Ankarafantsika (130,026 hectares) is the last strand of dry western deciduous forest in Madagascar, and the need for its protection is obvious – as you drive to Ankarafantsika, whether from Tana or the north, there isn’t a tree in sight for hundreds of kilometres. The combination of accessibility (the park straddles the RN4 and is accessible even by public transport) and excellent wildlife viewing makes it one of western Madagascar's most popular and rewarding parks.
The driest time to visit Ankarafantsika is between May and November, but October and November can get very hot. Wildlife-viewing is often better during the early part of the December-to-April wet season, when rainfall is still relatively light.
Ankarafantsika is home to eight lemur species, many easily seen, including Coquerel’s sifaka and the recently discovered Golden-brown mouse lemur. You’re also likely to see brown lemurs and four nocturnal species: sportive, woolly, grey mouse and fat-tailed dwarf lemurs. More elusive is the rare mongoose lemur, which is observed almost exclusively here.
Birdwatchers will be rubbing their hands in anticipation: Ankarafantsika is one of Madagascar’s finest birdwatching venues, with 129 species recorded, including the rare Madagascar fish eagle and the raucous sickle-bill vanga. There are over 70 species of reptiles, including small iguanas, a rare species of leaf-tailed gecko and the rhinoceros chameleon (the male sports a large, curious-looking bulblike proboscis).
Vegetation consists of low and scrubby deciduous forest with pockets of such dryland plants as aloe and Pachypodium (or ‘elephant’s foot’) plus baobabs and orchids.
Hiking is the name of the game here. There are eight short circuits in the park, some of which can be combined into a half-day hike. Circuits in the western half of the park go through dense forests on a sandy plateau and are great for lemur-spotting (sifakas and brown lemurs in particular) and birdwatching. There is also a breathtaking canyon that is well worth the trek in baking heat across the grassland plateau.
The northern half of the park is all about the lake and the baobabs. The birdwatching is excellent here, too (and completely different from the south), and there are more reptiles, including crocodiles. If you have time, try to see both sides.
Park guides also organise one-hour night walks (Ar25,000). Unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed in the park at night, so the walk simply follows paths along the RN4. That said, night time is still your best chance to see the tiny mouse lemur, and chameleons are easier to spot by torchlight too.