Yes! It has finally happened! After months of organizing, learning the language, training physically, and preparing gear, my voyage to Madagascar has begun! This is the first in a series of volunteer blogs chronicling my sojourn as a volunteer research assistant for the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP).
Entering the Country
I arrived in the country at about 11:00 PM (local time, so about 4:00 PM EST) on July 23rd, after a sequence of Air France flights from Boston to Paris to Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar). An immense, sinuous line awaited me at the airport once I disembarked, snaking between customs, visa checking, health inspection, and passport inspection, all before baggage claim. I had resigned myself to tedious hours of bureaucracy, when an airport official came up to me in the line and asked if I was Sam. “Oui. Etes-vous Monsieur Sedy?” I asked. The volunteer handbook had told me of a Mr. Sedy, friendly to MBP. It was indeed he, and I soon learned of his inestimable value. In an astonishingly short period of time, Sedy got my passport and visa validated, waved me through customs, placed me at baggage claim, introduced me to a fellow volunteer, Dakota (who had taken the same flight as I, though we hadn’t met), and arranged for a portion of my American dollars to be changed into Malagasy ariary (at a rate of 4000 ariary to the dollar). (Pictured below: a 5000 Ariary bill). Once we picked up our baggage, Sedy deposited us in a car with MBP driver Jean-Pierre. As we hurtled through the night-shrouded city of Antananarivo, I practiced my considerable French and nascent Malagasy with M. Jean-Pierre, and when he dropped Dakota and I off at our hotel, gave him a hearty “Misaotra besaka” (thank you very much). I unpacked and sank into sleep.
My New Colleagues
Over the course of July 24th and 25th, I became acquainted with my fellow volunteers, the young scientists with whom I will be spending the next few months. They’re a fascinating group of people. In our cohort of five, in addition to myself, there’s Dakota, an American Environmental Science major from Creighton University (and my hotel roommate), Soumaya, a French Biology master’s student from the Sorbonne, Claire, an aspiring primatologist from Illinois, and Dana, a German Ph.D. primate geneticist. Everyone is kind, friendly, and fascinating. Between them, my new colleagues have visited and/or conducted research in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Egypt, China, Mali, Senegal, most of America and Europe, published several scientific papers, worked at zoos, schools, and universities, and (in Dana’s case) helped discover a new lemur species. I look forward to working with them further over the next three months!
On our first day in Antananarivo, Dakota, Soumaya and I (Dana and Claire had not yet arrived) were at liberty to explore the city, and we did so. After getting to know each other over breakfast at the hotel, we walked a few blocks to see the historic palaces of the city: the Rova, or Queen’s Palace, and the Prime Minister’s Palace (now a museum). The next day, Dakota, Dana, Soumaya and I walked down to the city lake and stadium, a much longer journey, also on foot. (Pictured above: views of the city from our hotel, and from the street).
During these explorations, we took in the street scenes of Antananarivo. A critical visitor might have seen it as chaotic or squalid: there were admittedly chickens and dogs running around in the streets, a complete absence of traffic lights, crosswalks, or traffic control, and channels of open sewage running alongside the sidewalk. However, I was enchanted. The ancient rock walls lining the streets were festooned with strange and beautiful flowers, their identities a mystery to me. (Check them out on my iNaturalist feed at www.inaturalist.org/observations/sammatey). Throngs of schoolchildren in blue uniforms marched down the steep, angular cobblestoned streets, laughing and chatting among themselves gaily. Younger children kicked around makeshift soccer balls. Families played, cooked, and hung their laundry out to dry on bushes along the narrower, car-less side streets. There were fewer panhandlers than in Portland, Maine: everybody seemed occupied. The entrepreneurial spirit was everywhere: small businesses ranging from hairdressers’ shops to all-in-one clinics to vegetable and dried fish stalls to taxis and buses to open-air welding yards (!) to restaurants thronged the streets. (One of these last, “Mini Pizza,” even advertised (in French) that it cooked with a wood-fired oven, just as Flatbread Pizza boasted back home!). Billboards blared ads for bank account initiatives, English lessons, and cellular data plans, engines of prosperity and increased economic reach. Civic spirit was strong too: the little neighborhood of Manakambahiny had its name spelled out in white wooden letters on a grassy verge, like a Malagasy microcosm of the famed Hollywood sign. Despite the US State Department’s warning of increased crime in Antananarivo, I felt entirely safe, lost nothing, and was struck by the overall friendliness and cheerful aspect of the citizenry. Whenever I spoke Malagasy during our walks, even something as simple as “Azafady kely e” (excuse me), people broke out into smiles and laughter, excited by the spectacle of a foreigner speaking their language. Even when I was refusing to buy something from a street vendor, with a polite “Tsara fa misaotra” (I’m good, thanks), the joy at hearing their tongue seemed to outweigh any disappointment at the loss of a sale.
In short, Antananarivo may be impoverished at the moment, but it has spirit. It has spark. It has character and potential, and perhaps most importantly, self-confidence. I shall not be surprised if in the next few decades, as the population of Madagascar increases and its current youthful population grows educated, “Tana” will become a great world city.
The History of Madagascar.
There is an incredible sense of history and place in Madagascar. When Dakota, Soumaya and I visited the palaces, we hired a highly knowledgeable local tour guide, with the exotic appellation of Franz Florida, to walk us through the exhibits. (Pictured above: the three of us in front of the Rova, or queen's palace). The man knew his stuff: what we experienced was essentially a condensed, interactive version of the fantastical history of the old Kingdom of Madagascar under the Merina rulers, from the unification by Andrianampoinimerina (literally “Lord Heart of the Merina,” who famously proclaimed “the sea shall be the boundary of my rice fields”) to the deposition of Queen Ranavalona III by the French in 1896. Along the way, Franz Florida touched on such points as the transcription of Malagasy into the Latin Alphabet, encouraged by Radama I the Great, the persecution and mass murder of Christian converts by Queen Ranavalona I the Cruel, and the curious career of Rainilivarony, the prime minister who ruled as the power behind the throne for much of the mid-1800s by the simple expedient of murdering King Radama II and marrying his widow, the queen regnant Rasoherina. It was his old palace that hosted our tour, complete with portraits of the monarchs and many of their personal effects, such as Radama I’s bed and throne, a tea set sent to the monarchy by Queen Victoria, and Rainilivarony’s writing desk-which in a melodramatic desk, had a hidden chamber for a gun. (In case you’re wondering about the names: “Ra” means something like “blood,” and is one of two standard beginnings for a Malagasy name, along with Andriana, or “lord”). The Rova had sadly burned down in the 1990s, but a magnificent stone replica had been raised in its place, with the historic environs of the royal gardens and tombs still present just outside.
Furthermore, at our hotel, the Relais du Haut Ville, we were treated to an entirely unprompted and highly eloquent speech on Malagasy history by the proprietor, Monsieur Serge. With astounding depth of knowledge, he told us (in French) about the sparring between British and French for influence in the old Kingdom of Madagascar (until it fell entirely into the French sphere of influence in 1843), the use of the ravenala palm tree as the emblem of Queens Rasoherina and Ranavelona III, and the story of Madagascar in the Second World War, when it was held by Vichy France and invaded by the British. His knowledge was deeply impressive: imagine if an American hotelier began discoursing learnedly on the doings of James K. Polk or Grover Cleveland. Evidently a deeply patriotic man, he also spoke of his pride in his country, and how he did not desire to live anywhere else in the world. “I sent my children to study in France, but they came back. We always come back. Madagascar is a special, a sacred place.” From the little I have seen so far, I quite agree.
Tomorrow, Friday the 26th, the plan is to “run errands,” obtaining SIM cards for personal wi-fi hotspots and supplies for the camp. On Saturday July 27th, we will all be driven down to the main research station at Kianjavato! I will send out another volunteer blog sometime next week. I can’t wait to see my first wild lemur!
Monday: Hawk Fright and Habitat Partitioning.
On Monday (alatsinainy in Malagasy) the 12th, we tracked the lemur known only as Juvenile Female, or “JuvF” in the clipped argot of the field notebook. It was my first day preparing the field backpacks for the Malagasy research team on my own, and I made sure to include all equipment necessary: ATS (Automated Telemetry System) devices, radio antennae, GPS units, notebooks, and water bottles. As always, it was a profound privilege to witness these rare and enchanting creatures in the environment they evolved for, going about their daily business with little apparent concern for the actions of their human observers. (Pictured, below). Sadly, we ended that day’s follow early. A bird of prey of some sort, possibly the well-known Madagascar harrier-hawk, swooped low over the canopy. The lemur troop deemed it a threat, gave their “yark!” alarm call, and vanished. They seemed to pop into pocket dimensions or something, given the speed at which they disappeared from view, and yet they probably didn’t go very far. Heedless of stealth about their daily business, varibolomavo are second to none at curling up into little brown balls and hiding in foliage when they feel imperiled. Since it was getting on towards noon, they probably went to sleep once they had so conveniently hidden themselves, making it extremely difficult to find them again. The day’s work ended early.
Once I returned, to KAFS, I was privileged by pure happenstance to witness a moment of scientific discovery, in another testament to the atmosphere of intellectual ferment that surrounds the research station. Two of the graduate students, Pamela Narvaez from Mexico and Devin Chen from America, are conducting a fascinating study investigating functional diversity and habitat occupancy in the local rainforest (and very kindly gave me permission to write about it). They had earlier set camera traps in selected trees in the Kianjavato commune, and that Monday, they had spent the morning climbing the trees and retrieving the camera traps. They found that a positive Noah’s Ark of emblematic Malagasy fauna had strolled by their lenses over the last few weeks. Their study has so far logged eight of the nine lemur species to be found at Kianjavato: Prolemur simus (my cherished varibolomavo), Varecia variegata (the big black-and-white ruffed lemurs), Daubentonia madagascarensis (the aye-aye), Eulemur rufifrons (the red-fronted lemur), Eulemur rubriventer (the shy and retiring red-bellied lemur), Avahi peyrierasi (Peyrieras’ woolly lemur, a nocturnal species) Cheirogaleus major (the greater dwarf lemur), and Microcebus jollyae (the local mouse lemur species, cute little orange fellows). I had so far only seen the first four named, and it was fascinating to get a first look at candid-camera photos of the others going about their business. In addition to lemurs, Pamela and Devin’s cameras logged the endemic bushy-tailed rat, the beautiful blue pitta-like ground roller (a breathtaking bird), Malagasy doves, and two endemic euplerid carnivores: the vontsira and the misnamed “Malagasy civet,” Fossa fossana. The Kianjavato commune is clearly an all-star, grand-slam area for Malagasy biodiversity, and thus an area of high conservation priority. This was a reminder that although varibolomavo, aye-aye, and Varecia are MBP’s “flagship” species in the area, our community-driven conservation work benefitted the whole rich species community.
Tuesday: A Cut-Short Critter Cruise and a Conversation with a Child
On Tuesday (talata in Malagasy), the 14th, we followed Fleur of the West One-Two group. Little of particular note occurred. In a repeat of history, the “follow” was again cut short depressingly early, seemingly again due to a raptor-driven alarm. The most important part of the day, however, was yet to come. After Fleur was out of our sight for forty consecutive minutes, despite our best efforts, the follow had officially ended. I left the forest, and I soon reached the main street of Kianjavato. The heart of the village, a tangle of shops and houses clustered around the road, is only ten minutes’ walk from many of the favorite haunts of the varibolomavo. I called KAFS on my little local phone, and they told me that Clariel, the MBP driver in the area, would be around to pick me up in about twenty minutes. Having nothing to do, I idled around the main street, holding my personal backpack and the field backpack. I ended up at the nameless general store, a single open-to-the street storefront selling an array of packaged and canned goods. There, I made the acquaintance of “Hierr,” the fourteen-year-old boy minding the shop. (“Hierr” is what his name sounded like to me, and I did not want to embarrass him by asking him to spell it. It might have been Hery or Pierre or even Thierry, all fairly common names in semi-Francophone Madagascar). When I said hello in French, he said “Miteny fotsiny teny Malagasy aho,” or “I only speak Malagasy.” This made me determined to pursue a conversation with him. Most of the Malagasy researchers I had worked with appreciated my efforts to speak their tongue, but their French and/or English were better than my Malagasy, and it was easy to slip back into one of those languages in conversation. Speaking with Hierr, I would have a truly challenging practice session. And so it proved. We were able to exchange names (sort of: I obviously didn’t quite catch his, and based on his remarks I’m pretty sure he still thinks of me as “Shem”). I said that I was a “siantifika ny tontolo iainana” (environmental scientist) and an “Amerikana.” He said he worked at the store, and was fourteen years old, though to me he looked much younger. Then, the conversation took an interesting turn. I asked Hierr, “Tianao ny biby?” or “Do you like animals?” I then asked “Narita gidro ianao?” (Have you seen lemurs?) and “Manana pictures gidro ity,” attempting to convey that I had images of lemurs on my phone. He shook his head vigorously, said “Tsy naritra, tsy tiako” (I haven’t seen them, and I don’t like them) and launched into a torrent of Malagasy that I didn’t quite catch, but that ended with a mime of bared teeth and a clawed-fingers gesture, suggestive of a wild mammal snarling. The message was clear: animals are scary and dangerous, and he didn’t like them. This made me sad. This boy was a citizen of one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, a hotspot of endemism, and the choices he would make as an adult, a consumer, and a voter would be of great import for the future of the local ecosystems. As it stood, he had not only not seen the critically endangered wild primates a half-mile from his workplace but had allowed his opinions of wildlife in general to be shaped by the snarling street dogs and ragged street chickens of Kianjavato village. This could not be borne. I couldn’t force lemur pictures on him, of course, but I used my rudimentary knowledge of human psychology to good effect. I brought up a varibolomavo image that I had taken that morning, held it so only I could see it, and oohed and aahed over it a bit, making it clear that I thought this very interesting and of great value. Naturally, Hierr and his little sister (or possibly a friend) who had just come in, craned their heads to see it. When they did, Hierr was amazed. Lemurs are pretty interesting for anyone, but at least for a Westerner they can be safely put in the mental filing cabinet of “exotic faraway places.” To learn that they live within walking distance of your hometown must have been like finding a giraffe in an American backyard. Once he saw the picture, Hierr’s face lit up with surprise, and he asked excitedly, “Nahita izany androany ianao?!” (You saw this today?!). I smiled. “Naritra gidro betsaka androany ity, Sangasanga.” (Saw many lemurs here today, Sangasanga-I seem to recall I forgot the pronoun, which in Malagasy goes at the end of the sentence). After this, of course, the floodgates were opened, and I showed him a plenitude of lemur pictures, endeavoring to communicate as I did so in Franco-Malagasy that these biby (animals), these varibolomavo, were special, with fotsiny roanjato (only two hundred) or so in the world. The next time I ran into Hierr, that Friday, he required no prompting to see lemur photos. I like to think that I’ve planted a seed of a changed mind there.
Wednesday: A Multiplicity of Varibolomavo
On Wednesday (alarobia in Malagasy) the 15th, we tracked Juno’s Baby, a yearling from the Northwest One group. The young varibolomavo are so adorable: seemingly relatively free from the adults’ constant angling for food and social status, they retain some elemental primate-youth curiosity, and will come very close to humans, staring at you out of their big brown eyes. We got a full, rich day’s worth of data that Wednesday, watching the lemurs eat bamboo, voapaka leaves, and jackfruit, sip nectar from ravenala flowers, practice geophagy (the eating of soil) chase each other around the canopy in little bursts of social aggression, groom themselves and each other, and more. (Pictured above: Juno’s Baby). Once, in the early morning, we even witness a rare act of violence-Cupid, one of the dominant males of NW1, bit Juno’s Baby on the tail! This reprimand, perhaps in response to some act of disrespect comprehensible only to lemurs, seemingly shocked Juno’s Baby. They (we don’t know the baby’s gender yet) fell from the bamboo stalk they were feeding on, scampered across the ground, and climbed up a small tree, there to nurse its hurt in affronted solitude.
In mid-morning, the Northwest Two group mixed with Northwest One. This is a common occurrence: the varibolomavo groups are better thought of as fluid “friend groups” than clearly defined nation-states, and more often than not the group we are following flows into the feeding grounds of another group, with no apparent ill-will. Some time ago, in fact, before I joined the project, the West One and West Two groups in started living together permanently, and we now describe them as “West One-Two.” On the 14th, however, the advent of Northwest Two was a special treat for me. Northwest Two is the home group of Ghost, and I had been excited to see that peculiar lemur since I first heard of her.
Ghost is one of those interesting anomalies sometimes thrown up by a natural system. She’s the daughter of Phoenix, one of the core females of the Northwest Two group, and has been monitored by MBP all her life, since her birth in 2017. She earned her unique appellation, and special attention from human observers, due to her coloration. A mysterious mutation has given her a distinctive ventral region: the “front,” from our perspective, of her head, limbs, and torso are not the usual varibolomavo brown, but pure white. (In Malagasy, one of her many cognomens is “Varibolomavo Fotsy,” or “The White Greater Bamboo Lemur.”). She may also be, scientifically speaking, a mutant individual, which makes her sound like a science-fictional X-Lemur but is in fact a perfectly normal part of evolution in the wild (see more below). Her white ventral region makes her instantly recognizable from a distance, which is a great boon to researchers as it means she can be easily and reliably tracked without the trouble and expense of fitting a radio or color collar. As far as any of us know, she is the only such partially white Prolemur simus ever reported anywhere in the world (forgive me if scientific literature currently inaccessible due to limited internet access proves me a liar). In short, she is an animal of considerable interest. Furthermore, I have arrived at a time that promises exciting developments in the Ghost saga. She is old enough to be sexually mature, and the birthing season in mid-September is coming up, her first since leaving the status of “juvenile” behind her. She may now, for all we know, be pregnant, and if she is pregnant, and gives birth in September, it will be extremely enlightening to see if she passes on her unique genes to her offspring. Since the phenotype (expressed physical trait) of the white ventral region is so rare, Evan and Kate (the previous varibolomavo volunteers) hypothesized that the genotype was recessive, or perhaps spread across multiple alleles (locations on or “versions of” a gene) to decrease the likelihood of inheriting a full set, or both. If the genes for white ventral regions, as expressed in Ghost, were preexisting in the Prolemur simus population, this is probable, and would mean that Ghost’s children are overwhelmingly likely to be the normal brown. Alternatively, this could be a brand-new mutation, born of some stray ray of cosmic radiation (or other environmental factor) that altered the DNA in one of Ghost’s parents’ gametes (sex cells, i.e. sperm or eggs). Although less likely, if this is the case the trait for white ventral regions could still be dominant, and thus each of Ghost’s children would have a fifty-fifty chance of being “ghost varibolomavo” like their mother. Since Ghost appears to be surviving fine in the wild, there seems to be little selective pressure against this trait. If more white lemurs are born and live successful lives, it could lead the trait spreading throughout the population, a new local color variant for the species. A fascinating thought. Perhaps in the year 2050, the white-fronted varibolomavo of Kianjavato will be especially noted on ecotourism guides for their beauty and uniqueness-presuming, of course, that the local and international community ensure the population’s safety until then. Either way, when Ghost procreates, this year or the next, we shall learn a little more about her genetics.
(Note: if any part of my amateur hypothesizing here is incorrect, I positively urge any of the many highly experienced geneticists at MBP and among my readers to send corrections for my next blog. I speak under correction, based primarily on memory of undergraduate biology courses).
(Pictured below: a triptych of Ghost).
Thursday: A Day of Self-Care
On Thursday (alakamisy in Malagasy) the 15th, we had the day off. It was Assumption, and the Kianjavato area is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, so many important dates in that faith’s liturgical calendar are set as vacation days for all Malagasy personnel. And without Malagasy staff and researchers, as I have endeavored to make clear in this blog to date, we Western volunteers are so many “babes in the woods.” I elected to spend the day performing “self-care,” taking care of all the little activities of daily living that fall by the wayside in the excitement of days with lemurs. I allowed myself to sleep in, read some of the books I had brought with me, did my laundry, and took a shower. These last two sound like perfectly anodyne, unremarkable events, yet life at KAFS lends them a certain spice. There is no running water in the area, and the local rivers have extremely high levels of bilharzia parasites. Thus, we are all forbidden to touch surface water in the forest or village, and we get all of the station’s water from two wells. The wells are down in the main area of KAFS, with the dining hall and the main building, and all my dirty clothes were at my tent site, a good quarter- or half-mile uphill. After drawing the water from the well and lugging the resulting bucket that distance, I poured in some of my Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 soap, a brand brought from home and enlivened with the religious ramblings of the business’ founder on the label. I then added my dirty clothes, two or three at a time, to the bucket of soapy water, and endeavored to imitate the action of a washing machine using pure elbow grease. Rather surprisingly for a cosseted young American such as myself, who had never previously been sans washing machine for longer than eight-day camping trips, I performed rather well. Soon, I had effectively removed the considerably offensive odors and grime that had accumulated upon my wardrobe. I spent an agreeable hour or so rereading Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel on my Kindle in a hammock, and then, as it grew dark, took a shower. The KAFS showers, men’s and women’s, are just adjacent to the well. They rather belie the term shower, being simply wooden stalls with a drain in one section of the floor. The shower component is user-generated, and consists of a bucket filled (by the showerer) with well water, and a cup to pour it over oneself. It’s frightfully cold at first, but quite exhilarating and enjoyable by the time you’re scraping the dregs of the bucket. Then, it’s time to drip-dry, chivvying away the mosquitoes assaulting your trembling corpus, and put on a new set of field clothes. One shower generally is enough for me for four or five days.
Friday: A Full Day in Madagascar
On Friday (zoma in Malagasy) the 16th, we tracked the radio-collared male varibolomavo known as Cupid, the patriarch of the Northwest One group (he who had bitten Juno’s Baby that Wednesday). As an interesting note, P. simus is one of only two lemur species for which the word “patriarch” is appropriate. All social lemur species, except my varibolomavo and a species of social dwarf lemurs in the genus Cheirogaleus, are strongly matriarchal, with the females competing for mates, territory, and resources. Prolemur simus may have evolved its unusual patriarchality as a response to the practice of feeding on bamboo, which tends to grow in groves more open to the sky (and thus, aerial predators) than forest fruit trees. The males took on the duty of acting as sentinels and alarm-callers for the group, and somewhere along the line got enhanced food privileges as well.
Another interesting aspect of varibolomavo behavior that I don’t believe I’ve previously mentioned is that their tolerance of feeding alongside their neighbors can extend even beyond species boundaries. For several days this week, the greater bamboo lemur group we were following mixed for some time with a group of red-fronted lemurs, Eulemur rufifrons. The “rufies,” as we call them, tend to have grayish or reddish bodies, with distinctive red facial markings, in place of the uniform golden-brown of the varibolomavo. Their calls are instantly recognizable due to their similarity to the stereotypical grunt of a pig: it can only be rendered as “oink!” These oinking, boisterous cousins of Prolemur prefer fruit to bamboo, and so can feed in close proximity to a varibolomavo group with no competition for resources. (Pictured above: a “rufie” staring down at me from a tree).
Cupid settled in to rest in a tree fairly early that day, with Juno and her baby, along with Moira, another Northwest One female, slumbering a few meters from him (all animosity long forgotten and forgiven). While we waited under the tree, taking repetitive data points on the lemurs’ behavior, I had a great time chatting with Rasolo and Mamy, two of the local researchers. Rasolo kindly offered me the fruit of Aframomum angustifolium, a perfectly unearthly-looking local wild plant whose fruits have an extraordinarily sour and acidic taste, bearing the same culinary relationship to lemons as lemons do to grapefruit. Rasolo enjoyed his fruit, but I couldn’t finish mine, though I thanked him all the same. I also took the opportunity to learn a lot of new Malagasy words, from kapa (shoe) to vita (finished) to loha (head) to avia and avanana (left and right).
When we were picked up after the day’s forest work by Clariel, the MBP driver, I struck up a conversation in Malagasy with Rasolo and a few other MBP staff members sharing the transport. (Carpooling is beyond a norm and well into a way of life in Madagascar: we often have seventeen or twenty people sharing the MBP van). Just after I said “Mandrapihaona alatsinainy!” (See you Monday) when Rasolo got out, Clariel said that I “Miteny gasy tsy vazaha,” or “speak Malagasy not like a foreigner.” I treasured the kind compliment, and resolved to redouble my Malagasy practice.
Friday was also notable in that the KAFS dining hall served bread at both breakfast and lunch, a welcome rarity in rice-centric Madagascar. After a delicious tomato-and-butter sandwich, I spent the afternoon entering data into the P. simus team laptop and composing the biweekly report with Theoluc. I went to bed rested, refreshed, and profoundly happy to be living and working in an environment as stimulating and rewarding as MBP’s projects in Kianjavato Commune of Madagascar. My profound thanks to the many researchers, administrators, and volunteers before me who have labored to establish this incredible endeavor!
Greetings all! Here is an account of my work as a volunteer research assistant for the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership from the 13th to the 20th of September! The more I learn about MBP's work, the more grateful I am to be part of such a fascinating and inspiring endeavor.
The Aye-Aye Follow
On the afternoon of Friday the 13th of September, starting at four o’clock, I joined the aye-aye team for the famously strenuous “full follow” of their nocturnal study animal. We were a party of seven: from KAFS there were myself and Faranky, the KAFS aye-aye team leader, a Ph.D. student from Antananarivo studying social interactions of aye-ayes, particularly between mothers and their children. Along the way to Sangasanga (good old Sangasanga Mountain!) we were joined by five local guides who made up the rest of the aye-aye team: Lidada, Dagah, Deric, Sylvestre, and Herman. We walked up into the high forest, the wildest part of the mountain, the part that hosted the aye-ayes’ nest, as twilight fell. I was pleased to notice that it didn’t seem nearly as difficult as the previous time I’d made the climb to the aye-ayes’ nesting tree, for the nest check I’d joined on the second week at KAFS. True, we were taking a longer, more gradual route this time, not the ultra-steep “Spend Sweat” trail, but I liked to think that my weeks of regular hiking were paying off.
Once at the tree, we waited for our two follow aye-ayes (Emerald and Bozy, a mother and son) to leave the nest. While we did so, perched on a slippery, muddy, leaf litter-strewn hillside, I fell on my rear several teams, and dragged myself back up by hanging onto saplings. However, as the last of the sun’s light trickled out of the sky, we were treated to an astonishing sight. I spotted a black-and-white ruffed lemur in the aye-aye’s nesting tree, perhaps twenty feet lower down in the branches of that great rainforest titan. “Varecia!” I cried. It was one of the first times I’d seen a wild lemur independently before the others in my group. I was amazed that we were seeing a Varecia variegata individual, a beautiful, critically endangered primate, in the wild, and that too by chance, not by tracking its radio collar. Sangasanga at sundown must be one of the few places on Earth where it’s possible to have that kind of serendipitous encounter. Then, it got even more amazing-someone else pointed out a few Eulemur rufifrons (red-fronted lemurs) on the other side of the tree, at about the same height as the Varecia. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, Emerald and Bozy came out of their nest, kicking off the follow, and started playing with each other, two black shapes high in the canopy. They were a mother (Emerald) and son (Bozy) pair, and their continuing to bond and live together even after Bozy was grown to adulthood was doubtless providing fascinating data for Faranky’s study. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Three lemur species-one of them critically endangered, and one (the aye-aye) endangered-not only in the same field of view at the same time, but in the same individual tree!!! It was a riveting, sense-saturating experience. (Pictured below: the Varecia individual I saw).
At perhaps 6:30 or 7 PM, Emerald and Bozy left the tree, and went out in different directions on their nightly feeding voyages. I joined Deric and Sylvestre on the team tracking Emerald. For about four hours, until 10:30 or so, as she drank from ravenala flowers, poked through bark to drill for larvae with her long middle finger, and scampered between trees like a spirit of the night. Along the way, I got to see the vibrant, living, nightlife of Sangasanga. Insects were everywhere, the occasional bat flew by, the trees echoed with chirps, hisses, and stranger calls, and lemur eyeshine was a regular but always thrilling sight. For half the follow, I was grinning madly, positively mesmerized by the magical landscape around me. In addition to Emerald, I saw several mouse lemurs and my first Cheirogaleus major, or greater dwarf lemur (matavirambo in Malagasy). It looked like a smoky-gray squirrel-shaped larger version of a mouse lemur. The Cheirogaleus I saw was also drinking from a ravenala flower, as Emerald had, and as Prolemur simus often did when I was on their team. Ravenala flowers aren’t dainty little daisies, they’re big chunks of trees, huge, spiky things the size of a human torso. Each one can hold up to a liter of nectar. This makes them highly ecologically important, as a source of water and energy for an array of arboreal creatures. Colloquially speaking, they're the soda fountains of Sangasanga, the Rick’s Bar from Casablanca of the Malagasy rainforest: everybody goes to the ravenala flowers. (Pictured below: a wild aye-aye drinking from a ravenala flower).
Around 11, our ATS ran out of batteries-not its original batteries, but the third set of headlamp batteries that we had replaced them with. (The batteries still had enough to power our headlamps, but not the big ATS, so we still had light). We couldn’t collect any more data on Emerald. Having split, the groups fused back together: we rejoined Faranky and the others to form a seven-person team following her son Bozy. On the way to do that, however, I had a rather disconcerting experience. The trails we were traveling were incredibly narrow, shading to nonexistent: six-inch ledges of tree roots and stones and leaves. At one point, I tried to leap over a difficult bit and grab the tree beyond it to stabilize myself, as I had done many times before. This time, I missed the tree. I fell. Not an ordinary falling down on my rear, like I had done dozens of times so far that night, but a full-body, no points of contact with the ground, heels-over-head plummet down the mountainside. My headlamp flew from my head, leaving me lightless, and my data-collection notebook flew from my hand. I landed in a thick brushy segment of ferns and shrubs, tried to grab a handhold, slipped, and fell further. Thankfully, my sure-footed colleagues found me, clinging to the tiny stems on the hillside, and helped me recover my headlamp and the notebook. One battery was lost (sorry, Sangasanga!) but I got a spare. Soon, I was with the main group, following them up a hands-and-knees climb after Bozy’s radio collar signal.
At midnight, the seven of us were gathered on a grassy, ferny hillside, an open patch very high up on Sangasanga. The harvest moon stared down at us from the sky, the familiar Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenitatis upside-down and the southern brightness around Tycho Crater dominating the view. Under this volana feno (full moon) we watched Bozy as he settled in for a while in a distant ravenala tracked, and just relaxed, eating some of the snacks we had brought with us. With the aye-aye team, at about midnight between Sep 13 and 14, sharing Gouty au Lait cookies, and joking around and looking at the harvest moon and the ravenalas and pushing each other into the ferns, I felt something I’ve felt very rarely outside of time with my family. A sensation of completely belonging. There was almost a party-like atmosphere: staying up late in a group, sharing food, joking about nothing, laughing together, simple joy in each other’s company. But the seven of us-Faranky, Lidada, Dagah, Deric, Sylvestre, Herman, and myself-weren’t students out for fun, we were a group of scientists and research assistants collecting data on an endangered, evolutionary unique nocturnal primate. This was a party I could get behind, where-ironically-there was enough important work to do that I could really let myself relax and enjoy the moment. I was deeply happy to be there.
The last few hours of the follow, from 1 AM onwards, were little more than a blur. Only Faranky and one other guide, generally Herman, stayed focused on the aye-aye: the rest of us collapsed bodily into the undergrowth until it was time to move again, then staggered back into the realm of the upright and hiked the right direction. Flickering headlamp beams outlined tree roots, slippery leaves, rapid elevation changes, and the other nocturnally challenging parts of Sangasanga’s topography. At one point, Bozy went downhill (more across, through the trees, from his perspective). Ahead of us was a steep slope entirely covered with slippery leaves. The seven of us positively surfed down that hill, sliding down on our rears from leaf to leaf, our sleep-deprived frames jolted to the point of letting out whoops of excitement. At the base, I followed Herman in climbing about ten feet up a small tree to get a better view of Bozy and relay that information to our data-taker on the ground.
Shortly after that, at around 3 AM, Bozy returned to the nest, and so the follow concluded. We staggered down the trails, through FOFIFA, through Kianjavato, and to the car. We got back into KAFS almost exactly twelve hours after we left: at four o’clock in the morning of Saturday the 14th. I was exhausted but grinning, utterly happy to have been part of such an incredible adventure.
Saturday and Sunday: Recuperation
I woke up around noon on Saturday the 14th. That weekend, I didn’t stir from KAFS, letting myself sleep in and relax. I reread Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment and Night Watch, had a great Skype call with my family on Sunday evening, and wore my camp shoes, letting my hiking boots dry out. Thanks to Dakota calling me over, I saw a lowland streaked tenrec on Saturday: the beautiful black-and-golden striped insectivore looked exactly like its picture on my tent site’s sign. Tenrecs are insectivores, and some species (though not the one I saw) have evolved spines that make them look just like hedgehogs-a classic example of convergent evolution. They’re one of Madagascar’s four endemic terrestrial mammal groups, along with lemurs, euplerids (predators like fossas and ring-tailed vontsiras) and a lineage of rodents. (Madagascar also has a multiplicity of bats, as well as marine mammals on the coasts and in the seas, but the above four groups are the only native terrestrial mammals. Bats could fly over and marine mammals could swim, but lemurs, tenrecs, euplerids, and Madagascan rodents are all descendants of “lottery events,” some ancestor or group of ancestors who made it to the island by chance, perhaps on a raft of floating vegetation and debris brought over by a storm).
Around 1 PM on Sunday, when the other four volunteers were at the Kianjavato market, KAFS had a visitor: a Peace Corps volunteer working with a clinic at a village about 10 miles away. He was also named Sam, and we had an excellent time discussing our work, our homes, the people and culture of Madagascar, practicing the Malagasy language (he was much better than I, though he was kind enough to say I spoke well). I was in awe of the fact that he was staying for two years: what an incredible commitment to make! As a Peace Corps medical volunteer, Sam warned me that the parasite situation in the local waterways was worse than I’d known. I’d heard that the Kianjavato Commune’s rivers and streams had some of the highest parasite levels (bilharzia, liver flukes, etc) in all of Madagascar, but he told me that they were in fact among the worst in the world. Yikes. It made me glad that MBP forbade its volunteers from touching the water.
Monday: A Day with Varecia
On Monday, I accompanied the Varecia variegata study team, as a guest and observer. I had chosen that day because I knew that it was most strenuous part of the weekly schedule: the day when the Varecia team would be tracking the black-and-white ruffed lemurs (varijatsy, in the local Malagasy dialect) that lived atop the mountain of Tsitola. I had long wanted to climb Tsitola, and to join the Varecia team in the field, and this offered me a chance to do both. We were a party of six: -Rasolo, Etienne, and Hoby (I think), the Varecia guides, Soumaya, the Varecia volunteer, myself, and Nicholas, a Malagasy Ph.D. student researching nocturnal lemurs who was also a guest observer. We walked up to Tsitola from the road, passing Tsitola Nursery on the way. Soon, our path changed from dirt road to forest trail to mountain path: we were ascending the sloping site of Tsitola, catty-corner to its impressively sheer main face. The trail, with its consistent but considerable elevation change and its profusion of tree roots forming natural stairs, reminded me of a hike up Mount Monadnock in my childhood. We walked through land that was clearly ex-farmland, with an abundance of banana trees and early-successional vegetation, like the low-growing shrub soapbush (Clidemia hirta), which I’ve seen at all field sites in the Kianjavato Commune. Strangely, another extremely common ground shrub in Tsitola was an instantly recognizable one-the common raspberry bush, exactly the same as the raspberries my family had once grown in our garden in Massachusetts. I hadn’t seen raspberry bushes (or, for that matter, raspberries as a food item) anywhere else in Madagascar. Why were they omnipresent on the side of Tsitola, and only Tsitola? Did a French colonist introduce them here and only here, decades ago? Were they cultivated more recently in an attempt to diversify local diets, and then abandoned to grow and spread in the wild? In any case, I found them a welcome addition to the trailside species community. The berries were just at the optimal point of juicy, rose-red ripeness, and I ate several.
At the top of Tsitola, we paused for a while and took a little side trip to a point where we could view the surrounding countryside. A splendid panorama greeted us: rolling hills as far as the eye could see, dotted with villages, rice paddies, and roads, with fragments of savoka (second-growth forest) clinging to the more isolated hills and farmland or roranga (grasses and shrubs growing on recently abandoned farmland) on the rest. Vatovavy’s instantly recognizable shape rose through the midmorning haze in the distance. From that marker, I could mentally superimpose a map of MBP’s entire operation in the Kianjavato Commune, as I knew that Kianjavato, Sangasanga, and KAFS were in between Tsitola and Vatovavy and that nurseries were strung all along that route. Though this was certainly a fragmented ecosystem, difficult for lemurs to traverse, I was heartened by the fact that I saw so much green, a testament, in part, to MBP’s years of reforestation efforts. I hope someday to see MBP’s long-term plan take shape: a long forest corridor stretching from Tsitola to Vatovavy, a contiguous, community-protected homeland for Prolemur simus, Varecia variegata, and all the other marvelous creatures that share their domain.
Soon, thanks to the work of Rasolo, Etienne, and Hoby, we had zeroed on the first of our follow lemurs for the day. Unlike on the simus team, where we followed one lemur for six hours at a time, the Varecia team did multiple smaller two-hour follows. The lemur we followed for the first two hours didn’t move at all, curled up into a beautiful ball of black-and-white fur on a branch. I looked at him or her (Varecia aren’t sexually dimorphic, so I couldn’t tell this one’s gender) through my binoculars and took a turn entering data (resting…resting…resting). We shared some water and snacks.
The next lemurs we saw were a lot more active. The guides spread out when they homed in on this one’s radio collar signal: he or she was in a group with two other varijatsy, in the crown of a tree perhaps fifty feet away from us. As we watched, one of the others in the group, a non-collared individual, undertook an incredible display, running along tree branches and making immense jumps of perhaps fifteen to twenty feet between trees, crossing hundreds of feet of terrain in less than a minute with an air of the greatest ease. I took photos and videos frantically, overwhelmed entirely by awe at seeing this majestic primate exercise its evolutionary gifts while roaming free in its habitat. I felt like an explorer watching godlike aliens on a distant planet, demonstrating skills beyond human comprehension. At that moment, I felt anew a profound and intense gratitude towards Madagascar itself, the endlessly generous island-continent that never seemed to run out of jaw-droppingly awesome sights.
Shortly afterwards, the second one in the group followed. On this one’s way, he or she did an even more death-defying move: intentionally letting go of a tree branch and falling (not jumping!) a good fifty feet onto the top of another tree lower on the mountain’s slope, and then simply clinging to that tree’s branches as though nothing had happened. The varijatsy were like Olympic gymnasts with antigravity belts. Words like “elegant,” “graceful,” and even “balletic” sprung to mind. Their jumps literally took our breath away, leaving us gasping in awe. (Pictured: a varijatsy moving along a branch).
All alone now in the tree, our follow animal decided to chill out and feed on the leaves (even though Varecia mostly eat fruit, they also indulge in leaves, flowers, and that great universal staple, the nectar of the ravenala flower). Even this was done with no little style and aplomb. The lemur assumed the pose of the Varecia on the MBP logo: hanging by its feet from a branch and eating from leaves below (pictured, above). It was old hat for the Varecia guides, but Nicolas and I gasped in awe at the astonishing grip, endurance, and flexibility so displayed.
After seeing Varecia in the wild, I was in a position to reflect on the differences between them and my cherished Prolemur simus. That they were distinct in nearly every visible respect, none could deny. Varecia had striking black and white patches, and great white manes around their heads, while Prolemur (except for Ghost) were a mellow uniform golden brown. Varecia leapt balletically through the canopy, Prolemur crashed through the bamboo and low branches with more vigor and verve than gracefulness. Varecia even fed while striking a pose, while Prolemur sat or clung to bamboo and communally chowed down. All in all, the analogy that suggested except to me was that Varecia were rather like Tolkien’s Elves, graceful, haughty, and near-solitary, while Prolemur were like Hobbits: jolly, communal, full of joie de vivre, and perhaps homely by comparison, but lovable and not to be underestimated. Even though nearly everyone else I’d asked (except the Prolemur guides) said that Varecia were their favorite, my heart belonged to the varibolomavo still. Although, of course, both species were wonderful, precious, and unique, and I was grateful beyond measure that I had the immense privilege, the fruit of decades of conservation work, of making a comparison between the two based on viewing them in the wild.
We returned late that afternoon, delaying English class to 4:00. Once I’d realized that the Varecia team wouldn’t be back by 3, I’d WhatsApped Dakota to spread the word among my students, but still I felt terrible about leaving them hanging. At 5:15 or so, once class finished, I spent some time showing Herman, of the aye-aye team, how to use standard computer programs like Word, Excel, and Google Chrome.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: Typical Reforestation Team Days
On Tuesday morning, my Reforestation Team duty was Moving Seedlings: accompanying the squads of local workers that moved seedlings (zanakazo, or literally “treechildren” in Malagasy) from nurseries to planting sites. I rode to the first nursery, Antaretra, in the back of the planting truck with perhaps ten or fifteen other workers, all hanging on to bars along the wall and standing on a well-tracked floor covered in trodden-in red earth. Once we disembarked, everyone rushed to load seedlings from the nursery into woven baskets (garaba in Malagasy) to carry to the site. It was amazing how quickly they worked: I helped out by passing seedlings to one or another of the workers with the baskets, thus optimizing their loading process a little, but I couldn’t possibly have matched their speed on my own: the few times I tried, I loaded about ten seedlings in the time it took them to load twenty-five. After the first lot of seedlings was loaded, and the workers were on their way, there was a lull period as we waited for empty baskets to come back. (This was familiar: it was at this time last Tuesday that I had thought of carrying a basket myself, with interesting results). I used the time to photograph the day-to-day tasks of the Antaretra Nursery staff. One man was using a giant, ceiling-hanging sieve to sift rocks out of the sand and red earth used, with compost, to create the seedlings’ growth matrix. Another watered tiny seedlings, mere sprouts, that were set aside in little glass-covered greenhouse/garden beds of their own, not yet big enough to be transferred to their own container. I helped Fara, the Antaretra nursery manager, who was sweeping leaves and debris out of the main work area, her charming six-year-old (or so) daughter by her side. I watched Romuald counting the remaining seedlings, as part of his assignment of taking inventory of all seedlings of all species at the nearby nurseries. I saw Jean noting down the names of all workers present in a little notebook, no doubt to keep a careful account of who was paid and how much. As I watched, I reflected on the responsibility he and the other MBP reforestation staff leaders had undertaken. Jean was only six years older than me, and he was in charge of managing, supplying, and paying the staff of a network of sixteen nurseries in the area. MBP’s entire reforestation project was bigger still: perhaps fifty people were employed as full-time staff at the various nurseries, perhaps a hundred more were members of the Single Mothers’ Club working part-time at the nurseries, a few hundred more still were regularly contracted laborers, paid for specific tasks such as digging holes moving seedlings, and thousands-I think about three thousand-had worked at planting events at one time or another. In a community the size of Kianjavato Commune, MBP’s work was a serious economic engine. I felt that was as it should be. This work was so important-more than the quotidian manual labor performed worldwide for farms or businesses. As vital as that may be for one family’s wellbeing, the work of reforesting the hills of the Kianjavato Commune is vital for the survival of an entire ecosystem, as well as for the future of two species of critically endangered primates. And, of course, it’s part of a broader global effort, composed of a thousand other projects and tasks and technologies and local initiatives, to begin the process of stabilizing the global climate. It’s strange to think of such simple tasks as sieving soil or loading baskets as part of such an immense issue, but it is the case-the wind turbine technician in Iowa, the smallholder experimenting with agroforestry in Senegal, the bicycle infrastructure planner in Germany, and the MBP nursery staff in Madagascar, are all working on different aspects of solving climate change. (Pictured below: tying baskets to bamboo for carrying, loading baskets, sieving soil).
I was roused from my globalist reverie by Romuald. He pointed out an extra-large acacia seedling, perhaps three feet tall (in comparison to the other seedlings’ six inches to a foot or so). It must have been left out of several previous seedling carries, and grown to greatness while still in the nursery. “Why don’t you carry that one?” he asked. Always happy to oblige, I hefted it and walked out of Antaretra Nursery onto the main road, orienting myself by the steady stream of workers coming back the other way with empty baskets. Soon, the path turned sideways into the woods. I stepped across a wide stream via a central stepping, climbed through an old banana grove, and ended up at the planting site, a hillside starting to be retaken by bamboo. I deposited my giant seedling safely in a pre-dug hole on the hillside, and returned the way I came, happy that I had made a small but significant contribution to the moving of seedlings for the planting event. However, on my way back, I received a bit of a comeuppance. I stepped onto the stream’s central steppingstone all right, but the far bank was eroded by footprints, and the mud was slippery. My foot slipped off, after I’d put all my weight on it, and I fell bodily into the stream with an immense splash.
I emerged from that stream utterly soaked. My pants were completely waterlogged, my shoes were full of water, my face, hair, and shirt were wet through except for a patch on my upper back that had been protected by my backpack. (I carry my blue Jansport Klamath 65 backpack with me everywhere in the field). I strode quickly to the far shore-it was just a few steps-and took stock of the situation. Fortunately, my Malagasy dictionary and field notebook in my pack were perfectly dry, and the phone and few thousand ariary in my pockets had been fairly well protected as well. I put them in my pack to dry out so that they wouldn’t be moistened overmuch by my sodden trousers. Once I returned to the road, my sodden socks and shoes squelching with every step, Jean, Romuald, and the workers had finished up and were walking back towards the car. I announced “Lavo aho. Tena lena aho,” (I have fallen. I am very wet.) in a mock-woebegone tone, and everyone roared with laughter. I was rather worried, given what I knew about the local parasite concentrations, but it turned out to be fine: Fredo reassured me at dinner that the Antaretra area wasn’t very dangerous.
I slowly dried as we moved seedlings from the next two nurseries, Morarano and Ambohitsara. We returned to KAFS around noon, and I had lunch and then relaxed on the balcony. Only one student, Prosper, showed up for my aye-aye team English lesson that afternoon (I didn’t blame them-they needed their sleep!), so we had a one-and-a-half hour one-on-one tutoring session, and I feel we made a lot of progress.
On Wednesday morning, I attended the tree planting taking place on a hill near Morarano Nursery, working with Tatasoa, Romuald, and Nana to take the GPS locations of the trees and ensure proper payment of the thirty-five or so local workers registered in the Conservation Rewards program. I planted four to six little acacias and bonary means myself, and pondered the curiously inherent optimism and happiness that permeated the occasion. In addition to being vital for biodiversity protection, nutrient and erosion management, and climate stabilization, planting a tree is a philosophical statement. By planting an organism that will take years to grow to its full potential, you are making a tacit assumption that there will be a future, that the ecosystem and the community and the animals and the people will live to relax in its shade. I recalled an apocryphal story, mentioned it some novel or other I had read recently, of a community which was terrified of their fire-and-brimstone preacher’s warnings of imminent apocalypse, but relaxed considerably when they learned he was planting trees in his garden. It’s an expression of hope, planting a tree, and in my experience, it always seems to radiate a feeling of good work well done to those who take part.
The middle of the day was occupied with some other Reforestation tasks: entering the GPS locations and species of the trees planted that day and preparing the budget for the next few days. It was a spectacular baking day at Joseph’s: around 2:30, I got a warm pain au chocolat (for the moment) and a delicious chocolate-marbled poundcake-like loaf of bread (for the future). Joseph’s is a major point of conversation among the volunteer cohort, and the source of nearly all sugar and baked goods I have had during my time at KAFS. Without that noble establishment, our volunteer positions here would be notably less pleasant.
That afternoon, to a record-high audience of 14 students (yay!), I taught what I feel might be the most successful of my English classes yet. We covered a long list of adjectives, from old favorites like “noana” (hungry) and “mangatsika” (cold) to new words like “misokatra” (open), “mikatona” (closed) and “mahaliana” (interesting. We also reviewed “this” (ity), “that” (io), and “these” (ireo). Then, in the most conceptually challenging part of the lesson, we covered the forms of “to be” used to indicate past, present, and future tenses: was/were, am/are/is, and will be. The Malagasy language doesn’t have any equivalent for the verb “to be,” the forms of which are so omnipresent in English. Madagascans indicate tenses by changing the first letter of verbs and adjectives: n- for the past, m- (as in misokatra, mikatona, and mangatsika) for the present, and h- for the future. It seemed very strange to my students that English speakers tossed in these little untranslatable words into nearly every sentence, and that they varied all the time for seemingly random reasons. After a while, it seemed strange and random to me too: why can we say “you are,” “we are,” and “they are,” but not “he are,” and why “I was” and “she was” but not “you was” or “we was”? Especially when we have a clear example of one standard cross-pronoun method of indicating tense: “I,” “you,” “he/she/it,” “we,” and the rest can all be depicted in the future with “will be.” However, it was important to know these words to make sense and sound credible to English speakers, and so we learned them: I drew up a three-column, three-row grid of words, with pronouns on the left side and past (lasa) present (amin’izao), and future (hoavy) on the top. We drilled with these for a good hour and a half, and by the end of the class everyone was correctly translating into English, on the first try, such difficult sentences as “Hangatsika isika” (We will be cold), and “Nisokatra ny boky” (The book was open). I love teaching English! (Pictured below: the whiteboard).
Thursday was a lower-key Reforestation day. Dakota, Dana, and I joined Fredo, Romuald, and many other staff members on the standard weekly nursery check. At the last of these nurseries, Antobohitra (ATB) we had a rather interesting cultural experience. The nursery manager, Monza, had just had a baby, and we held a little micro-“fomba” for her. The fomba is a uniquely Malagasy social custom. I’ve seen it directly translated as “wake,” but it can occur for births as well as deaths. It simply consists of certain members of the community, often leaders (or in the case of Fredo and Romuald, employers and coworkers) showing up to the house, exchanging greetings and congratulations or commiserations as appropriate, and giving gifts. Fombas can be huge, whole-village occasions with lavish gifts, or, as in our case, a somewhat impromptu visit from a small group of people, with our gift being a discreet envelope filled with a little monetary contribution from all present. Monza was happy to show us baby Aurelia (a beautiful name), a perfect cute-as-a-button little primate. She also offered us all glasses of “Bonbon Anglais,” a light, fruity sparkling water. In a Malagasy household, it must have been a considerable luxury.
The fomba reminded me of the Quaker tradition of “bearing witness”: for some events, it was simply important to have more humans present, more eyes watching, to lock it in as real and remind the family at the focus of it of the presence of the community. This cultural tradition of community support for big life events fits in very well with MBP’s general approach of serving as a sort of social safety net for their employees. Nursery staff and guides get their medicines paid for, and gifts of money for weddings and funerals, as well as regular vacations (even though they generally need to spend them in some other form of labor). Returning to KAFS for the rest of the day’s work, I was glad to be a small part of such an open-hearted, culturally sensitive, and overall supportive organization. I taught an aye-aye team English class of four that afternoon, and rejoiced in the knowledge that I was helping give the local citizens the tools to be more effective guardians of their wildlife.
The next day, Friday, I attended a Forest Species planting event on a hill right next to the Morarano Nursery. We walked to a forest of acacia, bonary mena, and albizia trees, all at least fifteen feet tall. However, this forest had been degraded land last year-all of these trees were one year old, legacies of a 2018 MBP planting event! Since the pioneer species had done so well, we were now enriching the species community with other species, like ramy and varongy trees, that would provide new ecosystem services. It was heartening to see the newborn forest, and inspiring to imagine the trees planted during my time on the Reforestation team being full-grown adults in 2020.
At the end of this week, we left for another weekend trip to explore a new Madagascan marvel: Anja Community Reserve, home to ring-tailed lemurs, and accessible by a day trip from the city of Fianarantsoa! More on that later!
Greetings all! I write these words from the Hotel Ambanidia in Antananarivo, my last stop before flying back home. This blog chronicles my last week in Madagascar, and my reflections on the amazing conservation work I have been honored to take part in. I have taken this opportunity to expand the scope of my writing, from chronicling my day-to-day activities to offering a summary and reflection on the full impact and importance of MBP’s work in the Kianjavato Commune. Thanks for reading!
Wednesday through Sunday: My Last Days at KAFS
On the morning of Wednesday, October 9th, I accompanied Sam II to my penultimate planting event, on a hill near the nursery of Ambodibonary (ABB). Although ABB was one of the closest nurseries to KAFS, I had never attended a planting event in that area before. Our planting site, like all of our pioneer species planting sites, was mostly scrubby roranga (scrubby, fern-dominated grassland, with very few nutrients left in the soil, what’s left after a piece of land has been under slash-and-burn farming for far too long). It was a great satisfaction to me to know that our hardworking acacia and bonary mena seedlings would be enriching this land for years to come, making it more and more fertile with every day they fixed nitrogen from the atmosphere. Furthermore, I was pleased to note some strong young acacias just at the edge of our planting site, planted by MBP just a few years ago and already doing their jobs. Beyond that, in the distance, the eye noted some lovely rolling hills clothed in savoka (secondary rainforest beginning to grow back after one or two spells of slash-and-burn farming, i.e. on land not so degraded as roranga). As is often the case in Kianjavato, the savoka was dominated by two species: ravenala and bamboo, those omnipresent pioneers indicating unused farmland working through the long process of growing back into forest. It looked like good Prolemur simus habitat, and I happened to know that it was: there were two named varibolomavo, Artemis and Hera, that had been observed around Ambodibonary.
The planting event itself was one of the quickest I had ever encountered, as perhaps twice the normal number of workers had arrived from the local association. They moved through the planting site with incredible speed and efficiency, to the point that the two Sams present had time to plant no more than one seedling each before all three thousand had been planted! After handling the normal administrative matters of writing down names and Conservation Credit Reward program numbers, we walked down to Ambodibonary village by the roadside and waited for one of our coworkers to finish taking the GPS coordinates of the newly planted trees. For the next thirty minutes or so, we watched a group of kids playing a game of football (global football, what Americans call soccer). They were fortunate among local children in that they had a real soccer ball to play with: though it was a bit threadbare, it was certainly superior to the bound-together spheres of rags and trash which are the most common soccer balls in the Kianjavato area. It appeared to be girls vs. boys, and we watched and cheered indiscriminately as both sides struggled for possession, made great saves, and occasionally brought off impressively bombastic goals, the ball whizzing through the two rocks that formed the goal line and bouncing off the sides of bamboo and wood houses. The kids knew their stuff, too, doing formal penalty kicks and other complex rules and maneuvers that I didn’t recognize, but that my companion, from a more football-conscious country, was intimately familiar with. Sam and I absolutely loved watching them, and we determined to offer them our water. The children were so shy and self-effacing that they shook their heads politely to inquiries of “Mangetaheta ianao ve?” (Are you thirsty). Knowing that they must be, after such play in the sun, I had to practically shove my two water bottles into their hands before they accepted. Once they did, they drank eagerly, sharing the bottles equally among all players with the egalitarian spirit that I have observed to be a national characteristic. I reflected that football was truly a global game, played everywhere from the fields American elementary schools to high-octane international European championships to villages by the side of the dusty road in rural Madagascar.
That afternoon, a milestone came which I had been both looking forward to and dreading-my last English class, the end of weeks and weeks of one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken. We had had a sort of exam that Monday, and so I decided that this class would have more of a party atmosphere. To that end, I bought twelve of the delicious madeleine-like muffins made by the bakery at the (proprietor, the awesome Madame Hanitra) and distributed them among my students and myself. We focused on the word “afaka,” a rough counterpart to “can” or “may,” and made an abundance of sentences out of it, from “Afaka mandeha Kianjavato rahampitso isika?” (Can we go to Kianjavato tomorrow?) to “Afaka mahita ny gidro izy ireo ve androany?” (Can they see the lemurs today?). In the last few minutes of the class, I formally introduced Sam II, who had with great kindness volunteered to continue my Basic English classes on Mondays during his stay at KAFS. Previously, I was the only one able to teach Basic English as I was the only volunteer who spoke Malagasy, but Sam II is learning Malagasy rapidly, and my students now speak and understand a good deal of English. I’m certain that they’ll have a great learning experience together. Overall, I have immensely enjoyed teaching English, and I feel and hope that I have left a lasting positive impact on my students’ lives by equipping them with the conversational basics. I am very glad that these classes will be able to continue in my absence.
Thursday was a milestone day for me: the last day I would be joining the Prolemur simus team, the last day I would go to Sangasanga, and the last day (on this trip, at least!) that I would see a lemur in the wild. Claire, Kate, and I joined Mamy and Rasolo for a survey of the five studied groups in Sangasanga Forest. It was a beautiful journey, a final tour to view these incredible creatures in the wild. I feel at this point, there is little I can write about the greater bamboo lemur that does not reiterate what I have covered before. They were beautiful. They leaped through the bamboo and branches with sublime grace, seemingly embodying the forest around them like dryads breaking through to reality. The knowledge that there were only a few hundred left in the world made me give thanks for the incredible privilege I have had in working with them and contributing in some little way to the efforts to protect their best remaining population strongholds. I feel I would do almost anything in my power to keep Prolemur simus in the world, and if MBP or any other group is ever in truly desperate need of assistance to save the species, I will be there.
Once I returned to KAFS, there was literally no work for me to do: all the new volunteers had settled into their teams perfectly, leaving the old cohort to spend the last few days at the research station with an unaccustomedly high degree of leisure. In the early afternoon, I decided to assist the single moms in their tasks at the KAFS nurseries. I spent a pleasant hour or so with five of them sorting through compost and soil that were soon to be the growth matrix for seedlings, removing stray rocks and bits of plastic that would take up space but provide no nutrients. It was simple, meditative work, and a good opportunity to practice my Malagasy. I realized to my pleasant surprise that I could carry on a fairly simple conversation even with interlocutors who spoke no English at all, and moreover convey complicated concepts like “Malahelo aho noho handeha alahady izahay, faly noho hahita fianakaviana aho” (I’m sad because we’re leaving Sunday, but I’m happy because I will see my family).
Later that afternoon, I had my last one-on-one tutoring session: English irregular verbs with Herman, an aye-aye team employee and my old companion of the all-night follow. Herman knew most of them already, even the illogically difficult ones like “slept” for sleep and “drank” or “drunk” for “drink”. I complemented him on his memory and intelligence, and we said goodbye. There were far too many goodbyes in these last few days at KAFS, and I shall not dwell overmuch on them, except to say that I have taken my leave at KAFS of many extraordinary people, who I have been honored to work with and who I shall always remember.
On Friday morning, I attended my last planting event, with Sam II and Dakota on a hill near the nursery of ATB. It was a great one to end on: there was a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside, the event went slowly so we all got a chance to plant a lot of trees, and I happened to run into Lidada, one of the aye-aye team members, and say farewell to him. It was a very hot day, and I noted to myself that in the age of climate change, the spring and summer days would likely be hotter still in the future. The trees we were planting would help with that, both providing shade and cooling the surrounding area by releasing water vapor through the stomata in their leaves, a process known as evapotranspiration. Around the world, planting trees is one of the best possible ways to respond to climate change: not only does it help sequester some carbon, it helps local humans and wildlife adapt to warmer temperatures.
That afternoon, I had a most pleasant and completely unexpected visit. Three of my former English students, Fabrice, Matthieu, and Innocent (although Innocent speaks English so well she’s really more like a co-teacher), arrived at KAFS specifically to thank me for my work in teaching over the last few months. They brought as gifts for me some chips, cookies, soda, and juice, as well as a hat of the local Tanala design. Touched to the heart by their gratitude and kindness, I of course insisted that we share all the food among ourselves. For the next hour or so, we did just that, eating, laughing together, offering some of our snack food largesse to passersby, and taking advantage of the fortuitously strong local Internet connection to play and sing along to some Bob Marley and Shania Twain songs. It was an absolutely lovely little party. I said farewell to them all that day, but I shall always remember their kindness.
In the evening, I was called over to the edge of the dining hall to see a site somewhat rare even in the wildlife-blessed lands of the Kianjavato Commune. Not one but two lowland streaked tenrecs, both positively tiny compared to the adults I had seen earlier, were rootling around in the leaf litter by the dining hall. They were exactly the same size, and given their apparent friendliness, we determined they must be from the same litter, tenrec twins (jumeaux in French, kandana in Malagasy). As I stared at them digging for their invertebrate food, I reflected on the ancient ancestry of tenrecs, their deep ties to ancient lineages of insectivorous mammals. Humanity’s ancestors had been insectivorous little shrew-like mammals like that once, back in the Mesozoic when dinosaurs ruled the earth. And fifty or so million years ago, in the Eocene period, fifteen million years after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, our ancestor was a prosimian creature that today might be classified as a lemur, perhaps something similar to the lemur-like fossil Notharctus. In a way, Madagascar is even more than an alternate-world with its own unique life-forms: it’s a shadow of a lost world, a window into deep history, with tenrecs and lemurs reiterating, in a way, part of our own evolutionary past. (Pictured: one tenrec in the foreground in the right half of the image, the second dimly visible in the left half of the image).
Little occurred on Saturday: myself and my cohort-mates spent the day sleeping in, packing, and saying goodbye to the nexus of research, wildlife, human development, ecotourism, and adventure that is the Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station. That evening, we had a final going-away dinner, with Madame Hanitra baking us a specially ordered cake with all of our names on it. It was delicious. At the dinner, Fredo played “Fambolena Coco,” that leit-motif song of my sojourn, and I spontaneously got up and danced my heart out to it, to the great amusement of all my fellow diners. That evening, I also said goodbye to Romuald, my dear friend, the clever wit who had had me roaring with laughter many a time, and the hardworking companion of many happy days on the Reforestation team.
On Sunday morning, we awoke early, finished our last-minute packing, and said goodbye to the KAFS staff and remaining volunteers in a flurry of hugs and good wishes. I said goodbye to all the next cohort, Mack, Sam II, Kate, Nate, Ana, and Shannon, to Nicolas, the friendly visiting grad student, to Christine the cook and Haingo of the groundskeeping staff, and to Faranky, leader of the aye-aye team, my dear friend and leader of the night follow. Finally, I said goodbye to Fredo, the leader of KAFS, one of the most hardworking men I have ever known and a model of leadership who I hope to emulate in years to come. Soon after that, I said goodbye to Theoluc, who I had served as the assistant of for five weeks on the Simus team, and who has a profound passion to protect these incredible animals. The Malagasy leaders of MBP’s operations in KAFS are the true heroes of this story, the people who work every day to forge a better future for the humans and the lemurs of Kianjavato. The highest goal of my work during my volunteer placement was to be of service to them to the greatest extent possible.
The mood was melancholy as the MBP car spirited us away on the twelve-hour drive back to Antananarivo: we all knew that these three months had been a special time in our lives, that we had been working in a truly extraordinarily landscape, with wondrous animals and incredibly good and kind and passionate people, and that that time had now come to a close.
However, my mind was not entirely on what we had left behind. As my time in Madagascar draws to a close, I am thinking more and more of my own homeland, the forests and townships of Maine. G.K. Chesterton said that the object of travel was not to set foot on foreign land, but, at last, to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. I will of course be extremely happy to see my wonderful family again, and I look forward intensely to that joyful reunion. In addition, I feel that upon my return, I shall see the landscape of my home state in a new light and appreciate to a new extent the marvels that had hitherto been part of the daily background. I daydream of red-winged blackbirds flying over cattail marshes, maple syrup with blueberry pancakes, the scent of snow on eastern white pines, the view over Casco Bay from Portland’s Eastern Promenade, the chatter of gray squirrels in white oaks, the great psychedelic kaleidoscope in orange, red, yellow, and gold that is a forest floor covered in fallen autumn leaves, and the thousand and one other things that make up the multisensory tapestry of Maine. I’m ready for new adventures back home in the Pine Tree State.
Kianjavato: An Imperiled Landscape on a Rising Road
Kianjavato Commune is to a profound extent a landscape in transition, with both the local ecosystem and the human population undergoing many changes. The human population, at least, is on the long road of development, beginning to emerge from the grinding poverty and want of a subsistence agriculture economy. A study published in 2018, coauthored by Dr. Edward Louis of MBP, Dr. Cortni Borgerson of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and several others, surveyed 1267 Kianjavato residents, including members of 336 households, to form a picture of the income, health, nutrition, and use of natural resources prevalent among members of this community. Their results were sobering. All households reported farming as their primary occupation. 47% of the population was sixteen years old or younger, indicating rapid population growth. 91% of the population relied on firewood for cooking, and 99.7%, all but one household, reported collecting traditional medicinal plants from the forest. The median income was 50,000 ariary, or US $21.74. Malnutrition was epidemic: more than half of households had malnourished kids, and a fifth had wasted kids (extremely malnourished to the point of greatly stunted growth). Sadly, I saw evidence of this on a daily basis during my stay at KAFS: many of the citizenry, especially children were extremely short and thin to the point of emaciation. Disturbingly, the study also found that 16% of the households reported obtaining meat by hunting forest animals, often illegally, such as tenrecs, bats, mouse lemurs, and, worst of all, eight Prolemur simus individuals. If the IUCN 2016 estimate of 500 Prolemur simus left in the world is correct, that’s 1.6% of the global population. Notably, this practice was statistically associated with the presence of underweight and wasted children, possibly indicating being driven to bushmeat out of sheer desperation.
The local ecology is also at a tipping point. There are four basic land types in Kianjavato Commune: agricultural and otherwise human-occupied land, such as rice paddies and houses, rainforest fragments, such as my old study areas of Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and Tsitola, and the two intermediate categories of savoka (secondary rainforest on degraded land) and roranga (grassland on extremely degraded land). The remaining forest fragments in the area host nine species of lemur, including the critically endangered Prolemur simus and Varecia variegata and the endangered aye-aye. These are treasures, that in a just world would result in Kianjavato receiving massive international aid simply to allow these unique creatures to live in peace. However, the forest fragments are small and encircled by savoka and roranga, and tavy (slash-and-burn farming) is ongoing, still chewing away at the forest. Given the expanding, hungry population of Kianjavato, it would be very easy for it to fall into the vicious cycle of unsustainable expansion, with the last bits of forest cut down piece by piece for tavy to feed the people and burned again and again until all the nutrients were gone from the soil, all the lemurs vanished from the land, and the community was left with a waste of roranga and increasingly unproductive farms. This very thing has happened many times in many other parts of Madagascar and the world, and might have already happened here, were it not for the tireless work of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership.
MBP’s work affects the Kianjavato Commune at every level. Starting with the lemurs, MBP’s amazing guides have obtained gainful employment that uses their incredible forest skills to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge on these uniquely Madagascan primates. They have become ambassadors for the species, working with the community to spread the word that lemurs are a valuable resource, present only here, and are more valuable alive than dead. Increasingly, the lemurs of Kianjavato are attracting scientists and tourists from around the world, opening the door to a historically highly lucrative new income stream for this desperately poor community. I’ve already seen a plethora of tourists come through KAFS, doubtless paying fees to support MBP’s conservation work (and thus, many local employees). Next year, Kianjavato will be listed in Bradt’s travel guide for Madagascar, perhaps opening the floodgates to a new age of ecotourism for the region, and new economic shields for the happily unknowing lemur groups peacefully living their lives in the forest glade. Already, Sangasanga and Vatovavy are unmolested by tavy or hunters, a truly astonishing achievement given their lack of legal protection and a testamented to the foresightedness of the community.
This would already be an amazing enough accomplishment, but MBP has a second major thrust of their mission, with immense value to the very land of Kianjavato itself: its reforestation program. With over two and a half million trees planted since 2012, and at least six thousand planted every Wednesday and Friday, MBP is growing a better future. Pioneer species like bonary menas and acacias are preventing erosion, cooling the landscape, fixing nitrogen to replenish the nutrients of the tavy-impoverished soil, and offering cover for animals. Forest species planted in the shade of grown-up pioneer species are the next stage in establishing a rainforest, and will form the canopy of the habitat for the next generation of lemurs. MBP’s long-term goal is to create a great network of forest corridors stretching from Tsitola through Sangasanga through KAFS to Vatovavy, across the Kianjavato Commune, a living green network of lemur habitat and ecosystem services-providing forest. In pursuit of this glorious goal, their (our!) planting events and nurseries provide a multitude of jobs, and nurture many other subsidiary programs: compost initiatives that spread the word of an alternative way to get nutrients for crops, commercial crops from coffee to cashews to chocolate grown in the MBP nurseries and sold to local farmers to diversify from rice and offer a new income stream, a Conservation Credits Reward program distributing helpful items like bicycles and fuel-efficient wood stoves to those who contribute by planting a given number of trees. And, of course, all of this tree-planting effort is not just a breathtakingly effective plan to restore the local ecosystem, it is a highly effective way of combating the greatest threat of our time, climate change. Each tree planted builds itself out of complex sugars obtained through photosynthesis from the base material of carbon dioxide drawn from the air, and millions of trees planted (and the associated changes in the soil) begin to make a substantial impact. Restoring tropical forests is widely known as one of the best ways humanity can work to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and begin to achieve a stable climate, and MBP is doing just that in an exemplary fashion.
Another far-reaching benefit of MBP’s involvement is the fact that it has brought, directly and indirectly, some degree of employment to hundreds of women in the Kianjavato Commune. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist and development expert Amartya Sen pointed out, empowering women, particularly through increasing women’s literacy rate and paid labor force participation rate (the latter of which MBP is doing) has profound and positive ripple effects in a society. Sen noted that women getting jobs didn’t just increase their own income, but, by giving them greater freedom of independent action, had been shown to reduce childhood mortality rates as well as the average number of children per women. As both of these factors are extremely important for a society to reach a high standard of living, Sen wrote that “Nothing, arguably, is as important today in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic, and social participation and leadership of women.” From the single moms working half-day shifts at the nurseries, to Innocent’s Fikambanam-Behivavy association weaving baskets and hats for sale to tourists brought in by the lemurs, to the hundreds of local women across the commune who earn extra money for themselves and their kids by taking part in planting events, MBP is opening up new freedoms for the women who will build their communities' future.
In sum, the work of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership in the Kianjavato Commune directly addresses many of the most important issues on Earth today. MBP and its leaders, staff, volunteers, and day laborers are working to protect critically endangered species, restore highly biodiverse tropical forest habitat, replenish the nutrients of degraded land, build an ecotourism revenue stream for the future offer jobs to the citizenry of an impoverished village, empower the women of a still-patriarchal society, and combat climate change through carbon sequestration-and all at the very same time, with each positive effect dovetailing beautifully with all the others. Even though I feel ready and indeed excited to return to Maine, I will forever treasure these three months at KAFS, where I was a volunteer research assistant participating, in a strong way, in an enterprise as noble and as important as any other in the world. I shall not always be in Madagascar, but Madagascar will always be with me.