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The Indri Indri alias Babakoto, one of a kind
Antananarivo (Madagascar), July 23rd 2001

The Indri is the biggest and most spectacular of all living lemurs. Its physique, its yell and the legends written about the Indri keep attracting researchers and tourists to Madagascar. For us, the Indri was also the most important attraction to Analamazaotra. Analamazaotra is a bush reserve on the rough eastern hillside of Madagascar, around 100 kilometres from Antananarivo. The reserve lies near a village, from the colonial times known as Perinet. People from all over the world come here to catch a glimpse of the Indri. The reserve isn’t fenced, but as a responsible tourist we announce ourselves in June 2001 to buy an admission ticket at the entrance (around 1 kilometre from the centre of Perinet), to enter into the remarkable world of the Indri.

The Indri is a lemur that is as big as a small baboon, has a long neck, a head as a fox, and round spiky hairy ears as a koala. Its fur is black and white and it looks innocent into the world with its striking yellow ochre coloured eyes. Contrarily to the other lemurs and many other primates living in trees, he has a small stub as a tail. With its slender, strong legs he can ramble quickly through the forest without touching the ground. It pushes itself away from a trunk, to fly horizontally to another tree. A human being will definitely lose a contest, struggling through thickly grown vegetation on the ground.

Every day in Analamazaotra, you can hear a spooky sound: The song of the Indri. The Indri, -who live in small groups-, yells together with 2 or 4 relatives spontaneously, or in respond on the yell of other families. The song is difficult to describe, but it consist of a sequence of fierce yells that some describe as a mixture of a kind of whale and a saxophone. Some small facts from “the song of the indri” from Pollock: At least once a day (normally in the morning), the Indri groups sing a song composed of a sequence of yells of 1 to 4 seconds, with a frequency of between 500 and 6000 Hz with intervals of maximum of 3 seconds. The song takes between 40 seconds and 4 minutes. For a human being, the song can be heard up to 2 kilometres away. Biologists don’t know for sure what the reason is behind the song, but they guess that it is used to mark out the territory between neighbouring groups although it can also be used for transmitting information over long distances (like information on the availability of animals for reproduction).
Babakoto is resting in a tree in Analamazaotra Special Reserve

Malagasy have another explanation on this special song. Some believe that human beings and the indri where brothers in earlier times, and they lived together in the forest. One of the brothers started cultivating the land and chooses to live outsides the woods. The other one refused to come along and stayed in the forest, and there he became the Indri. Until this day, the Indri is still offended that his brother left him, and therefore he cries his melancholic yell to let know that he is still sad of losing his brother.

Even though you haven’t heard or seen the Indri, its no secret that the indri is regarded the most important inhabitant of Analamazaotra.

On a signboard near the entrance is written:

Eaux et Forêts (Administration of water and forest)
Réserve de Indri (reserve of the Indri)

Babakoto is the Malagasy name of the Indri. There are several translations possible. One says that Babakoto means: “grandfather” while the other says that it means “little father” and yet another points out that it means “ancestor”. The name and the different meanings of this name arise out of the legends where the indri is the leading character and of which there is no unambiguous version (as usual in Madagascar).

In one of the legends there is a man named Koto, who goes into the woods with his son to collect honey. When they don’t come back to the village at the end of the day, a rescue operation is organised by the other villagers. They didn’t find a trace of the man and his son, but they only saw two Indris jumping from one tree to another. The villagers suspect that Koto and his son miraculously transformed into lemurs. Therefore they named it “Father Koto”, Babakoto.

Another local legend recalls the time of the creation of human beings and Indri. A woman had a lot children, part lived as a farmer and part collected food in the woods. The first group argued and fought a lot, scarring the other group away into the woods to live high into the trees. The fighting group became human, and the tree dwellers became the Indri. Therefore, the Indris is also called ancestor, the father of mankind, Babakoto

From it scientific name Indri Indri, nothing can be derived, only that the Indri is the only one of its kind. One says that the name “indri” comes from a Frenchman named Sonnerat (1782) who told that the Malagasy used the name “Indri” for this animal. However, Indri means in Malagasy: “Look over there”, so probably they just wanted to point out to Babakoto.

For the Indri, it is an advantage that he is associated with the origin of mankind: it is regarded “fady” (taboo) to kill / eat Indri’s. Nevertheless, the indri is an endangered species of which its population size isn’t known. It is known that more the 10 or more lemur species that have extinct since men have colonized Madagascar, were all larger that the lemur species that are still alive. One explanation could be that larger animals have larger needs, so they will be the first to suffer from shortages. If this is a trend that goes on, the majestic Babakoto will be next in line. The reserve in which he generally lives is just 810 hectare, and is clear-cut from other woods by a large road, a eucalyptus forest en rice fields. Let us hope that Babakoto will be able to live long in Analamazaotra, so its name will not only live on in the legends.

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