Journey to Madagascar

Much of Madagascar’s eastern forests have been destroyed, endangering many of its local species.

Salama! After my six month term working as an Americorps intern on the California Condor Recovery Program, I am now onto my next adventure– Madagascar! For the next three months I will be volunteering with the Madagascar Biodiversity Project (MBP), headquartered at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, USA. MBP has worked hard over the last few years to engage the local Malagasy people in conservation efforts throughout the country, and they have been instrumental in several different research and recovery efforts for lemurs, those amazing primates found only on the island of Madagascar. As such, I feel privileged to work with such an amazing team, and play my small part in lemur conservation!

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Our village in Andasibe

I landed in Madagascar a little over a week ago, and what a wild ride it’s been! I spent a few days in the Capitol city of Antananarivo (Tana) where I met the other volunteers, stocked up on supplies, and had a brief orientation with one of the project directors. Then it was off to the field. We drove four hours to the small village of Andasibe, just outside Andasibe-Mantadia National Park where we will be studying the diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), one of the largest species of lemur and also one of the more endangered

Upon arriving at the village, we met the other volunteers already there that we’ll be living with, as well as the two Malagasy graduate students whose PhD research we will be assisting with. Our house is a small complex consisting of a brick shack with two shared bedrooms and a kitchenette, an outdoor living room area covered by a corrugated tin metal roof, and a wooden outhouse with a non-flushing pit toilet and bucket shower, all surrounded by a stick fence. The sounds of squealing pigs, crowing roosters, and Malagasy hiphop constantly emanate from our bustling village neighborhood. We eat rice cooked by our housekeeper for nearly every meal, sometimes throwing in french fries, egg, chicken, carrots, or butter for flavor and sustenance. This is definitely a completely different lifestyle than what we are used to back home in the US.

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Me and one of our guides at the entrance to the park.

My first time going into the Malagasy jungle was magical! Our local guides met us at the house and led us through the village to the entrance of the national park. We passed underneath the shadow of a mighty traveler’s palm, an iconic Malagasy plant known locally as Ravanalla. The lemurs that we take data on are all radio-collared and trackable with the use of radio telemetry equipment, so one of our guides always leads the way with a yagi antenna. As we walked, the haunting wails of the indri, another amazing species of lemur native to this forest, rang out across the vine-tangled landscape, giving a primeval feel to this lost world.

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The Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema), one of the most strikingly colorful lemurs in Madagascar, and our study animal.

We trekked through the forest until suddenly, I saw a flash of movement in the canopy above–an orange figure bounding from tree to tree. It stopped just long enough for me to get a good look. This was our target animal: the diademed sifaka! As we watched our collared female one of the guides pointed out to me her baby, which was old enough to leap through the trees by itself, but still quite clingy to its mother. More animals arrived, and pretty soon they were leaping down to branches just a few meters away from us as if they had not a care in the world of our presence! I watched in awe as one sifaka leapt onto the tree trunk I was holding onto, a mere two meters from my hand, and stared down at me with its dark cherry-plum eyes. I never thought in all my life that I would get the chance to see lemurs this close and personal in the wilds of Madagascar!

The sifakas that we are studying are part of a reintroduced population here in Andasibe. Unfortunately they were long ago hunted to extinction in these eastern lowland forests, and then brought here from another nature preserve in 2005 and reintroduced to the wild by MBP. The researchers here are studying the success of this reintroduction. More information can be found at the website, https://madagascarpartnership.org/field-sites/andasibe/ .

The specific study that I am helping with is examining behavioral differences in sifaka groups located in areas of the park frequented by tourists as opposed to those deeper in the inaccessible parts of the park. My job is to observe the lemurs’ behavior and record as much data as possible on what they’re up to. Right now, I am still learning about the different behaviors to look for, as well as the tree species that the lemurs frequent, so the guides and graduate students are taking most of the data while I get acquainted with these colorful denizens of the forest.

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There’s nothing like hanging out with lemurs in the jungle!

I am extremely excited for my time here in Madagascar and it’s already shaping up to be an incredible adventure! This is my first time actually working abroad and of course most everything is outside my comfort zone, but I enjoy the challenges of living in rustic conditions far from home, learning how to communicate with people of different cultures and tongues, and becoming more aware of myself and my own culturally ingrained ways of thinking about the world.

I plan to post field notes about my time in Madagascar as often as possible, but due to my extremely limited WiFi access it may be less often than I’d like. Until next time, Veloma!

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