Before diving into the meat of the post—lemur tracking and trapping, rusty river ferries and rickety log bridges, and encounters with book characters, crocodiles, and giardia—here’s a quick recap to set the scene: Back in July, I spent a week and a half helping with an erosion project up in Ranomafana. We were in town for the Fourth, and Eileen Larney, the Chief Technical Advisor at Centre Valbio (CVB), had us over for drinks. In talking with folks at the party, I discovered that CVB is active in the Vondrozo Corridor, so in late July and early August, I followed up with Eileen regarding their planned trips to the region. It turned out that they’d be passing through Vondrozo in mid-August on their way to Ivato, a village about 50km north of here, and Eileen invited me to tag along to check out their project. I squeezed in another field trip beforehand to finish collecting data for the preliminary draft of my Community Diagnostic Survey, and was ready to join the CVB crew when their heavily-loaded 4x4s rolled into town.
The road to Ivato makes the road to Farafangana look like I-80. We lucked out with good weather and dry road conditions, and it still took our convoy of three vehicles about eight hours to cover the rocky and potholed 50km. Granted, a not-inconsiderable amount of that time was spent waiting for ferries and building bridges. The ferry crossing was at the Manampatrana River, which runs east from the Corridor and eventually empties into the Indian Ocean near Farafangana. The ferry itself comprised a wooden platform on three rusty metal ballasts (probably pre-dating Madagascar’s independence). It had a (non-functional) motor and operator’s room, but the only “technician” on board was a guy pulling us along using a rope strung from one bank to the other. We also had to cross a series of small bridges with metal base frames and oft-incomplete log tops. The CVB veterans recounted one incident when a vehicle fell through and another when local villagers took away the logs/planks and sat with them on top of a hill until the vazaha (whiteys) paid them off. We’d brought planks with us, so we used them and moved logs around to make the bridges passable. There were more than a few oh-shit moments when logs snapped and planks shifted in unsettling directions, but we arrived in Ivato more or less unscathed.
On a quick side note, the poor condition of the road and bridges isn’t necessarily something that the local population has a problem with, either. The government was planning to improve the route a few years back, but the chief engineer was murdered. Turned out that someone didn’t want outside competition to screw up his monopoly on local commerce. I’ve decided to drop bridge building from my to-do list.
Anyway, CVB—or rather Eileen, whose baby it is—runs an integrated conservation and development project (ICDP) in Ivato. The impetus for the ICDP was the discovery of a significant population of greater bamboo lemurs (which the CVB folks refer to using its scientific name, simus) in the area’s bamboo-dominated forest fragments. Simus is critically endangered and one of the rarest primates in the world, with only about 200 known individuals remaining. The groups near Ivato have between 35-50 individuals, and CVB is working with the local community to protect the animals and their habitat.
ICDPs were an especially sexy topic among development professionals and conservation biologists back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The basic underlying idea is that conservation projects aiming to preserve ecosystems and biological diversity won’t be successful unless they’re designed to simultaneously meet the development needs of the local community. Experts and observers have praised and derided ICDPs for many and varied reasons. Sometimes it makes perfect sense, as when the targeted environmental degradation is also squarely opposed to the long-term interests of the community (e.g. unsustainable clear-cutting and repeated burning of the forest is bad because it puts your watershed at risk, depletes your soil, and rapidly diminishes your supply of wood for fuel and construction). But there can also be an inherent tension between conservation and development that isn’t always easy to overcome. Telling villagers not to cut down secondary bamboo forest because a rare lemur species lives there, for example, is a much harder case to argue. So CVB has had to educate the local community on the importance of biodiversity and provide different incentives to encourage them to protect simus. Said incentives have included furnishing villagers with agricultural training, equipment, and seeds; starting tree nurseries and vegetable gardens and paying locals to maintain them; hiring locals to monitor the simus population and guide researchers when they come in; and planning construction of several microdams to improve water access and quality, as well as field irrigation. Basically, the CVB folks give them money, materials, and training in hopes that the hillside home of the lemurs won’t be burned down the next time they show up.
Our crew had three Americans (myself, Eileen, and Glenn, a volunteer archaeologist working on the Ivato project for a few months) and seven Malagasy (three drivers, a student, a botanist, a CVB technician, and an ag expert). We set up camp in one of the village’s school buildings and had Boanloak, a local villager whose name sounds a lot like bon loaka, or “good side dish,” cook for the group. During the week we spent in Ivato, we met with village leaders; refurbished the tree nursery; facilitated the formation of tree-planting and agricultural organizations; tracked and hung out with a group of simus; looked for traces of simus near Karianga, another village; went on nocturnal forest hikes to document other species; and trapped mouse lemurs to take measurements and record observations. The CVB ag expert, Rakoto Pierre, also led gardening and composting workshops.
I mention Rakoto Pierre by name because he comes with a hell of a story. In Ranomafana, I’d picked up a book by Peter Tyson called The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar, which was published in the late ‘90s. I’d started reading it a few days before the Ivato trip and brought it along to finish. So there I was, sitting outside my tent reading, when I came to the book’s final section, in which Tyson discusses Pat Wright’s work in Ranomafana. He mentions meeting a local farmer who’d adopted a lot of improved agricultural techniques and become something of a model for organizations working in the Ranomafana area. He also took a picture of the man with a tree sapling in front of his home, so I flipped to the insert of photos and scanned through them until I found the one in question. The guy in the picture, I realized a few seconds later, was none other than Rakoto Pierre.
I should’ve recognized the name, but we’d only met a few days prior and I hadn’t gotten all of the Malagasy team members’ monikers down. Also, in the picture, Rakoto Pierre was wearing tattered clothes typical of rural areas and standing in front of a small, ravenala hut—a far cry from the well-dressed, Chacos-wearing, cell phone-carrying Rakoto Pierre in front of me. I think his life took a pretty significant turn when conservation and development organizations started employing him to spread the word and train folks in the techniques he was using. He now has a huge tract of land with an orchard and fish farming ponds. Still, the trip to Ivato was apparently the first time he’d left the Ranomafana region.
We only spent one morning hanging out with simus, but it was awesome. The local trackers employed by CVB led us to them, and we spent a few hours sitting on the forest floor just watching. At one point, a large adult hopped down to a low spot on a bamboo trunk about five feet away from me and stared me straight in the eyes for a few seconds. But of course, I didn’t get the picture.
The mouse lemur trapping was much more involved. We set up about 40 traps (metal boxes with weight triggers in the middle to snap the door shut once the lemur—or rat—had entered) and lured the little guys (and the rats) in with banana. Sneaky sneaky. It was a lengthy commitment, though. Once we’d set the traps (around dusk, since mouse lemurs are nocturnal), we had to wait out in the forest for three or four hours, then hike back and check the boxes along the way. Over the course of three nights, we trapped 14 mouse lemurs. I was on poop-scoop duty; the researchers can get a lot of genetic information from analyzing the poop, so my job was to scoop up whatever the mouse lemurs had left behind in the traps using small vials.
The last night of mouse lemur trapping was especially memorable because I’d made a new friend that day: giardia. My stomach and bowels hadn’t been right in the afternoon, but I thought a visit to the latrine had set me up all right for an evening out in the forest. Good God was I wrong. Shortly after starting to set traps, the sulfur-tasting-and-smelling burps and farts came on in force—a dead giveaway for giardia. We finished setting and retired to our normal waiting spot, a rocky outcrop overlooking a river and rice paddies. With a full moon out, it should have been a beautiful, relaxing few hours of taking in the view and enjoying conversation. And it was—only I had to interrupt the conversation every so often to stagger off into the woods for, you know, relief. We’d caught four mouse lemurs each of the first two nights, and I was praying that we’d end up with fewer that night so we could make it quickly back to camp, where anti-giardia meds were waiting. But guess how many we got.
“Processing” them—collecting info and poop, and taking measurements and pictures—took until close to midnight. It was painful for me, and for anyone downwind. At one point Glenn turned to me and asked with a disturbed look, “Really?” Eventually we finished and trekked back to camp, and the meds worked like a charm. I’ve got an unfortunate feeling that that’s not the end of giardia and me, though.
To get to simus’ territory and the mouse lemur-trapping trail, we had to wade across a thigh-deep river (the one we could see from our rocky outcrop). On our third or fourth day in Ivato, we spotted a Nile crocodile sunning itself on the bank about a hundred meters down from our crossing point. There were no closer encounters, but part of me wanted to pull a Steve Irwin and do a little wrestling. Just not with a stingray.
The day before leaving, we drove over to Karianga, another village to the east, where a few researchers had previously seen simus. Eileen is considering extending the project’s scope to Karianga, so she wanted to verify that simus was still around. It’s a particularly critical area, because the villagers there are still in the habit of hunting and eating lemurs. We rummaged around the forest fragments for a few hours, and while we didn’t see any simus, we did find simus poop, which was reassuring. Eileen’s grand hope is to connect the fragments in Karianga and Ivato, eventually reaching all the way back to the Corridor proper. Good thing she’s in it for the long haul.
It was an incredible week, and the drive back went smoothly. I’m planning to continue working with the project, helping where needed on the development side of things. I won’t be building any bridges, but gardens, compost, cookstoves, and microdams—those I can do. And maybe a little croc wrestling, just for kicks.