Into the Forbidden Forest | Science19 min read
By the time Patricia Wright and her entourage arrived at the guard station on the edge of the forest, about 50 local people had gathered in the shade of a blue plastic tarp in the scorching noonday sun. The station, newly constructed of cinder blocks, sat on hardened, wheat-colored earth. Scrubby grass crunched underfoot, and taller grasses nearby had no hint of green. The local cattle, called zebu, which sport a large hump, were said to be dropping dead of thirst.
The punishing heat and drought were everywhere evident, but they were to be expected on this remote plateau in south central Madagascar. It wasn’t the climate, though, that brought Wright here on this trip, in December 2021. She had come to join people of the Bara ethnic group, who live in this territory, in celebrating the opening of the ranger station, which she helped build, and then to journey into the wilderness.
Wright, who is 77, is a renowned American anthropologist and conservationist, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York, and probably the world’s leading expert on lemurs, the bright-eyed mischievous prosimians that live in Madagascar. At the ceremony, she wore a peach-colored straw hat in a shape the British monarch might favor. She was serene and erect as she listened to the speeches in Malagasy. An elder said, “Madagascar welcomes you.” Wright smiled. She has been conducting field research in the island nation for more than three decades and has been recognized by the government with its highest honors, including a knighthood. But the Bara people tend to think of themselves as separate from the government of Madagascar.
An elder tribesman streamed toaka gasy, a homemade rum, onto the parched ground from a liter-size plastic water bottle as he murmured a string of prayers. Continuing to chant and pray, he poured rum into the building’s corner and emptied the bottle by vigorously splashing the crowd.
The pungent yellow fluid caught the bespectacled Wright in the face. She calmly peeled off her glasses and dried them on her batik-patterned scarf as she prepared to speak. “I see many friends here,” Wright said, and went on to say that donors, including the research center she had founded and the Rainforest Trust, would provide a zebu and several field plows to the tribe and pay for the digging of a new well.
After the ceremony, several dozen porters packed large white plastic bags with camping gear for the planned four-day expedition. The porters were smiling, apparently happy to be working at a time jobs were scarce. They began moving up the mountain trail; from a distance, they looked like leafcutter ants with packages hoisted on their heads. Following them was Wright, her husband, Noel Rowe, who served as the expedition’s photographer, four Malagasy scientists, five Malagasy research assistants, and three Bara gendarmes, or local police. Each gendarme carried a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder.
Their destination was a place that Wright herself had first learned about just a few years ago, a place previously unknown to science. It’s a wilderness that seems fantastic because the mere presence of many of its animals and plants defy basic ideas in biology. Also, it has been kept pristine—has been protected—partly by mythology. A taboo, actually. Perhaps that, too, contributed to the fantastic quality. In any event Wright would acknowledge the place had a hold on her. She called it the Lost Rainforest.
Madagascar, 250 miles off the coast of Mozambique, is about the size of France. It covers just 0.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial landmass, yet it contains fully 5 percent of its biodiversity: For every 100 plant and animal species known to science, 5 are in Madagascar. The landmass detached itself from India 80 million to 100 million years ago, so its plants and animals have had an enormously long time to evolve in geographic isolation. That has led to an extremely high rate of endemism, or unique life-forms. Eighty-nine percent of its plant life, 95 percent of its reptiles and 92 percent of its mammals (including more than 100 lemur species) occur nowhere else in the world.
In the mid-1980s Wright was an assistant professor at Duke University, studying tarsiers from the Philippines, when a professor challenged her with a seemingly impossible task: find a greater bamboo lemur in the wild. The species had not been seen for more than a decade and was believed to be extinct. Wright traveled to Madagascar, ventured into the southeastern rainforest where the animal had last been sighted—and found a greater bamboo lemur. While she was at it, she also discovered a new species: the golden bamboo lemur.
Wright was drawn to these charismatic primates, which most often live in matriarchal communities, demonstrate affection and keen intelligence, and are, she allows, incomparably cute. The primate order is divided into two major suborders, which split from a common ancestor: One suborder consists of tarsiers, apes, monkeys and hominids; the other, lemurs and lorises. For Wright, studying what lemurs and humans have in common offers insights into the evolution and behavior of our very earliest ancestors.
Soon came a pivotal moment in her research. She was sleeping in her tent near the town of Ranomafana in 1987 when she awoke to the explosive crack of a 300-foot tree crashing to the ground. A logging company was taking down the forest. If Wright wanted to continue studying lemurs, among the world’s most endangered mammals, she first needed to save them. So she hurried to Antananarivo, the nation’s capital, to plead with the head of the Department of Water and Forests to limit or prohibit logging, thus protecting the habitat. The country had no funds for creating a park or nature reserve, the official said, but he would do what he could if she raised the money herself.
She threw herself into saving the forest, setting out to win over residents of the dozens of villages in and around the lemurs’ forest. Some of the villages were so remote it took Wright days to walk from one to another. She asked the villagers to stop cutting trees and building houses in the forest—and asked what they wanted in return. Their answer: education, health clinics, money to grow more rice, and soccer balls. In 1989, Wright was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her groundbreaking lemur research and conservation initiatives. She gave most of her $250,000 prize money to the villagers.
She also secured a nearly $4 million USAID grant to build trails, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure in and around the forest she’d been working in. The result was Ranomafana National Park, the nation’s fourth, which opened in 1991. It covers 160 square miles of diverse forest, and its prohibition on logging and hunting protects more than 100 bird species and at least 12 lemur species, among many other things. Dozens of local residents were put to work as guides, and hotels sprang up to serve visitors. It would become one of Madagascar’s most visited parks.
In less than a decade Wright had gone from being a junior faculty member to a global voice in primatology and conservation. On the outskirts of the reserve she established Centre ValBio, a research campus that is an important stop for many scientists in training, including numerous Malagasy. Studies done in connection with ValBio have resulted in more than 1,000 academic publications. “Pat protected a huge swath of forest and went on to build an extraordinary research center that also addresses the needs of Madagascar,” says Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm. “Those are singular achievements.”
Even as Wright and many others were documenting Madagascar’s extraordinary nature, other forces have been destroying its biological heritage and making life increasingly difficult for its people. The nation is among the world’s poorest, based on per capita income, and the population has tripled in just decades, to 29 million. Southern Madagascar, which has not been much visited by tourists and their cash, is stricken by famine—a “food catastrophe,” according to the World Food Programme.
The booming population has needed more and more farmland, which has led to the loss of more and more forest. Like Madagascar’s earliest human inhabitants—Indonesians who arrived some 1,300 years ago—islanders today clear the landscape with fire. An average of more than 350,000 fires were detected every year from 2012 to 2019, according to a March 2022 study in the journal PLOS One.
Today Malagasy mostly set fires to encourage the growth of young grass, to feed livestock. The burning, in turn, has altered the weather, because grasslands move less moisture into the atmosphere than lush forests do, leading to higher temperatures and less rain. Between 1961 and 2005, average temperatures in Madagascar increased slightly, according to a World Bank study. Severe drought has plagued the island’s south for four years, contributing to food shortages and malnutrition.
All of which added to Wright’s skepticism when a Malagasy woman, hoping to break into the ecotourism business, said in 2016 that a desert area in south central Madagascar might be of interest to visitors. Expecting little from a place not known for wildlife, Wright nonetheless drove ten hours from Ranomafana to the site and found mile after mile of dry grasslands grazed by zebu—hardly a tourism magnet. But, looking through her binoculars, she spotted a dense patch of enticing green forest tucked between barren, cocoa-brown mountains. Such verdancy, she thought, was not possible. Fires have swept through the area for hundreds of years.
A few months later she returned, this time with a modest expedition to hike to the mysterious forest. What she found was shocking. Languidly munching figs on branches overhead were ring-tailed lemurs, a species hunted nearly to extinction elsewhere in Madagascar. On another branch nearby was an Oustalet’s chameleon the size of a rabbit, rotating one of its protuberant eyeballs in stop-and-start circles. “Snake!” the expedition cook shrieked, pointing to what looked like a massive pink earthworm. It couldn’t be a sand snake because that species lives only in coastal sand dunes, Wright thought. But that’s what it was.
This lush wilderness, classified as a humid rainforest, is situated 5,000 feet above sea level and covers more than 3,400 acres, or about four times the size of Central Park in New York City. Strangely, it was teeming with unrecognized species of frogs, chameleons and plants. Also, there were familiar species that did not ordinarily occur together. The lemurs, the snake and the chameleon, among other animals Wright cataloged, were in fact desert or dry-forest creatures. Fascinating. “It was as if they came together via some ancient crossroads,” Wright says, “and somehow survived.”
On her initial visits to the Lost Rainforest, in 2016 and 2017, Wright and her co-workers trapped lemurs that resembled none she’d ever seen. She and her team believe they’ve identified a new species of bat, multiple new species of mosses and lichens and a new ebony tree. Researchers have also documented about 40 species of tardigrade, a tiny, nearly invisible eight-legged invertebrate also known as a water bear; 21 had never before been observed in Madagascar, and three were entirely new to science; one of those will be named after Wright, Milnesium wrightae. A hedgehog-size insectivorous mammal called a tenrec was in abundance. Crested ibises—scarce in other parts of Madagascar because of deforestation and being hunted for food—were seen flying overhead.
Biologists have a couple of different ways of thinking about a wild ecosystem full of animals and plants usually not found together. One possibility is that it’s a “relict,” an isolated patch of stable environment surrounded by lands that have changed dramatically; the unusual mixture of animals within this time capsule reflect the way things were long ago. Alternatively, the ecosystem could be a “refuge,” a safe haven that has attracted a strange menagerie of animals fleeing disparate places subjected to fire or some other threat.
In Wright’s view, understanding the origin of the Lost Rainforest could shed needed light on Madagascar’s past. A relict rainforest, for instance, suggests that Madagascar was once covered in forest, a scenario that Wright supports. Other scientists see it differently. The British primatologist Alison Richard is in the refuge camp, arguing that Madagascar’s interior has always had grasslands, in which case the presence of desert or dry-forest animals in the places like the Lost Rainforest suggests they fled their usual habitat and adapted to the wet environment over time.
Whether relict or refuge, “a forest in this area made no sense,” Wright said. “It is surrounded by nothing but desert.”
She had stopped to catch her breath on a steep incline as we hiked to the Lost Rainforest. We carried on, dodging red aloe plants and mounds of pink and white crystalline rocks before setting up camp by a windswept pandanus tree, whose fruit lemurs love.
What’s curious is that the Lost Rainforest has survived seemingly intact while much of the surrounding vegetation was regularly set on fire, for zebu grazing. Geography apparently offered the forest some protection. It stood in a 200-foot-deep valley ringed, in part, by quartzite mountains; when fire did sweep through the area, seedlings and saplings burned but not necessarily mature trees, enabling the forest and the wildlife it sheltered to quickly recover. But the fiercely independent Bara, one of about 20 ethnic groups in Madagascar, also played a role. They didn’t burn the forest itself, didn’t even hunt in it, save for the odd wild pig. They have in fact preserved it for many hundreds of years—an anomaly in a nation with ravaged forestlands. Wright, ever the anthropologist, wondered why.
Sipping tea made from toasted rice that night in camp, Wright explained that, in 2017, after exploring the northern end of the forest she was ready to move on to investigate the southern section. But her Malagasy staff urged her not to go. The southern forest was controlled by Tsarahambo, a bandit who kept zebu and was known to be violent. He had warned Wright’s staff not to enter the forest without his permission. So Wright asked to meet him and was summoned to his compound, a half-dozen mud and grass-roofed houses where he lived with his five wives. Tsarahambo motioned for Wright and her companions to sit on the dirt floor and spoke to them in a loud voice. She, her Malagasy colleague and James Lewis, head of the Rainforest Trust, were served a plate of sautéed grasshoppers.
“He was trying to intimidate me,” Wright recalled thinking. She washed down the grasshoppers with homemade rum.
“To go into my forest you will pay 200 billion ariary,” Tsarahambo demanded. In 2017, that amounted to $50,000. She countered with all the cash she had on her at the time and placed a wad of bills—the equivalent of $300—on the mat in front of him. “I agree with you,” Wright said. “There should be a price to enter the forest.” Tsarahambo took the cash and nodded his acceptance.
The next day, while Wright and her team were setting up cameras in the forest to monitor animals, they found a corpse: a local cattleman who’d been shot in the heart. Local people told Wright it was a hit by Tsarahambo.
So fear of Tsarahambo, it seemed to Wright, partly explained why villagers had been steering clear of the forest. This was his turf, at least until he himself was shot and killed, in 2020.
In addition, like many Malagasy, the Bara live according to fady, a system of beliefs or rules that help one avoid misfortune. An elder had told Wright that the forest was off-limits because little people with their feet turned backward lived there and would cast evil spells on trespassers. Younger generations may not believe in or even have heard about the tiny woodland devils, but the taboo against venturing into the wilderness appears to have remained in effect, much to the forest’s benefit.
In 2019, partly in response to requests from Wright and the consortium she founded, the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, the government of Madagascar agreed to preserve the Lost Rainforest, now known as the Ivohiboro Protected Area, by prohibiting mining, logging and burning. But the government offered little enforcement. It would fall to the Bara people to protect the resource, just as the villagers around Ranomafana protected the park. Wright long ago learned that conservation of natural areas and improving the lives of the Malagasy went hand in hand.
Several years ago, when Wright first met with Bara elders about the forest and asked what they wanted in exchange for permission to study their forest, they said they wanted zebu and jobs for young people. Things have changed. Wright has set up a health clinic and trained ten local people as medical aides to travel among the villages. She has helped local people obtain birth certificates for their children so they can go to school—a goal some now aspire to. She has hired ten Bara as rangers to monitor the forest. There are signs the Bara understand the connection between protecting the forest and protecting their water supply. There are also signs that they are changing their attitudes about burning lands on the edge of the forest. Zozy, a tall and distinguished elder in his late 50s, was asked about the practice of setting fires. After a moment, he said the most recent fires had been accidents, caused by children. He looked away, embarrassed.
At daybreak, Wright stood next to her tent near the edge of the Ivohibory Forest wearing her trademark khaki vest and thick rubber boots. She had awoken to a melodious duet of magpie-robins, followed by the noisy racket of a group of ring-tailed lemurs. They sounded like bickering ducks. Wright breathed the vanilla-scented air and beamed—and then spotted a male cuckoo-roller. The grayish-blue bird flew toward the sun, then plummeted 60 feet with a spectacular tumbling motion. When rollers do this, it’s a sign that females are present, but it also foretells a hot, sunny day, Wright said, frowning.
In theory, this was Madagascar’s rainy season. But it hadn’t rained in this area for six months. A porter sliced a trail through tall dry grasses as Wright worked in the northern forest. Leaves on many of the chest-high bushes and young trees were wilted. She touched a dead varongy tree, whose avocado-like fruit provides crucial nourishment for lemurs. She ran her hands over the bark, looking for beetles to explain its condition. Last year, this 200-year-old tree had fruit. “Dry, dry, dry,” Wright said, stopping to pick up the empty baseball-size shell of a land snail. It had been pierced by the short-legged ground roller bird—a positive sign, she said, of two vulnerable or endangered species interacting.
Farther into the forest were bird’s nest ferns with their prehistoric silhouette, and less lofty pandanus and Dracaena trees. A deep-blue coua bird flopped to the lower branches of a skyscraping rahiaka. “There is no reason for those huge varongy trees”—five of them—“to die,” Wright said, shaking her head.
Over dinner at the campsite, Wright relayed the day’s findings. The ring-tailed lemurs looked healthy, but she saw only eight species of chameleon instead of the 25 she’d seen on past visits. “No fossa, no tenrec,” she said between bites of enormous beige beans and white rice. “Only four birds. Last time there were 48. No orchids. There were hundreds before.” Drought is the culprit, Wright said as an orangy-red sun lowered in the sky and the cook collected the finished dishes. Her colleagues concurred.
Scientists aren’t simply studying what exists in Ivohibory: They are also working to restore it. As Wright’s team had trekked uphill toward the hanging valley, it passed row after row of perfectly formed circles 33 feet in diameter that had been cleared from the surrounding grassland. This was a forest-regeneration project undertaken by the Phoenix Conservancy, a group out of Pullman, Washington, that restores endangered ecosystems.
The circles, surrounded by firebreaks of mounded earth, were petri dishes of future forests. They’d been sown beginning in 2019 with thousands of seeds of three pioneer tree species selected for their restorative powers: Some resist drought and fire, some return nutrients to the soil and offer edible fruit, some quickly push out canopies that create shade, lowering the ambient temperature and slowing evaporation. They also create a patchwork of forest stands to attract fruit-eating lemurs and birds, which will disperse the trees’ seeds far more efficiently than humans could. “The idea is to create small islands of microclimates,” Chris Duke, the conservancy’s executive director, told me. “On a large enough scale, forests can generate their own rain.”
Left alone, forests can expand. Planting endemic trees around Ranomafana park already involves 23 villages and 19 schools. The trees are selected to support a spice like Madagascar’s prized vanilla or its highly aromatic voatsiperifery, or wild pepper, that the people can sell. Phoenix Conservancy helps the community sell the forest-friendly voatsiperifery by offering corked vials of the perfumy peppercorns to donors.
During the day, the ValBio team placed 40 metal traps, the size of breadboxes, high in the trees to catch dwarf lemurs. It was pitch black when the first animal was placed in the center of the campsite tarp. The primate quivered. It was the size of a baby squirrel, with endearing large eyes. A technician wearing a red-beamed headlamp weighed and measured the animal, then tweezered a tiny chunk of hair from the back of her neck. The lemur let out a shriek.
“They are drama queens,” Wright said reassuringly. “It’s not as bad as it sounds.” Overhead, three dwarf lemurs rustled in a fig tree, peering down at the operation. They came no closer. The technician finished his work and, before releasing the lemur, rewarded her with a katydid nearly the size of her head. She gobbled it with lightning speed, and was carried back to where she was captured to vanish into the night.
The hair and a blood sample will first travel back to ValBio, where scientists will study it to identify the lemur species and evaluate the animal’s health. Small and isolated populations like this dwarf lemur will inevitably become extinct, as will all creatures without exposure to different members of their species, says Beatriz Otero Jiménez, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Central Florida who also works for ValBio. If it remains isolated, this Ivohibory population will be vulnerable to disease, less able to adapt to ecological change and eventually blink out. That’s one more reason Wright and her team are emphasizing efforts to expand Ivohibory and Ranomafana through agroforestry projects.
Next the tissue samples will be shipped to Stanford University, where Mark Krasnow, a physician and biochemist, has been looking into why mouse lemurs in captivity develop diseases akin to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, which have not been reported in mouse lemurs in the wild. He’ll perform similar analyses on the dwarf lemur samples collected by Wright’s group. Because lemurs are primates, like us, it’s important to know why genes linked to those diseases are turned off, or not expressed, in the wild. It might be because of an extreme amount of exercise, a food they eat in the wild, or something else, Wright says.
One morning, on the edge of the Lost Rainforest, Wright walked from the campsite into a field of mostly low grass. She noticed a few trees—dozens, in fact. The area, the size of a gymnasium, was sprouting native trees everywhere, and some were thigh high.
“This is all because it wasn’t burned for two years,” Wright said, ecstatically. “I have to tell everyone.” Then she nodded to a sight that gave her pause and filled her eyes with tears.
It was Zozy, half a field away. The tribal elder, didn’t appear to notice Wright. He had found an orange plastic bucket and filled it with water. He was out there, on his own, watering the trees.