A lot has happened since I last posted, but without a secure WiFi connection, I’ve been unable to post this until now. A few weeks ago I left Andasibe and after spending a night in Tana, made the long, bumpy twelve hour van ride to the small commune of Kianjavato in the Southeast of Madagascar. I arrived late in the evening at Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station, or KAFS for short. I climbed more than one hundred uneven slippery wooden steps up to the residency sites, where I pitched my tent under a grass-roofed structure and unpacked my belongings at the site where I would call home for the next six weeks.
The next morning I awoke to a glorious shimmering sunrise over the mist-enshrouded mountains, and walked down the boardwalk from my elevated tent site (which feels like living in a tree house) to the center of the field station. A large dining hall covered by corrugated tin and grass-thatched roof sits at the bottom of the hill, with a white mud-encrusted Land Cruiser parked outside.
The main annex constructed from old metal shipping containers and cement, houses the workspaces and storage rooms. Two large, beautiful Ravenalas, or traveler’s palms, stand in front of the entrance to the annex, giving the station a proper Malagasy touch.
Things are quite different here than in Andasibe. For one thing, there are many more people here including groundskeepers, visiting researchers, Malagasy graduate students, and various administrators.
Another big difference is the location: Kianjavato is much more remote and unlike Andasibe, very few vahaza (foreigners) visit here. Resources and utilities are much scarcer here and as such there is no running water, Wi-Fi, or electrical power. At KAFS we depend on large solar panels to power lights and charge our electronics, but this energy is not always reliable, especially on a cloudy day.
KAFS was established in 2009 by Dr. Ed Lewis of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP). Since its founding, KAFS has provided numerous jobs for people in the area and participated in education and outreach programs for the local community. The research at the station focuses on population monitoring and behavioral studies of several species of lemur, including the black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variagata), the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), and the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). Along with these three main conservation projects, MBP has partaken in a monumental reforestation project which involves the help of the employees and hundreds of volunteers from the community. A description of the objectives of KAFS can be found here.
At KAFS I am studying the greater bamboo lemur, a medium-sized-gray lemur with fuzzy white ears that eats mainly bamboo. This species was thought to be extinct until the mid-1980s when primatologist, Patricia Wright rediscovered the species in southeastern Madagascar.
The greater bamboo lemur is thought to have once been widespread throughout the island, with sub-fossils being frequently found at sites all over from north to south. Today however, it is on the IUCN‘s list of the twenty-five most endangered primates in the world. Today there are less than 500 greater bamboo lemurs alive today, with groups living in isolated pockets of eastern forest. My job is to go into the forest with MBP guides and track a selected individual for six hours every day, taking notes on behavior, social interactions, and census information of the other animals in the group.
The bamboo lemurs are fascinating animals, with very different behaviors from the sifakas that I studied at Andasibe. They do not move nearly as much as the leaping sifakas do each day, but rather stay close to the patches of bamboo on which they feed.
They can and do move throughout the forest, but it is with less speed and agility then the sifakas. In fact the bamboo lemurs seem somewhat clumsy at times, and I’ve seen several individuals grab onto stalks of dead bamboo which crumple under the lemur’s weight, sending the animal crashing down a meter or two through the underbrush. They are never injured in these bamboo fails, but I sympathize with them as I have done the same thing while walking on an incline more times than I care to admit in these forests. It is such a privilege to get to observe these animals every day, and at such close range too! Since the animals we study have been radio-collared and habituated to humans, the lemurs come incredibly close to us sometimes. I have had animals leap across trees just two meters in front of me, and I am often times close enough to hear the crunching sounds of them chewing on the tough bamboo pith.
I also get to watch incredibly intimate behaviors like mothers grooming and nursing their babies, a truly special site to behold. The bamboo lemurs have got to be some of my favorite animals that I have studied.
Another huge project that MBP manages is the community-wide restoration effort. While I am not directly involved in the project, I still occasionally help out with data entry and planting events. The project consists of collecting seeds from lemur droppings, propagating the seedlings in nurseries, and then enlisting the help of the local people to plant these trees in deforested areas. Collecting seeds from lemur poop may seem quite unappealing but it is vital to the process of restoring the forests. Many tree species here rely on lemurs for seed dispersal, and the process of passing through the digestive system facilitates germination. After the seedlings are old enough, they are transplanted in areas that have been deforested.
Last Friday was a huge planting event in which hundreds of people came out for Arbor Day to plant a grand total of 19,000 trees in less than six hours! It felt so exhilarating digging my hands into the cool, wet soil and delivering baby trees back into the earth with the knowledge that in a decade or two, this effort will hopefully help restore the rainforest and provide new habitat for animals like lemurs to thrive in.
Although my time here in Madagascar will not last long, it’s very exciting to play a small role in helping to conserve one of the planet’s most unique and threatened animals. I am continuing to learn so much here and as always, I love getting to see and experience firsthand both the issues and challenges that go along with conservation in a developing country.