Adventurer Encounters World’s Rarest Lemur During 1,600-Mile Trek

Ash Dykes spent 155 days crossing Madagascar, where he witnessed amazing wildlife and terrible environmental destruction.

Ash Dykes after completing his 155-day trek. (Photo: Courtesy Ash Dykes)

Feb 17, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Welsh adventurer Ash Dykes just became one of the few people on the planet to ever see two of Madagascar’s rarest, most critically endangered species, the northern sportive lemur and the Madagascan pochard duck.

All it took to achieve these feats was for Dykes to walk 1,600 miles, hack through impenetrable jungles, climb eight mountains, cross a desert, and run from a forest fire. Along the way, he nearly died from malaria, almost got washed away by rushing rivers, suffered painful spider bites, and avoided a parade of enormous snakes, giant scorpions, and poisonous centipedes.

Dykes said it was all worth it to complete his 155-day, world-record expedition, which made him the first person to cross Madagascar on foot.

“I really shocked myself and learned a lot about myself here,” the 25-year-old said by phone, just hours after completing his epic trek.

Northern sportive lemur. (Photo: Nick Garbutt/Indri Images)

He also learned a lot about Madagascar’s unique wildlife. On his first day, while sitting on a sand dune on the country’s southern coast, he witnessed a humpback whale jumping out of the Indian Ocean. As his journey progressed, he spotted dozens if not hundreds of other wildlife species, including five other kinds of lemurs, chameleons, snakes, small mammals, and huge butterflies that he described as being like something out of the movie Avatar.

Seeing the northern sportive lemur toward the end of the journey—a major goal of the expedition—proved one of the most exciting moments, although Dykes reported that it was extremely fleeting. “I only just got a glimpse of it,” he said. “It was sleeping in its hole in its tree, but we were too loud approaching. It just ran up the tree, jumped away, and was gone.”

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The encounter with pochard ducks was also memorable. “We were just hacking our way through pure difficult jungle,” Dykes said, “and then all of sudden, three-quarters of the way up, it goes flat and opens up into this sort of grass field with a lake in the middle.” Swimming comfortably in the lake were the ducks—some of the last 40 or so members of the species in existence.

Madagascar pochard duck. (Photo: Frank Vassen)

In addition to the wonder, however, Dykes witnessed the environmental threats and deforestation the entire country faces.

“At night we could see the forest fires lighting up the sides of mountains,” Dykes said. “Other times we were talking through dense jungles, and all of a sudden, it just opened up where all the trees were cut down. It’s a huge shame.”

He emphasized, though, that the positives he encountered far outweighed the negatives. “Throughout the whole country you had the hospitality of the locals, you had the good food, you had the wildlife,” he said. “You had the challenges, sure, and they were really difficult, but once you got through them, you’ve got a nice meal being cooked—that’s all positive.”

Dykes also praised the conservationists he met along his journey. “They’re doing incredible things to restore Madagascar, its wild species, and its forests,” he said. He pointed out one project that planted 10,000 trees last year. “You don’t see that in the newspaper,” he said. “Sometimes that incredible work gets overlooked because people look into the negatives rather than the positives.”

Lynne Venart, cofounder of the Lemur Conservation Network, said Dykes’ journey and online accounts helped to create enthusiasm for Madagascar and its wildlife.

“Because Madagascar is so remote, most people have never been there, have no idea what the terrain is like, don’t know anything about the Malagasy people or realize that so much unique wildlife is found there and nowhere else,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun to be able to track Ash through social media as he walked through the remotest parts of this island and hear firsthand what it’s like, who he met, and the challenges he faced.”

As he waited for his flight back home to the United Kingdom in a few days, Dykes said he hoped the people who followed his journey online were inspired to take action and to feel that they could make a difference.

“I always tell myself that the bad times have come to pass—they haven’t come to stay,” he said. “Obviously it’s challenge after challenge out here, but if you can persevere, you can get through to the end.”