Lemur tracking in Madagascar.
Declan Brennan March 2000
In December 1999, I had the opportunity to visit Madagascar as part of an Earthwatch expedition to assist Dr. Patricia Wright in lemur research in Ranomafana National Park. What follows is an account of my experiences along with some stills from my video footage.
The island of Madagascar is off the east coast of Africa. It's a big place - the fourth biggest island in the world in fact. Ironically, although close to the birthplace of the human race, it was the last major piece of territory to be settled by mankind, who arrived only about 1800 years ago or so. The first settlers came not from Africa, but all the way from Indonesia and Malaysia. To this day the island culture seems a lot more similar to somewhere like Nepal than to Africa, although there is a French veneer produced by the age of colonialism. 1800 years seems like a very short time to completely change the face of such an enormous place. However in that time, the predominant colour of the island has changed from green to red. The Malay-Polynesian immigrants are absolutely hooked on rice as their main food, which they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To satisfy this appetite, they engage in the practice of Tavy - the local name for slash and burn agriculture. This tradition can seem very illogical to outsiders, as they will burn fortunes worth of hard wood trees to the ground, merely to get a rice paddy that involves back breaking labour to cultivate. Worse, in many cases the topsoil washes away in the rainy season, limiting the life of the paddy to a couple of years. When traveling from the capital- Antananarivo (normally abbreviated to Tana) to the Ranomafana National Park, I saw scary evidence of erosion, where whole hill sides had washed away revealing the rocky skeleton beneath. The erosion is so severe that from space, it is possible to see the ocean stained brown with soil around Madagascar at the various river mouths. The deforestation, along with hunting has resulted in many extinctions. Up until a thousand years ago, there was one species of lemur that was bigger than the gorilla. Nowadays there are many species under threat. The temptations are large when unscrupulous foreigners can offer customs officials a years salary to overlook a suitcase filled with chameleons.
These abstractions were made far more real to me by an incident later. Dr. Sarah Karpanty, one of the researchers at Ranomafana, had been monitoring a remote nesting site for a very rare bird of prey called a Harrier Hawk. She came back to camp one evening almost reduced to tears of frustration. The local villagers had decided to chop down all the trees in the area. She pleaded with them, but the most they would do is leave the one tree with the nesting site standing. However this was now all by itself in the middle of a large cleared area. The birds were very distressed and would probably die of heat exhaustion. However, it would be unfair to cast the people of Madagascar in the simplistic role of environmental destroyers. They are in many ways an admirable people, of which more later.
It is unlikely that the park of Ranomafana would exist without the work of Dr. Particia Wright, who is a remarkable woman. She was a teacher in New York, when she bought an owl monkey in a pet shop. Amazingly this led her to investigate these nocturnal monkeys in South America, although she had no qualifications at the time. Only later did she become a qualified primatologist and went to Madagascar to study lemurs, where she found a species originally thought extinct in Ranomafana - the Golden Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur aureus). Her studies of the lemurs were interrupted by the selective logging that was going on in the area, so for the first time she was confronted with environmental issues. She went to the government of Madagascar to ask for a park to be set up to protect the newly discovered species. The government had no money for the task, so she had to arrange funding from the US. She realized that no amount of good intentions would do any good without the co-operation of the local people, so she set off to visit the almost one hundred villages around the park, many of them extremely remote. Some of these villages had not been exposed to white faced foreigners since the revolution that overthrew French rule and the first reaction was often to run away and hide in the forest. It is hard to believe, but without education or communication, some of them thought that white people would eat their children. From this shaky start, her group worked painstakingly to build up trust. She asked the village elders what they wanted from a park - the answer was healthcare, education and agricultural advice. By setting up an integrated, environmental and social program, she established the park in 1986 with the co-operation of the villagers and so far there have been no incursions, unlike parks in many other parts of the world. 135 people, many of whom were working for the timber companies are now reemployed by the park in a variety of roles. Ranomafana is probably unique in that 50% of the admission fees are made available to the local villages. The sudden availability of money, if not handled carefully, can cause all sorts of problems including local inflation and family feuds. However the park admission fees are routed through the village councils for spending on conservation related tasks, for example growing trees outside the park to avoid the need to exploit those in the buffer zone around it.
Of course before I made it down to Ranomafana, I had a chance to experience the capital Tana, along with a few of the Americans from the Earthwatch group. The craft market was well worth a visit. One of the local specialities is making model rickshaws and cars from recycled tin cans. I saw a chinese checkers board where each counter was a transparent ball filled with a different species of beetle. Spectacularly beautiful and yet horrendous in terms of its environmental implications. Madagascar is the tenth poorest country on the planet, so I saw plenty to tug at the heart strings - for example a six to seven year old girl begging in the streets carrying her two year old brother on her back, whom she had to take care of. On another occasion, I was buying a bag of fruit for a bus trip, when a woman came up to me with a child in her arms. I gave her a mango "pour l'enfant", whereupon I was suddenly surrounded by a sea of women all waving their children in the air. Needless to say, by the time I made it back to the hotel, I had lost much of the fruit - not that I felt threatened. Even in dire need, the Malagasy are an amazingly courteous people. My French is "trez pauvre". Yet ironically, I ended up translating for the Americans, who didn't have a word. I had a good time in restaurants recommending the lapin. Later in the trip, our group was augmented by a bone fide frenchman, who took the pressure off me. It was quiet strange being somewhere, where English is hardly spoken at all. Indeed French is only spoken by educated Malagasy or those that encounter travellers.
I came face to face with one of the worries about visiting a poor country, when I got a fish bone stuck in my throat when eating in a restaurant. Luckily the bone did not obstruct my breathing. Nevertheless, it lodged behind my Adam's apple and caused exquisite agony every time I swallowed. Needless to say, I was less than keen to seek medical help, in a country where most peoples' cause of death are unknown. I paid for my meal and one of the Americans - Mike very kindly followed me back to the hotel, in case I got into difficulties. He had a go at the Heimlich manoeuvre. However he was far too gentle. In the end, I stuck my fingers down my throat to retrieve the bone. Just as I got to it, I triggered a vomit reflex and up it came. It took a moment to get used to the simple joy of swallowing without pain.
When eventually we all got together, the Earthwatch volunteers proved to be quite numerous - a group with diverse personalities and backgrounds. There was a Frenchman called Jean-Pierre who looked quite like Antoine from Eurotrash. There were two English accountant friends- Sarah and Alison, who were always up for a bit of a session in the evenings, when most of the others had gone to bed. The final English chap was Mark - ex-Navy, he had just completed a college degree in entomology ( or something similar). The rest were American. There was Sheila, retired who had an interest in theatre and the arts. Patricia was an Earthwatch representative who had done numerous Earthwatch trips before. Mike was an engineer. Charles was a retired lecturer from Stoney Brook - an obsessive birder - who had led bird watching trips to many parts of the planet. Herbert owned a hardware store in New York, but always tried to arrange for two months travel a year. He had been in close to fifty countries and was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there were two primatology students from a wacky Californian university that used to be clothing optional- Magdalena who was tattooed with the skeletons from several primate species and was completely hyper and Jennifer - her more level headed friend, who provided a calming influence. Nicky was a girl into hiking and marathon running, who was thinking about joining the Peace Corp. I jogged with her a few times, much to the amusement of the locals, who don't have the energy to waste on such frivolous activities. Finally there was Steven - an author with a book on the bestseller list, who was doing an article about Dr. Wright. He was accompanied by Miguel - his extremely laid back photographer - who sported tattoos in scripts from various parts of the planet. I recognised some Nepali on his arm, which turned out to be a blessing. Oh and I shouldn't forget Amanda - Dr. Wright's daughter who had come back for a visit. She had spent so much time in the Ranomafana in her childhood and was so quick in the forest that she had a trail named after her.
The first few days in Ranomafana were easy going enough, as well as being very interesting. I had both the best alarm clock and the best bathroom in the world. The dawn chorus from the jungle was impossible to sleep through. Then it was simply a matter of opening my tent flap and dropping into the river for a morning swim. In addition to the Earthwatchers, there was a range of researchers camping in the park both US and European - some of whom were very famous in their fields. There were scientists from Conservation International monitoring the numbers and health of the various lemur populations in the park. We had lectures on all sorts of subjects including sub-fossil lemurs, birds, religion and environment and the effect of introduced rats on indigenous species. The very first night, I knew I was somewhere different when we were having dinner on the veranda of the hut - one of two permanent structures in the park. Electricity had only recently been installed, but the lights attracted all sorts of amazing wildlife from the jungle - some of which dropped into our meals. This did not cause exclamations of disgust, but rather shouts of wonder accompanied by Latin names spouted by the more knowledgeable.
In the first few days I had two close calls caused by carelessness. On one occasion I dived into the river and hit an underwater rock close to my groin. That nearly gave me a permanent squint, I can tell you. On another occasion, we took a trek to a bush camp in a remote part of the camp. There, while wondering around, I discovered a fallen tree across a gorge. I was trying to persuade Sarah and Alison to cross the tree with me. Picture me standing on the tree grabbing a vine. "This will hold your weight. See how hard I can pull it" Tug. Tug. The vine gives way and I end up diving head first off the tree shouting "Oh no - it won't !!!". Luckily jungles are very messy places, so by flailing my arms, I was able to catch some more vines on the way down. Needless to say that caused a few laughs, once people realised I was OK.
After the first few days, the five day study period for lemurs started. The particular species we were studying was Propithecus Diadema Edwardsi, otherwise known as the Edwards Sifaka. Their full name being somewhat of a mouthful, everyone referred to them as the Props. Like all species of lemur, Props evolved from a prosimian that probably rafted across from Africa on some flotsam about 40 million years ago. The Props hang around in small groups that are female dominant. Because it takes more than one male to help in looking after the young, particularly outside the rainy season, a female will not breed until there are at least two males in the group. Most of the time these males do what they're told - including grooming the females and young and if they're not quick about it, they get a nasty nip on the ear to hurry them up. Unlike many primate species which are sex obsessed, Props have sex only one day each year. Ten hours of fun and it's all over. The Props are reasonably quiet most of the time, but they do have a range of calls. The contact call helps a group stay together in deep forest. More importantly are two types of predator warning- one for airborne predators and the other for ground based hunters like fosa. Lemurs can catch one of seven types of malaria, in contrast to the human four. However they have lived for so long with the disease that they have adapted to it and it often does not even show symptoms.
There were four groups of Props in the park of which two were to be studied. Group 1 was close to the camp and in reasonably flat terrain. Group 4 was many miles from the camp in extremely rough terrain. I ended up choosing Group 4 along with Nicky, Mark and Herbert - the jogger, the ex-Navy chap and the fellow built like Schwarzenegger. The other three decided to stick to half days. But I felt that if our guides could stay out the whole day, then so could I. This rash decision ended up with me burning more energy than I had ever done before in my life. For five days the routine was as follows. Wake at 3:30 am to allow time to trek to where Group 4 was resting, before dawn. Follow them for the day until they went to sleep at about 6 or 6:30 pm. Then trek back to the camp to wash in the river as the sun is setting. Then a welcome dinner followed by lots of conversation and games. I am always slow to go to bed, so I was often the last to hit the sack at around 9:30 or 10pm. Each day the lemurs spent maybe three hours more or less stationary. The rest of the time they travelled though the most unbelievably difficult terrain. They jumped from tree to tree oblivious to the way ground level was oscillating. On one tree, they might be two foot above the ground; then a horizontal jump could leave them on a tree twenty feet or more above the ground - great for them, but not so good for the poor schmucks who had to follow them on the ground through the tangles of vines and thorns. Group 4's territory had little or no flat terrain. It was strewn with a range of steep hills and outright cliffs, all covered in a layer of dense forest.
Although I was just about able to keep going, the weight dropped off me over the five days, despite me stuffing my face with food at every opportunity. (Immediately after the trip, when I met the family at Christmas, they considered me gaunt. However that situation was rapidly rectified by Christmas fare which caused me to gain one stone in five days - I didn't think that rate of weight gain was possible, but there you go.) Dr. Wright did not want to put heavy radio collars on the lemurs, in case it restricted their movement. A few days watching their acrobatics as I struggled along on the ground, led me to unkind imaginings of collars filled with lead shot, with perhaps an anvil tied to their tails for good measure.
Each of us was assigned a different Lemur whose behaviour we were to monitor, recording it's activity in a notebook every five minutes. The mature members of the group could be recognized by coloured collars, the females also having a coloured medallion. I was assigned a young male called Pink who hadn't yet figured out what girls were about, although it was getting close to that time of the year where he might have his first opportunity. Group 4 had two mature females, which was pretty typical for this species of lemur. Foraging in the rain forest habitat is difficult, particularly as the fruiting is seasonal and this limits the size of the group that can be supported by an area of the forest. There were two young in the group- one just a few months old was born out of season to one of the females- Green-Silver. The antics of this baby as he learnt to manoeuvre in the trees were extremely cute, but there were worries about whether he would be old enough to survive the lean period in the forest. Some species of lemur specialize in eating bamboo. However Props are more versatile, eating instead a range of leaves, fruits and insects. It was obviously important to record their diet. However with names like Tongoalahy and Tsikimbakimba, it took a lot of help from the guides to get used to the local flora.
Ranomafana National Park is a relatively benign environment. Apart from the difficult terrain, the main annoyance was the leeches. However these don't carry disease and their activity is entirely painless. After initial hesitation, I got quite used to removing the occasional unwelcome visitor, gorging itself on my blood. These minor irritations were more than compensated by the incredible feeling of being in primary rainforest, a world away from the tree farms that often pass for forests in other countries. Here instead of planned growth, there was a vast ongoing struggle for survival. Saplings waiting, probably in vain for an opening in the canopy, produced by one of the ancient trees falling. Even those saplings that were successful were often parasitized by vines. These vines would grow down from the canopy. Initially like Tarzan style swinging vines, they would thicken eventually to the size of small tree trunks. Sometimes their hosts would expire and decay away leaving empty space, but they would by then be strong enough to remain standing forming a sort of strange skeleton. In the absence of tree harvesting, it was possible to see all the stages of old age and decay. One had to be careful, when grabbing a hand hold, because quite substantial branches could break away, having been eaten away on the inside by termites and fungus.
I brought a Panasonic DV video camera with me and caught some good footage of the lemurs and the rest of jungle life. I was lucky enough to encounter all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures including an insect with a head like a hippopotamus that had not yet been scientifically identified. The camera was a tiny little hand held affair and despite being treated appallingly badly, it held out until the end. At one point my nine hour battery got yanked off my belt by a vine as I was climbing a cliff. It rolled down to the bottom in some particularly rough terrain. However my guide Raymond found it. I can't praise the skill of the guides enough. They have a huge knowledge of the flora and fauna in the forest and have an uncanny ability to track the lemurs from the tiniest glimpse of fur through the foliage high up in the canopy or sometimes just a rustle of leaves. Professional camera teams had been in the forest, for example the BBC Life on Earth team and a team which filmed Dr. Wright for a Hollywood film about a group of scientists called "Me and Isaac Newton". Indeed a Japanese team was there when I was. However surprisingly nobody had brought a small hand held into the forest before. The guides and researchers were fascinated by it's size, it's macro facility, it's high zoom capability and it's built in monitor for viewing tapes. Dr. Wright is going to look into funding some of these for her research in the future.
Towards the end of our stay, Sarah, Alison and I were asked to advise the staff of the Park museum/shop - they on business techniques and I on computers. I was talking to Angelina - the grandson of an Apensaka - that is a village elder/king. Despite coming from such a traditional background, he was a definite would-be nerd. Electricity had just been installed in the museum and he had already taught himself an amazing amount about an old 386, that he got from Dr. Wright, despite being starved of information. I'm going to try to keep in touch with him, so I can help him become a programmer. He's not just interested in computers. He borrowed a large video camera, so he could go around the villages and film the stories of the old people in order to get a permanent record of the myths and traditions of the area. Dr. Wright asked me if I could supply a video for sale in the shop. I was a bit nervous about expectations being too high as I had never used a video camera before. However after my return, I installed a video editing package (Adobe Premier with a Canopus Raptor card) on my PC and was able to cobble together something that gave a taste of my experiences.
In this short account, I've hardly scratched the surface of my experiences in Madagascar. However I ought to finish off with a few words about the Malagasy people. Despite not being forward thinking, they are an amazingly courteous and honest people. We were warned not to say things like "I'll be in touch" unless we meant it as they take everything on face value. Would that everybody were the same. Unlike in many developed countries, the elders are the most respected and important people in each village. When a person dies, his body is often kept until the family can afford to sacrifice a zebu. This is then eaten at a party and its skull is placed on a totem at the grave. In addition to the grave, a spirit stone is sometimes placed in the forest. Special ceremonies at these spirit stones can recall the spirits of dead elders. Because only beloved elders are granted spirit stones, there is great pressure on elders to be as fair as possible when resolving disputes. There are many superstitions called Fadys which vary from place to place. Unfortunately in some parts of the country, it is felt that if you see an Aye-Aye (a nocturnal lemur on which Stephen Spielberg based his "Gremlins"), you have to kill it or a member of your family will die. Luckily the fady around Ranomafana was that lemurs embodied the spirits of distant ancestors, so they were not hunted. Because of their isolation, some Malagasy can be incredibly innocent. Dr. Wright has many stories about her Malagasy students visiting the U.S. One arrived with only one suitcase that contained nothing except an enormous sack of rice. Another on seeing snow for the first time thought the ground was covered in sugar. You have to be careful about admiring things in Madagascar, because the tradition is to give a person whatever he admires. A number of people admired my video camera, but I decided not to defer to local tradition in this regard.
On our last day in the park we had a party/dance with lots of music both western and Malagasy. The Malagasy are great dancers and musicians who can effortlessly knock out multi-voice songs. At this party, Dr. Wright told me that she had a job for me if I wanted to take a year's career break. I took this as a great honour, given my lack of background in primatology. She even invited me to spend Christmas in Madagascar at another park which has lodgings built into the cliff face - very James Bond. This was extremely tempting, but Christmas with the family is a tradition for me. One thing is sure however- the trip has reawakened my love of nature. If I make it to South America next year, I'm going to have to visit the Amazon. However that is one jungle where one definitely needs a guide. Unlike Madagascar, which has "a rain forest for beginners", the evolutionary arms race runs far more fiercely on the continents, because of increased competition. Most plants and animals try very hard not to be interfered with. No doubt I shall have to temper my enthusiasm with a little caution, if I am to die in bed at a ripe old age.
If you want to find our more about lemurs or some of our closer cousins for that matter, a good place to start is the Duke Primate Centre. There are many travel companies that organise trips to Madagascar. However if you'd prefer to do your own thing, the best place to start is with a guide from Lonely Planet. It would also be well worth your while picking up a little bit of French before you go. If you would like to impress the locals (or possibly give them a smile), you could even learn a few words of Malagasy. Responsible tourism, as well as being great fun, is one of the best ways to help countries to finance the protection of their ecosystems.