Laurent Brunel hides behind a densely thorned euphorbia bush and surveys the aloe and sisal plants that checker the parched earth around him. The honeyed rays of the setting sun illuminate one of Madagascar's most beautiful forests.
Mr. Brunel, a native of the French Alps, is searching for lemurs, distant relatives of the monkey; he settles down to wait patiently.
As the sun deepens to red, a crashing of branches signals the arrival of a troop of Verreaux's sifakas, an uncommon species of lemur known for its comical method of crossing open spaces.
Brunel has chosen his hiding spot well: Crouched on the edge of a clearing, he forces the lemurs either to retreat or cross the open space in front of him.
Timidly, the lemurs descend from the branches, watching intently for danger. Then, holding forearms high and clasping feet together, they dance across the clearing. "Amazing!" Brunel exclaims. "I've never seen any animal move in such a bizarre way."
Like most other visitors to Madagascar, Brunel had come to see nature firsthand. This little-visited country boasts a unique panoply of plants and animals. Its diverse ecosystems range from tropical jungle to dry, spiny forests of cactus-like succulents.
Species exist nowhere else
Once part of the African mainland, Madagascar broke away from the continent some 165 million years ago and has followed its own evolutionary path. Most of the island's mammals, half of its birds, and 80 percent of its plants exist nowhere else on earth. Scientists continually discover new species in its deserts and forests.
By rights, Madagascar should be among the world's top tourist destinations. In fact, only 75,000 people visit the island each year, compared with 400,000 on neighboring Mauritius and about 700,000 in Kenya. Receipts from tourism stand at a modest $60 million a year.
Since Madagascar won its independence from France in 1960, turbulent politics, poor transportation, and a shortage of hotel space have kept the country off the popular tourist trail.
"Madagascar is a difficult destination to sell," says Sonja Ranarivelo, director of Boogie Pilgrim, a tour operator based in the island's capital, Antananarivo. "Even now, it still appeals mainly to adventure travelers."
Traveling in Madagascar is exhausting and fraught with complications. Roads are barely passable - the annual rains wash away large sections of the road network each year - and public transport is limited to crowded minibuses.
I chose to travel along the Canal des Pangalanes, a French-built waterway connecting a series of natural lakes along Madagascar's eastern shore. Dugout canoes known as pirogues - many heaped with palm leaves, bananas, and timber - ply its waters. Cruising down the canal in a motor launch, I notice the stately fronds of a traveler's palm etching a delicate arc against the horizon.
The Bush House lemur reserve nestles against the canal some 90 minutes south of Toamasina, Madagascar's main port and former pirate colony. The reserve is home to several of Madagascar's 50 species of lemur, including the sifaka and the tiny aye-aye, long thought to be extinct but recently rediscovered in the eastern forests.
"The aye-aye appears to be made up from the spare parts of other animals," says the resident guide at Bush House. "It has the ears of a bat, the face of a rodent, and a skeletal third finger which it uses like a woodpecker to find grubs in the bark of trees."
With our guide, I watch entranced as a dozen lemurs leap from tree to tree, tails curled, and then hang upside down to gaze at the visitors. Lemurs' fox-like faces belie their ancestry. They are distant relatives of the monkey - and human beings. One look at the hands of a small brown lemur gives me an instant surge of recognition.
Madagascar's attractions are not limited to its wildlife. Many visitors come to observe the culture of the Malagasy people, descendants of Indonesian settlers who arrived here probably about 2,000 years ago.
Since then, Arabs and Africans have enriched the ethnic mix, producing an amazing array of faces and a complex system of customs and beliefs.
While sharing a snack with a local fisherman, I quiz him on local ancestor worship and the Madagascan system of taboos."Many people still hold their traditional beliefs here," he explained. "We believe that our ancestors continue to influence our daily lives. If something bad happens, it comes from the anger of our ancestors. So we must sacrifice a zebu ox to make the ancestors happy again."
Some actions are believed to annoy the dead and are hence taboo. For some clans, it is forbidden to sing while eating; for others, digging must be carried out with a loose-handled spade as it is considered dangerous to have too firm a connection between the living and the dead.
Many share a belief in the "turning of the bones," when ancestors' bones are exhumed, wrapped in new cloth, and paraded through the streets in a joyful celebration.
Sparking island tourism
The Malagasy government is hoping that such wildlife and cultural experiences will stimulate the island's tourism industry. It hopes to attract 230,000 visitors by the year 2000, and has solicited financing from the European Development Fund to upgrade road and rail routes.
But the island's environment is so fragile that ecologists worry that the tramping of thousands of tourist feet will ruin its natural riches - such as the insect-eating pitcher plant and the rare three-cornered triangular palm - within a few years.
And Madagascar's beauty is also threatened by a danger within. Subsistence farmers, driven by poverty to desperate measures, are destroying the natural habitat by clearing land with slash-and-burn techniques.
After deforestation, natural minerals can leach from the soil, allowing annual rains to sluice the red topsoil into the Indian Ocean in such quantities that the runoff is visible from the space shuttle.
And as wealth is traditionally held in the form of cattle herds, the pressure to find more grazing land forces farmers to encroach more on Madagascar's forests.
To make matters worse, population growth among the Malagasy is so high that the number of inhabitants doubles every 25 years.
The effects of this destruction are visible near the Canal des Pangalanes. "Bush fires are stripping the lemurs' natural habitat," our guide says. "We don't need to fence in the reserve here, because this forest is now the lemurs' only source of food in the area."
But despite the destruction of the forests, Madagascar remains a magical place. On my last night on the Canal des Pangalanes, a full moon rose over the Indian Ocean, lining a bank of cloud with silver.
With fireflies flitting across my window, I could make out the Southern Cross shining through a gap in the clouds. And as I went to sleep, I could hear the sound of the lemurs in the nearby trees.