The challenge of Mrs. Tatty-ear

Tourists travel to Madagascar to see its amazing endemic wildlife including the many species of lemur. Many of these species are rare and localized. One of my aims on our trip was to try and get some shots of Coquerel’s Sifaka, a truly beautiful creature that resided in the area we were staying and one of the lemur species that dances across the ground with a weird undulating motion.

Leaping Sifaka lemur with her baby clinging to her back
Leaping Sifaka lemur with her baby clinging to her back. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

There were a couple of family groups who lived in the grounds of our lodge. Like all sifakas, they didn’t feel safe on the ground and would only use it as a last resort when traveling from one food source to another. I observed the families over several days and decided that Mrs. Tatty-ear, a dominant female with a baby, was the best bet. I noticed that most afternoons she would lead her extended family to a fruiting tree that was in the middle of a well-watered lawn. The only way they could get to the fruit-laden tree was by descending from the surrounding trees and then leaping across the lawn.

A leaping sifaka lemur
Leaping sifaka lemur. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

That’s how I found myself and my wife, plus a French couple on a similar mission, taking afternoon tea to one side of the fruiting tree. When I think of some of the places I have ended up trying to photograph wildlife, covered in mud, dust, insects or leaches, never has photographing wildlife been so gloriously civilized as it was that afternoon.

As we drank our caramel tea and nibbled biscuits there was the sound of crashing vegetation as the sifakas made their way through the canopy towards the lawn. With tea and biscuits abandoned, we prepared for the run across no man’s land. We knew that once Mrs. Tatty-ear made her descent, they would be down from the trees, across the lawn, and up into the fruiting tree in seconds. She made her descent, paused briefly, and leapt powerfully across the lawn with her family following rapidly behind her. I was ready with long lens, light checked, and on rapid burst. Nothing could go wrong, could it? I hadn’t considered that her leaps would have no pattern, the arms would be thrust above the head, and that the tail was waving in all directions to aid balance. The French couple, with their basic camera, looked reasonably smug although most of their shots were of small images that were slightly blurred. Their camera couldn’t cope with the speed of the sifakas. My wife had excellent shots of flower beds, lawn, and bushes but no sifakas. Lack of fast reflexes cost her dear. My shots were pin-sharp but with heads, tails, and arms missing, due to being too close to the subject. Definitely, time needed, over another hot cup of tea and more biscuits, to plan a new operation.

A sifaka lemur leaping across the ground
A sifaka lemur leaping across the ground. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

That’s how we ended up back on the lawn the following afternoon with another cup of caramel tea, more delicious shortbread biscuits, and the same two waiters who had watched our antics of the previous day. I swear they were taking bets on what we would achieve this time. My wife hadn’t even brought her camera. She seemed content to enjoy the tea and watch me again possibly make a fool of myself. The French couple had been replaced by two Americans who had a pro camera kit with a lens at least twice as long as I’d tried the previous day. I gave them a knowing smile as I screwed my fast 28 – 105 lens in place whilst they set up their extensive and heavy kit on a tripod.

In due course, there was the familiar sound of crashing vegetation from the tree canopy as the sifakas made their arboreal way towards us. Eventually Mrs.Tatty-ear and family appeared. Upon descending to the lawn she paused and looked directly at me as if to say, “Are you feeling lucky?” I was and muttered, “Make my day!” Off she set with her baby riding on her back like a demented jockey. Again, my camera’s motor engaged as I followed several of the family with long bursts before they disappeared up into the fruiting tree. So how had we done? I had success as well as abject failure. Sharp shots were obtained that included head, arms, legs, and even the tail. Better still, sequences of leaping and landing sifakas littered the collection. I had a grin from ear to ear and even my wife seemed quite impressed. The Americans looked depressed and I almost offered to order them caramel tea with biscuits in advance for the next day when I knew they’d be back with a much shorter and wider lens and without the tripods and other kit which had so hampered their efforts. As for Mrs. Tatty-ear, I hope she, or her descendants, are still enjoying the fruits of that tree and that the waiters are still enjoying the sight of countless tourists trying to capture her movement as she heads at speed for her own afternoon tea time.

Photo of a sifaka lemur
A sifaka lemur. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

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