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Face to face with nature

Lemurs purr when they are contented. You learn that when you observe them from dawn to dusk on an Earthwatch holiday.
Two weeks to save the earth" runs the Earthwatch slogan. And if you are willing to contribute a substantial amount of cash (anything from pounds 395 to pounds 1,870) for the privilege of working from dawn to dusk in the backwoods of the world on a multitude of environmental projects, this is the holiday for you. These are only "holidays" in the sense that they last for two weeks, often in exotic locations such as Caribbean islands, African savannahs or Australian rainforests. Volunteers are expected to work hard recording data, radio-tracking, excavating, interviewing. Training is given on the first day, so no special qualifications are required other than enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

I chose to visit Madagascar, and found myself in the south at the small game reserve of Berenty. It is home to five species of endangered lemur. Here, American primatologist Dr Alison Jolly has spent many years researching the animals' behaviour.

My day began at 5.30am when I and one of my other two team-mates had to locate the troop of 26 ring-tailed lemurs which it was our duty to follow all day until 6pm. The task, however, was not unduly onerous: this troop had a habit of spending its time until early afternoon around the reserve's bungalows and cafeteria, in the hope of being given (or stealing) fruit.

The sun already rising, the animals came strolling out of the forest, long stripy tails waving, to take up their positions on the rooftops or in the trees. Here they sat facing the sun with arms outstretched, warming their white bellies like small furry sun-worshippers. We identified "our" troop (whose territory overlapped with that of two or three other troops in the area) by pinpointing a marker animal - one with half his tail missing - that we called Bobtail.

For most of the morning we lurked about in the shade of the buildings, keeping out of the fierce sun (39 degrees C in the shade at midday) and recording, at 10-minute intervals, exactly what the animals were eating, what calls they made, whether they were scent-marking, and their reaction to any other troop in the vicinity.

Luckily, our animals favoured a long siesta, stretched out on the big branches of a tall, shady tree, their black-and-white striped tails hanging down like bell-ropes. The five-week-old infants preferred to continue playing, much to their parents' irritation, and were learning to venture away from their mothers to pounce about in the branches - a nerve-wracking exercise to watch as they were still rather unsteady on their feet.

One baby discovered that it was great fun to leap on to the top of a deck-chair and slide head-first down the wooden side-piece, though he never quite plucked up courage to experiment with the wide expanse of the seat. He repeated the trick many times while his mother sat nearby keeping a close eye on him.

Observing behaviour like this was one of the delights of the project, especially when you could get extremely close to the study animals. None of the wild species pay much attention to the large, humanoid creatures wandering about all over their territory, and the ringtailed lemurs will even enter bungalows and jump on to restaurant tables (not encouraged) in search of food.

Indeed, when they see a likely-looking group of tourists approaching, they often scamper towards them and clamber all over them, providing a "photo opportunity" in return for a banana - and causing Earthwatch volunteers some irritation in this disruption of the normal behaviour patterns they are supposed to be recording. But even this unnatural behaviour requires a B for banana to be entered in the data sheet's food column.

Later in the afternoon our troop wandered off into the riverside forest to feed, giving their miaowing contact calls and graciously waving their tails like cats (their Latin name is Lemur catta). They also purr like cats when contentedly grooming their infants.

As dusk began to fall, we followed our charges back into the denser forest where they had a final feed before settling down for the night, so we were then free to return to our tourist bungalows for a welcome shower. Your average package holiday, however exotic, can't possibly leave you feeling this good.

About Earthwatch

The UK office is at Belsyre Court, 57 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6HU (01865 311600). Annual membership costs pounds 25, and includes a bi-monthly magazine detailing Earthwatch projects.

When to go to Madagascar

The dry season runs from April to October; if tropical storms that begin this month and continue until March do not deter you from an earlier visit, then a recent outbreak of plague may do so.

How to get there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Madagascar. Air France flies from any of its gateways in Britain via Paris to the capital, Antananarivo, for pounds 715 including tax if you book through an agent such as Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322).

Discover the World (01737 218800) is planning a 17-day tour of the south of the island next year.

What to read

'Guide to Madagascar' by Hilary Bradt (Bradt Publications, pounds 11.95).