Exotic Animals Thrive In African 'Jurassic Park'

What has ears like a bat, a pinched face, and a spiked finger used to dig out larvae from trees?

MADAGASCAR is the opposite of the Bermuda Triangle, according to one local wit. In the Triangle, he says, everything inexplicably disappears. But in Madagascar, the weirdest things pop up.

Anyone who has visited this huge Indian Ocean island would probably agree.

"People say it is the land that time forgot - but it's more like the land where time changed its mind," says Paul Siegal, a local representative of the World Wildlife Fund.

Madagascar is a cultural and zoological oddity. It lies off Africa, but most of its people are closer in looks and customs to the Malays and Polynesians who came to the island from the 6th century onward. Odd reptiles and mammals worthy of a Hollywood B movie that exist nowhere else in the world roam Madagascar, having evolved in isolation over the millennia.

Take the capital, Antananarivo (called Tana by the locals), an incongruous mixture of cultures. The narrow streets and wooden, terraced houses with their triangular roofs are reminiscent of provincial France, which colonized the island in the 19th century. Barefoot villagers sell brilliantly colored fruit and flowers in the highland city's huge Zuma market, like a Gauguin painting set in the Andes. Spices such as vanilla and cloves abound. Fine French cuisine and crisp baguettes are served next to spring rolls and Southeast Asian dishes.

Like the rice paddies that cover the countryside, Asian ancestor-worship rituals are closer to the population's roots than the customs of Mozambique, the nearest mainland country. This time of year is the season for the Famadihana, or "Turning of the Bones."

In the ultimate display of respect for their ancestors, Malagasies (the people of Madagascar) dig up the remains of their grandparents, wrap them in fresh shrouds, place them in their homes, and recount the events of the past year.

Madagascar became an island when it separated from the mainland some 180 million years ago. On the island, the world's fourth-largest, the animal and plant life evolved differently from the rest of the planet. The terrain is among the world's most diverse, ranging from deserts to high mountain rain forests.

The dense tropical forests are filled with rare orchids, palms, spiny plants, cycads, and ferns. There are grotesque reptiles and brightly colored frogs and insects. Some 90 percent of Madagascar's reptiles are unique, along with 80 percent of its plants, many of which are used for medicine. There are more than 108 bird species, all shapes, sizes, and hues. Madagascar has one of the largest proportions of endangered mammal species.

It is a paradise for smugglers, who steal rare specimens for collectors in Europe. Unlike on the African mainland, none of the snakes are poisonous, and there are no large animals like lions, elephants, and rhinos.

Instead, there are Madagascar's trademark lemurs, which, like Australia's marsupials, developed over the years in unique isolation. They are related to primates, but with their soft fur, big staring yellow eyes, and pointed noses are closer to the mainland bush baby (a primate with a long, bushy tail and large eyes) than to chimpanzees.

The 30-odd types of lemurs differ greatly in appearance, ranging from tiny ones that can fit in a human hand discovered just a couple of years ago, to the aye-aye, which looks as if it escaped from a Steven Spielberg movie. It has ears like a bat, a pinched, mean-looking face, and a long, spiked finger used to dig out larvae from trees. Now extinct are dozens of other kinds of lemurs, including one as big as a gorilla.

The most noble is the indri, a large black-and-white creature that wails like a siren from treetops. Its name translates roughly as the "father of all." Some locals say it is the father of humans, too, and should be so venerated.

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