Madagascar has more than forty national parks and reserves, managed by Madagascar National Parks (MNP; parcs-madagascar.com) working under the Ministry of Water and Forests. There are nineteen main national parks, plus six nature reserves (réserves naturelles intégrales), two marine reserves and 21 special reserves, some of which admittedly consist of not much more than a name on a map. While resources to protect all these areas are strapped, MNP does an extraordinarily good job on the whole, and even manages to provide facilities for visitors in some areas. In addition, there are private and community reserves and sanctuaries, like Anja, Kirindy, Berenty and Saint Luce.
While some parks and reserves have some drivable trails (Montange d’Ambre and Ankaranfantsika for example), the majority are set up to be visited on foot. The standard way to visit is by following a circuit à pied, or walking trail, setting off directly from the park office.
Most parks and reserves are open during daylight hours only, a couple of high-profile robberies having forced them to ban night walks several years ago. Opening and closing times, however (typically 7am–5pm), often reflect only the ticket office opening hours. In practice, you can often enter at 5.30am or as soon as it’s light, so long as you buy your tickets and make arrangements with your guide the day before. In some parks you may need to have written permission from the warden to do this: your guide will know. It’s always a good idea to arrive as early as possible: nocturnal lemurs may still be about, and other visitors won’t yet have made an appearance and spoiled your communion with nature.
Prices of park entry tickets for all the protected areas have two scales. Category A covers the national parks of Andasibe-Mantadia, Ankarana, Ankarafantsika, the Tsingy de Bemaraha, Isalo, Montagne d’Ambre and Ranomafana. Category B covers all the other national parks and protected areas, including nature reserves, special reserves and marine reserves.
Every protected area managed by MNP is embedded in its local community, who in theory benefit from half the entry money taken at the gates. The local community also provides trained wildlife guides to escort visitors. These khaki-uniformed men – and, increasingly, women – have spent at least a year doing bioversity and guide training before being unleashed on visitors. Many of them are very good, and specialists in particular fields – for example orchids, herpetology, birds or lemurs. Most speak reasonably good French and some speak English, Italian, German or other languages, sometimes very well. Copies of their guiding IDs and specialist subjects are usually posted on the wall by the ticket office, giving you some opportunity to request a particular guide. In practice, they aren’t always at work or available and there’s usually an informal rota system to ensure that each group of visitors is led, by default, by the next guide whose turn has come up. The guides are usually quite flexible, and will do their best to accommodate special interest or language requests, but last-minute demands can’t always be met. This is where travelling with a tour, or with an experienced driver-guide whom you have hired directly, is such a bonus: if your driver-guide knows the park guides, then a particular guide can often be booked by mobile several days ahead. And if that person is not available, then there’s often a plan B or C.
The rates for guiding (guidage) are posted at the park gate, often next to a map-painting of the park trails, and they vary from park to park. There is normally a maximum of 4–6 visitors per guide, again depending on the park, and the rates usually start from around 15,000ar for a two-hour visit and range up to perhaps 40,000ar for a full day hike. If you are in a large group, you may want to consider having two or three guides: the rates aren’t high, and some members of the group may miss some of the story as you often walk in single file and the guide may speak quite softly.
Before you set off, be prepared: it’s surprising how often wonderful sightings happen almost immediately, when you’ve barely had a chance to tighten your boot laces. Take a bottle of water. Ask about flies and mosquitoes, and either apply repellant or have it readily to hand. Get your camera in position round your neck, with a suitable lens, and have your tripod easily accessible (guides are usually more than happy to carry a light tripod). If you are doing a night walk, either in a non-MNP park, or in a private or community reserve, check your head torch batteries and take some spares. If rain looks likely, have your poncho or cagoule with you.