How to Plan a Photography Trip to Madagascar

lemurs madagascar wildlife

Welcome to the captivating world of Madagascar photography, where stunning landscapes and unique wildlife await your lens.

Gerald Durrell, who tirelessly championed Madagascar’s wildlife, once described the island as, “being shaped like a badly made omelette lying off the east coast of Africa, but containing – as a properly made omelette should – a wealth of good things inside it.”

However, study a map and it would be all too easy to dismiss Madagascar as nothing more than a chip off the old Africa block, and suppose it contained little more than a ‘watered-down’ version of the wildlife from the continental mainland.

Now think again.

baobab tree Madagascar photography
Africa has just one species of baobab, while Madagascar boasts six species, none of which are found elsewhere. These are Grandidier’s baobabs near Morondava.

Madagascar flies in the face of intuition. There may only be 400km of sea between it and Africa, but the wildlife is separated by millions of years of evolutionary history.

Madagascar isn’t just different, it’s very, very different, and the vast majority of its plants and animals are found nowhere else.

There are numerous examples of the quirky and bizarre.

Where else might you find a primate with bat-like ears, a tail like a witch’s cat, and buck teeth that grow continuously (the aye-aye)? Or a gecko with a banshee’s scream that merges imperceptibly into tree trunks (the leaf-tailed gecko)?

Or even a beetle that looks like a baked bean attached to a mini angle-poise lamp (the giraffe-necked weevil)?

macro photography madagascar
One of many creatures that epitomize all that is bizarre in Madagascar: a male giraffe-necked weevil. Taken with a 105mm macro – a stock lens during any trip to the island.

I became fascinated with Madagascar during childhood: snippets in books and TV documentaries were riddled with stories of strange animals and mysterious places.

Time and again sentences were punctuated with the word ‘unknown,’ fueling my fascination. When I visited for the first time in 1991, Madagascar didn’t simply captivate me; it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me into a whirlpool of intrigue.

I had found my version of Conan-Doyle’s fabled ‘Lost World,’ and over 30 years down the road, my enthusiasm remains undiminished.

Additionally, what makes Madagascar so special is that its forests are safe to wander around in, and so much of its wildlife is accessible. This provides almost endless opportunities for photographers, whatever your particular interest might be.

Read more: Travel Checklist for Taking Your Camera Abroad

Primate castaways

The island’s most famous inhabitants are lemurs, offshoots of the primate family tree, most closely related to bushbabies and galagos and more distantly to monkeys, which are only found in Madagascar.

They are an incredibly diverse group that encompasses over 100 species, ranging in size from the piebald teddy-bear-like indri (up to 10kg) to the minuscule mouse lemurs.

madagascar wildlife
The largest living lemur is the indri, but some extinct species were the size of gorillas!

One of these stands out as an instantly recognizable icon, synonymous with its island home – the ring-tailed lemur.

Unlike other species, they are partially terrestrial (spending around 1/4 of their time on the ground). They also live in large groups and tolerate a variety of extreme habitats.

lemurs madagascar wildlife
The island’s most instantly recognizable species, the ring-tailed lemur. Now increasingly rare, there are only a handful of locations where they can be seen easily – here in Berenty in the far south.

As well as being the largest living lemur, the super-cute indri is also the most spectacularly vocal. During morning bouts, their plangent, haunting song – that sounds a bit like a humpback whale – carries in melodic waves over the rainforest canopy.

After one family finishes proclaiming territorial rights, an adjacent group begins and belts out the choral extravaganza across the valleys and hillsides.

Indris are also remarkably athletic and move efficiently through the canopy, their huge hind legs propelling them on prodigious bounds of up to 12m between tree trunks.

Their close relatives, the sifakas, are equally impressive athletes. The most familiar is Verreaux’s sifaka which lives in some western forests and also alongside ring-tailed lemurs in the spiny and gallery forests of the south.

Madagascar wildlife photography
The sifakas, like this Verreaux’s sifaka, are arguably the cutest and most endearing of all lemurs and are endlessly photogenic.

Perhaps one of Madagascar’s most enduring and endearing images is of these sifakas bounding or ‘skipping’ across open ground, with their arms held out comically like a marionette for balance.

Mouse lemurs are the world’s smallest primates (gorillas are 8000 times their size). The most diminutive of all is Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur which weighs a mere 25-30g. All are nocturnal, and collectively they are the most abundant lemurs.

Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife

Lizards and leaves

What you see isn’t always what you get: the art of deception has been perfected by Madagascar’s leaf-tailed geckos (genus Uroplatus) that have taken camouflage to a sublime level.

Larger species like Uroplatus fimbriatus and Uroplatus sikorae mimic tree bark and during the day lie flattened against a trunk or branch.

The combination of mottled cryptic coloration and a frill of skin that forms a ‘skirt’ around their outline blends them imperceptibly into their environment.

rainforest wildlife madagascar wildlife photography
Masters of Disguise. The mossy leaf-tailed gecko mimics moss and lichen-covered tree bark.

Smaller species like the satanic leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) mimic dead and shriveled leaves (often bamboo) and they sit or hang amongst these to make good their near-perfect deception.

If the camouflage fails, they have another defensive trick up their sleeves. Larger species flick their tail while throwing back their head with mouth wide open to reveal an alarming bright red gape, while simultaneously screaming.

Startling as this may be, there is no substance to back it up, so if the bluff fails the gecko’s number may be up.

wildlife photography madagascar
The smaller satanic leaf-tailed gecko resembles desiccated leaves.

Chameleons are one of the most specialized families of lizards and in Madagascar have found their ‘Promised Land’. In fact, they quite probably first evolved on the island, which is now home to over half of all the world’s species.

It’s a misconception that chameleons change color simply to match foliage and their surroundings. Blending in is important, but the riotous colors they often adopt convey things like emotion and reproductive state.

They range from leviathans to Lilliputians (both the world’s largest and smallest species are endemic), and there are all manner of unusual and exquisite variants in between.

chameleon photography
Parson’s chameleon inhabits the rainforests of the east. Young individuals are often found low down in the understorey, while large adults like this prefer the canopy. Close-focusing wide-angle lenses are invaluable for photographing subjects like this in tight forest situations.

The heavyweight champ is Parson’s chameleon (length 700mm) that inhabits eastern rainforests.

Big males resemble mini triceratops dinosaurs and are spectacularly vivid emerald with paler yellowish blotches and ‘tiger stripes’ on their flanks that often become more distinct when they are aggressive.

They are fiercely territorial and can spend long periods in the same place, often high in the canopy.

Grub around in the leaf litter in any rainforest on the island and you might just get lucky and find Brookesia – often called the ‘leaf’ or ‘stump-tailed’ chameleons.

wildlife photography madagascar
Some stump-tailed chameleons (Brookesia sp.) are amongst the smallest of all reptiles. This one is less than 20mm in length.

Unlike other chameleons, they are mainly terrestrial, are brown, look like dead leaves, and feed on mites and ants.

There are numerous species, all variations on the same theme, with some the smallest of all chameleons and possibly the world’s smallest reptiles.

Read more: Rainforest Photography – 8 Top Tips for Stand-Out Images

Considerations when planning a trip

Madagascar is a big island (1600km north to south, 350km east to west), with relatively poor infrastructure. The road network is limited, and in many remote rural regions, the roads are very poor. Travelling around is always time-consuming.

There is an extensive schedule of domestic flights that link most major areas. These are the best way to cover large distances quickly but need to be booked in advance.

There are lodges and hotels to suit a variety of budgets at most of the major parks and reserves; the majority are relatively modest but comfortable.

Some remote parks have rudimentary permanent field camps, while others offer only self-sufficient camping. Excursions can be arranged in advance through local and international tour operators.

Language can also be an issue. Malagasy is a difficult language to pick up, while French remains the main language of business. English is now more widely spoken, especially in and around parks and reserves that receive good numbers of foreign tourists.

plan a trip to madagascar
Many nocturnal lemurs, like this fat-tailed dwarf lemur, are inactive and hibernate for several months of the year (generally between May and November).

There isn’t a single time of the year when all wildlife is at its best. It depends on your priorities.

January to early April should be avoided; it’s the height of the rainy season, and the island is often hit by cyclones.

Late April and May, when forests are still wet, are very good for reptiles and amphibians, and some lemurs are courting, but this is not very good for birds.

Between June and August, the island is relatively cool and dry, and some species are dormant (many nocturnal lemurs and tenrecs). September to December is considered the prime time – it equates to spring and early summer.

Birds are becoming more active and vocal as they begin to breed, and most diurnal lemurs have young.

From November onwards, the dormant nocturnal lemurs become active. Because the island is mainly dry, the reptile and amphibian activity is somewhat reduced at this time, but examples of most species can still be found.

Read more: How to Safely Carry Your Cameras on Planes

Choosing locations – less is more

There are three major regions that exemplify the considerable habitat variation across the island: very dry spiny forest and scrub in the extreme south and southwest, deciduous forest in the west and northwest, and rainforest in the southeast, east, and northeast.

Many key species have limited ranges within these areas, so if certain animals or plants are a particular target, locations need to be selected carefully.

Furthermore, the remaining forests are highly fragmented, and the majority of the main parks and reserves are spread far and wide, particularly around the island’s periphery.

madagascar rainforest
Madagascar’s remaining forests are as different as they are beautiful. The eastern rainforests are home to the greatest diversity of wildlife.

Consequently, traveling between reserves takes time, and careful planning is required to piece an itinerary together efficiently.

Madagascar’s remaining forests are as different as they are beautiful. The eastern rainforests are home to the greatest diversity of wildlife.

For any first-time visitor, visiting at least one reserve in each of the three major habitat types is recommended to give a broad balanced introduction to the island’s wildlife. But do not make the mistake of trying to pack too much into a limited time frame.

An organized wildlife or photography tour is the best way to see the island the first time, but any itinerary lasting say 14 – 16 days in the country should not visit more than four reserves.

Otherwise, it will be too rushed and you will spend more time traveling around than actually visiting parks and taking pictures.

Guides are crucial

Official guides are compulsory in all national parks and reserves, and in most areas, they are multi-lingual and speak English.

Good local guides are invaluable in helping find wildlife. Even in areas outside parks and reserves, guides are recommended – you will find and photograph so much more with their help.

snakes madagascar
Madagascar’s forests are safe places to explore; there are no dangerous animals, including no venomous snakes. Using local guides is crucial if you hope to find camouflaged species like this Madagascar tree boa.

Photography gear

There is such a variety to photograph in Madagascar, from landscapes and forest interiors to frogs, geckos, chameleons, smaller nocturnal lemurs, larger diurnal lemurs, and unusual birds, that choosing the appropriate gear for a trip is challenging.

It pays to keep things as light and mobile as possible, not only because you will need to carry gear when walking around in forests (where some slopes can be steep) but also for transporting, especially on domestic flights where hand luggage restrictions can be tight.

Most species in the parks and reserves are relatively approachable, so super-long telephoto lenses are unnecessary (500mm+ lenses are useful if you’re a specialist bird photographer).

For lemurs, the 200mm to 400mm range is perfect. Smaller subjects like reptiles, frogs, and invertebrates suit a short telephoto macro lens (e.g., 105mm) or a close-focusing wide-angle.

A TTL flash is highly recommended for fill-in work during the day and for nighttime photo sessions.

Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Essential photography kit

It is recommended that you pack the following gear:

Optional/more specialised gear

Also consider packing:

  • Second or backup DSLR or mirrorless body
  • Second dedicated TTL flash
  • Fast prime telephoto lens, e.g. 400mm f2.8, 500mm f4

Read more: Rainforest Photography – A Guide to Equipment

In conclusion

This weird and wonderful island, with its incredible diversity and accessible wildlife, is a nature photographer’s paradise.

It is well worth planning a trip here at least once in your lifetime; though I’m sure you’ll find that once isn’t enough to see all that it has to offer!

Try not to pack too much into your trip, or you may end up with a rushed experience. I highly recommend a well-organized wildlife tour to make the most of your visit. Remember to pack well but stay light, and enjoy everything that this magical place has to offer.

Visit Nick's website

An award-winning photographer and critically acclaimed author, Nick has been photographing wildlife and guiding tours for over 30 years and is known for his work in Borneo, the Amazon and Madagascar. His recent books include Handbook of Mammals of Madagascar (Bloomsbury 2023) and Madagascar Wildlife (Bradt 2023). Nick regularly contributes to international magazines and has twice been a category winner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition.

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