I am well into the project here at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Every day we walk from the village to Analamazoatra Special Preserve with our guides, where we pull out the radio telemetry equipment and start tracking the diademed sifakas through the forest. We take data on every single behavior we observe, which as you can probably imagine, is no easy task when the lemur starts bounding through the forest faster than we can bumble through the dense undergrowth.
While chasing these lemurs through the Malagasy jungle I’ve slipped, tripped, fallen, grabbed painfully spiny vines, and been bitten by leeches– all for the sake of getting good data. But of course I wouldn’t have it any other way!
These animals are so amazingly beautiful with their bright orange arms, silky white tufted hairdos, and silvered backs. The way they so effortlessly move through the forest is mind-boggling (even though it makes our job harder)!
Like most lemurs, they are incredibly social and they live in family groups of usually between three or six. The sifakas make very interesting vocalizations. They often make peculiar grunting sounds, but sometimes a loud raucous alarm call will ring out, drowning out all the other sounds buzzing through the jungle.
This species eats a variety of foods including fruits, leaves, and seeds and it’s always fun to listen to the guides shout out the names of these plants in Malagasy and then struggle to spell them out in the notebook. There are names like Hazadamoina, Rotramena, Vahi, and Camelia [sic]. Occasionally we’ll even see the lemurs drop down to the ground and proceed to nibble on mud, presumably to obtain additional minerals and nutritional supplements.
Sometimes while watching the lemurs day in and day out, it’s easy to forget just how special of an experience this is and I have to remind myself, “You’re actually watching lemurs in the wild! There are so few people on the planet that get to witness this, so soak it all in!” Of course while trekking through the jungle we’ll see many other amazing critters and plants. One such animal encounter occurred early last week, when our guides pointed out a slender tree snake effortlessly winding through the thin branches of a small tree. As an amateur herpetologist, I knew that there are no dangerously venomous snakes native to the island of Madagascar. I went to gently extract it from the trees, but before I could reach it our guides blurted out in fear.
They spoke hardly any English but pantomimed a hideous scenario that, to me, seemed to indicate the snake striking my face, darting up my nose and drilling straight out my ear. I identified
this snake as Ithycyphus miniatus, known locally as the Fandrefiala. Many Malagasy people fear this snake which is said to jump from the trees, stiffen its tail and stab people and zebu cattle. Of course this myth is not true and the species, although mildly venomous, is not capable of causing any serious harm to humans.
The Malagasy people here are very friendly and I am extremely grateful to all the local guides that lead us through the forest, finding the lemurs and teaching us how to take good data. I’ve learned about 20 or 30 words in Malagasy just from communicating with them, and we volunteers are hoping to start some informal English lessons to help better bridge the language barrier (which has proven to be one of the biggest difficulties of this project). International research and wildlife conservation is all about exchanging ideas and working across cultural and language barriers in the goal to improve the management of local natural resources and bolster the livelihoods of the people that depend on them. Our project is small and we volunteers will not be here very long but I hope to teach the guides here as much as they have already taught me.