Human Journey

The legend of Babakoto

By Safina Center Fellow Ben Mirin

Andasibe rainforest in Madagascar.
Andasibe rainforest in Madagascar. Photo: Drew Fulton

Malagasy legends say the Indri is the father of mankind. The name “Babakoto,” or Ancestor of Man, comes from a story of a young boy traveling in the rainforests of eastern Madagascar. He climbed a high tree to gather honey, and a passerby cut the vines so he couldn’t come down. Just when it seemed the poor boy’s fate was sealed, an indri lemur came swinging through the trees and helped him climb down from the canopy.

This story has been the Indri’s saving grace. The critically endangered lemur lives in relative peace in the rainforests around Andasibe-Mantadia, approximately 2 hours east of Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo. The local people revere it, and consider hunting the indri a serious taboo.

“Some people even believe the indri is our ancestor,” Dina our guide said as we drove to the forest entrance, “but the story changes from place to place.” We hadn’t seen our first indri yet, but the comparison seemed sound. Technically this ancient primate IS our ancestor, with physical proportions similar to our own and almost no trace of a tail. It’s also the largest species of lemur in Madagascar.

Indri lemur. Photo: Drew Fulton

“In some places lemurs are still hunted, and some species were driven to extinction this way,” said Dina. “I don’t know if the indri is protected everywhere it lives, but here in Andasibe it is protected.”

As we walked into the reserve we kept our ears open. The indri is best located by its unforgettable call, a roar coupled with a bugling glissando that echoes for over two kilometers through the forest. Every day, nearly every hour, troupes will take regular breaks from eating leaves and grooming to announce their presence to other indri nearby. A dominant female will begin the chorus with a low, guttural shout to rally the troops, and almost immediately the rest of her family will jump in with high-pitched cries that collectively last for up to one and a half minutes. These choruses serve a territorial purpose, and when one group begins others soon follow until their songs sweep across the landscape in a symphony that reminds everybody who lives where.

After a couple days in Andasibe it became clear that we had to capture the first indri chorus in the morning. The voices of the rainforest sang on their schedule, and comparing the soundscape before and after the indri woke up would show just how dramatic their influence could be. It also meant hiking deep into the rainforest at 4am, to avoid as many traces of anthropogenic (human-generated) noise as possible. By about 5:30 we were in position and began rolling to the sound of Magpie Robins, Souimanga Sunbirds, Cuckoo Rollers and the dew dripping from the leaves at sunrise. When the indri finally started singing, it was almost exactly 7am, and their voices rolled through the rainforest unbroken for twenty minutes. All in all, we counted fourteen choruses.

When the indri sings, you are afraid to speak. Interrupting these forest songsters feels almost as egregious as the idea of hunting them.

Andasibe rainforest of Madagascar at night. Photo: Drew Fulton
Andasibe rainforest of Madagascar at night. Photo: Drew Fulton

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Ben Mirin is a Safina Fellow and National Geographic Explorer currently leading an expedition to record sound in Madagascar.

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.

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