpetuated.

Another story says that the name indri came from the Malagasy name of endrina. In some districts, however, it is called babakoto or “little man”.

Indris are not found over the whole of Madagascar. A range of mountains running through the island cuts the indris off from the plains on the western side. They are thus confined to the forests in the east, where they roam about in the day in groups of four or five. However, some of them prefer to move around on their own.

The largest of the lemur family, the indri has an opposable great toe, the remainder being webbed. These give it great agility in the trees. It has a velvety-black head, shoulders and arms, which are offset by lighter patches.

In every drove, however, there are individuals with more lighter areas than darker ones, and there are others whose entire coat is white.

The lemur family, to which they belong, is a varied one. There are large and small lemurs. Of these, perhaps the best known are the bush babies of East Africa, which are always a favourite in zoos.

These pretty animals have soft woolly fur, long tails, large eyes and big ears which can be folded close to the head.

Madagascar is the home not only of the indri but also of the aye-aye, a lemur which is about as big as a cat. On each hand it has a long, thin third finger.

This is useful when the aye-aye goes in search of wood-boring grubs. After gnawing through the wood that protects them, it pokes at the grubs with its long third finger and eats them up eagerly.

Many varieties of lemur live in Madagascar, providing plenty of company for the indris as, protected by legend, they swing their way lithely through the trees.

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