My final moments

The last two weeks have been a blur. Between not sleeping very much and getting sick, wrapping things up wasn’t easy. I came full circle the final week of data collection, following the same group we observed that first week in Talatakely. It was particularly cool because they would get so close to us as they traveled low on the ground, and I often caught them hopping around the forest floor.

My focal animal on the ground eating some dirt.

My focal animal on the ground eating some dirt.

My last day of field work, they took us far away to the limits of the park (I guess they were getting annoyed by all of the tourists too!). Though it was exhausting hiking there and back, there was a beautiful lookout tower nearby where I took in the views of Ranomafana for the last time. I’m really going to miss living in this beautiful place I’ve known as home for so long.
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On Friday, we went to a Mika and Davis concert at a new club in Fianarantsoa before heading up to the capital. Mika is Maya’s (the new Chief Technical Advisor at the research station) boyfriend, so a large group of us ended up going to celebrate our last night. The bar was a cross between old-style western and urban trendy, with cow-skin railings in one room and crystals lining the concrete walls in another. I had a blast jamming out to Mika’s music, though the opening acts (especially the heavy metal) were especially bad. Dancing our last night away was fun, but I felt like I spent most of the night fending off creepy guys from dancing with some of the girls.

The next morning we said our heartfelt goodbyes and took off on the painful 10hr journey to Antananarivo (Tana for short). I got very carsick, so it wasn’t a good time, but luckily we took many breaks at different local craft stops along the way. Once in Tana, Daniella-a Madagascar veteran-took us on the grand tour of the town after we tied up any logistical loose ends. She took us to so many amazing restaurants–who knew Tana had such good Indian food? For Katherine’s last night we also went to a club, which was surprisingly packed for a Sunday night, and we met several very drunk peace corp volunteers.

The next day I went out to see the Indri! Though it was a hard trip to organize, (I spent a lot of time waiting around for transportation) seeing the panda-like faces and big fluffy ears of the Indri was worth it. Plus, their sad, moan-like call was amusing to hear as I walked along the main trail. I also saw a Parson’s chameleon!

The largest chameleon in the world, at a length of 79cm. Check out that nose!

The largest chameleon in the world, at a length of 79cm. Check out that nose!

The Indri, also the largest living lemur!

The Indri, also the largest living lemur!

I spent my final day in Tana hanging out with my friend Zo, who took me shopping for chocolate and vanilla beans. Though the car to take me to the airport was late, I made it in time for my flight over the red highlands of central Madagascar. Looking out of the plane windows it’s easy to see the wide variety of landscapes, from green forests to desert-like mountain ranges. I am reminded how little of this island I’ve seen, and just how much more I have to explore! Until next time, Madagascar!

Now and Then

Given that it’s my last week of field work here in Madagascar, it’s time for another reflective post! Looking back at my first few blogs, I feel like I’m going to puke. Not only because I think I was incredibly naive in my writing of those early posts, but also because I got another bout of food poisoning. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into this summer, from the off-trail bushwacking to the frequently poor state of my stomach. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, am I right?

And I do feel stronger: not only physically from my daily lemur-chasing workouts (I really should have trained before coming back to hilly Ranomafana!), but also in terms of mental strength. I forgot how exhausting it is being in a different culture when you don’t really speak the language. Just ordering a pack of cookies or getting from one place to the other without a Malagasy friend helping to translate can be a whole ordeal. It still amazes me how much gets lost in translation, even when I am speaking to people who know English.

It has been frustrating operating on “Malagasy time” as well, and I am surprised how much time is wasted just waiting around for things to start moving. They aren’t as uptight about timeliness here in rural Madagascar, as I remembered from my last time here. However, as a more independent researcher this time it affected logistical planning a lot more. I have, consequentially, become more patient, but I could have practiced patience a bit earlier on to make the transition here a lot smoother.

Being here a much longer period of time, I have picked up on some new cultural norms. Even mere acquaintances are very enthusiastic about showing guests their house and families, and they always want to offer food or drink as a custom. Everyone is so genuinely friendly and eager to help, and I think that is one of my favorite things about Malagasy people.

Another critical communication norm that I wish I knew from day one is that oftentimes, when answering a question, many Malagasy say “yes” to be polite and not as a confirmation that they understand. This has led to several miscommunications in the beginning that could have been prevented by explaining myself more clearly. Being polite is very important here, and fairness even more so. When served meals, everyone waits until every plate has food on it before eating so that everyone begins at the same time. This often leads to the first person having to eat cold food unfortunately, which drives me crazy after studying abroad in Ecuador (where I burned my mouth more times than I can count from eating hot food right away). Also, just like in Kindergarten, if one person gets a snack everyone has to get a snack.

I am still learning about this one though, because sometimes it is appropriate to only give gifts to one person. For example, we were invited to the circumcision ceremony for the son of a field guide, Zaka, and we brought gifts just for the little boy. It didn’t stop him from crying during the circumcision, but I think he will enjoy the gifts once he heals. After witnessing that, I am very grateful for the US custom of circumcising babies in the hospital! I feel bad for the little boy though, since he didn’t get to dance and enjoy the party afterwards, which doesn’t seem very fair to him. Zaka provided about 40L of alcohol for the party, and many people were very drunk (don’t worry, the doctor performing the circumcision was very sober and did a great job!). Greetings are very important here too, so I shook more hands and said “Salaam-a” to more drunk strangers than I can count. Even though drinking seems to be encouraged, being overly drunk is frowned upon. People tried to politely get rid of the very drunk people when they were getting to be too much.

Looking back, I wish I could have been more flexible. I knew the schedule was for sure subject to change, but sometimes we did not know what was going to happen until the day of an excursion sometimes. This lead to lots of disappointment and frustration that could have been avoided if I always anticipated changes in the first place, and eventually I did learn to embrace them. Still, it was annoying to have so many factors that can’t be controlled affecting the schedule, and we did not collect data from the groups I thought we would. In the end, I still collected data for 8 weeks, even though almost all of the observations are from the disturbed forests. However, I am still confident that I will be able to come up with interesting results for my senior thesis.

A lot of the changes were actually better than what was originally planned, such as the expedition to Mangevo where I had the amazing opportunity to help with capturing (and got to hold!) a sifaka. If everything stayed as planned, I never would have slept in a tent with a sifaka or gone to the beautiful pristine forest. I definitely have learned to embrace and even enjoy unexpected surprises, since (most of the time), it works out just fine.

Sunshine (for a moment)

Finally, a week without rain! Although I shouldn’t be surprised (I’m in a rainforest, after all) it is the dry season, and I’ve encountered more rainy days than I should have. I was dreading this last week in particular because I really did not want to go back to Vohiparara. My past experiences there had been very difficult and I have some bad memories there from capturing that tainted the place for me.

However, this past week changed things. The territory for the group we followed was new ground, and even the guides were marking the fresh trails. This made getting around quite difficult, especially when the lemurs traveled fast and the guides ran ahead. It was super easy for me to get caught up in the undergrowth and fall behind. However, once I broke through the vines and pushed past the thorns and spiky trees, it was always worth it. It began to seem almost like an obstacle course rather than set backs, because once the lemurs settled down in a place they were always close to the ground. This meant I got many great views of them. One time when I was quickly running up a steep slope, thinking I had fallen behind, I reached the top only to find them a meter above the ground on the ridge. We relaxed there for a while, and I was able to actually sit there and enjoy them instead of frantically searching for them in the canopy. Plus, it’s fun having lemurs so close to me and for them to be completely unbothered by my prescience. They were very easily spooked though, and I even yelped when one lemur got scared and dropped down low and started bark alarming (sounds like a dog barking) right by my face.

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I got many great views of the lemurs, like this one!

The first day was particularly exciting; after a long morning of chasing after lemurs, I ran into a couple of Avahi (wooly lemurs) sleeping in a low tree. I was rejuvenated by the rare sight of these nocturnal lemurs during the daytime, and I took a brief break from observations to snag a photo. It was super exciting to see a pair of them together, since most nocturnal lemurs are solitary.The next day, I saw the Avahi again, but this time at night hopping right over my tent! I got a great look at their bushy tails, for which they are named (I suppose). This inspired us to go on a night hike, where we found a couple of frogs, some cool bugs, and an owl! These last few fun memories have made a positive impression of Vohiparara for me.

But then-it rained. We started a new group in Talatakely that was very hard to find and in steep terrain. We climbed up barely walk-able slopes and navigated through thickets of vines. However, after the guide went off to search for the group, leaving us to wait a bit, I saw a rustling in the trees. I thought it was just a bird, but then I saw a lemur tail! I still thought it was just a brown lemur, but then it turned it’s body and I saw the white saddle-the recognizable sign a sifaka! I was so proud that I found them, and it’s a really exciting group. There are TWO new babies and the group members are super affectionate, always grooming each other and sleeping close at night. I got a really good look at the infants, who have bright green eyes and the white saddles are starting to form. It was adorable watching them crawl around their mothers’ stomach and sometimes even onto the back. This group, even though it’s super steep terrain, likes to get close and stay in one place for a while, giving us breaks from chasing them up and down the steep slopes.

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A baby sifaka peeking out from mom’s belly

Observations were going so well until the young mother I was following got lost-she bolted down a cliff towards the river! It then began to rain, making it even harder not to trip over vines, and I almost slipped off a sharp drop. Finally, I managed to find my way back to the guide, who somehow had not lost track of her. I found her feeding on young leaves, which lasted about half an hour. It was actually very nice, with the crashing falls of the river barely visible, but very audible, through the trees. And finally, the sun came out and her family had found its way to join her. They then cuddled up and went to bed together early. They are quite a ways out though, so I am probably the most sore I’ve been this whole time from hiking. However, it is a joy watching this close-knit group, making running up and down steep hills worth it.

Halfway (reflection time!)

One month from today I will be heading back to the United States. Reflecting on my time so far, I have several points to make. First off, following lemurs all day has been more physically demanding than I thought it would be, but somehow my body has been able to adapt. My legs are a lot stronger than they were that first long day in Talatakely, and I even hiked a 7 hour journey to the latest camp site. My stomach, however, is not as well adjusted. I’ve gotten a few stomach infections since I’ve been here, but I am better now thanks to some antibiotics I brought with me. Also, I am craving all sorts of foods, like bagels and tex-mex, that can be so easily found at home but are nowhere in sight in Madagascar. I caught myself the other day thinking about all of the terrible things I would do for a breakfast burrito.I guess this is a part of the culture shock, which is much stronger when out in the field, but I do find this to be the hardest transition fortunately. Branching away from physical transitions, I am actually very comfortable being surrounded by people of other cultures, and I’m also getting better at speaking Malagasy (but no progress whatsoever on speaking French). I find myself actually being able to figure out what’s going on sometimes when the guides are speaking. It is sometimes overwhelming though not knowing exactly what is going on, and it helps to ask the wonderful malagasy student on our team, Noro, to translate. It also helps that there are a several English-speaking researchers with me, and talking to them has helped me cope with some of the less appealing aspects of fieldwork in Madagascar, like having to poop in a literal shit hole. They have made me feel very comfortable as a part of the research team, who are now not only my fellow scientists but also close friends.

The researchers!

The researchers!

I think my favorite thing about my experience abroad so far in Madagascar is being in nature all of the time. I have not gone more than a week without being in the forest, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am so awe-struck by all of the natural beauty here. I think I feel most at peace when hiking around in the forest. Even when there are more rainy days than sunny ones, and I am slipping in the mud down a steep slope or getting caught in vines, at the end of the day I am so blessed to be here. I love all of the novelty of the rainforest, because every day holds something different. No matter what, I always have a new interaction with wildlife, from a new interesting insect to seeing a beautiful bird. Just the other morning, which was dissapointingly void of lemurs, I saw the most incredible praying mantis, which looked just like leaves! The skinks darting around the forest floor didn’t even notice their prey because it was so well camoflauged. Every day without fail, I have some sort of encounter like this, which keeps each day in the field interesting. I am always engaged, even after a month in the forest.

And I haven’t even started to talk about the lemurs. I have had some unforgettable encounters this summer with the lemurs that I have been studying, the Milne-Edward’s sifakas. I have already written about some of the more formative ones, but this past week was probably my favorite excursion of the summer. Though not a part of the project, I had the opportunity to partake in an expedition to Mangevo, the most beautiful, pristine part of Ranomafana National Park, to capture and release the new sifakas found there. These never-before-studied individuals are examined for their health and collared for identification in hopes to add them to the ongoing studies of sifaka in the park. I was lucky enough to see them up close with the vet (who drugged them and administered the tests), and I helped record the measurements and physical conditions of the sifaka when they were captured. It was incredible seeing all of the details and nuances of the lemurs up close. Their hands are so strangly shaped and padded, with one long nail protruding from the side and human-like finger nails. At the end of their incredibly long legs are feet shaped perfectly for grasping branches.I also got to see their tooth combs (which they use for grooming) when the vet did the dental exam.

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The vet, Haja, taking measurements of a very doped up lemur!

They were drugged for several hours, so I had the chance to hold one before she had her collar put on! Her name is purple green-cross, and she is so incredibly fluffy. She must take great care of her coat because her fur was very soft. She had these light amber eyes that seemed slightly aware of what was going on, but she never really put up a fuss (which means the drugs worked!) After following the sifakas around for the past month, it was nice to take a break from seeing them from an observer’s standpoint and being able to see them up close and even hold ones in my arms.As I get more and more into conservation biology, these experiences are strengthening my desire to help these endangered animals. Now I can say I have held a lemur; it was everything I could have hoped for-and more!

Holding a wild sifaka-they smell like maple syrup!

Holding a wild sifaka-they smell like maple syrup!

The drugs take several hours to wear off, and night was quickly approaching. Putting a drugged lemur out in the forest at nightfall is a bad idea, so we had to keep them overnight. Additionally, they can’t be left outside because they would be easy prey for fosa. So, they were put in bags (which is standard protocal for captures) and distributed amongst the researchers to spend the night in our tents. Purple green-cross was given to me, and I had the chance to spend the night with her. I literally slept with a lemur! I could not believe that this endangered animal was given into my care, so I took every opportunity to make sure that she was as comfortable as she could be in the bag in my tent. I gave her a nice comfy spot in my tent next to my sleeping bag so I could keep an eye on her, and I read her a bed-time story. She seemed to calm down afterwards, and after a few contact calls (sounds like “mm”) she quickly went off to sleep. I woke up frequently throughout the night to check on her, and one time I snapped awake when I heard a scraping sound. I thought it was a fosa trying to get in my tent, but I realized the strange sound was only my companion, who was self-grooming. She slept the whole rest of the night through, and I waited until she had woken up in the morning to take her out for release. Seeing her brought back to her original site of capture was bittersweet; it was sad to see the lemur I had the strongest connection with leave, but I was happy to have her back where she belonged-hopping across the tall trees of Mangevo. As she leaped out of the bag onto a tree trunk, she looked at me one last time with those beautiful amber eyes and then went off to rejoin her family. It was probably the most powerful and emotional experience of my life. And to top it all off, it took place in one of the most beautiful forests I have ever been to, with its tall trees, hanging vines and incredible viewpoints.

 

A better day in the life of a lemur researcher (Valohoaka)

Today is what I thought observing lemurs was going to be like. This week, we were at the Valohoaka site (Meaning “eight windows”, where I previously worked as an assistant), so I felt a lot of nostalgia this week. Although we didn’t reach the Sifaka before they woke up, they were still fairly close by and spent most of the morning leisurely feeding, and they kept traveling to a bare minimum. It was great observing them resting and grooming in the sunlight. We were taking it easy, sometimes resting our feet because they were in the same place for so long. It was great being able to take a break from sprinting through the forest, watching them stay in one place for a bit.
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We even saw a flat-tailed gecko, completely camouflaged to match a stick, patterns and stripes matching with the coloration of the bark and uneven edges to prevent sticking out. The only signs of life were two eyes, not even perfect circles, and 2 nostril slits. It was hard to see where the gecko stopped and the stick started.
We also saw a very large, hairy caterpillar that was very annoyed about being moved, so he raised his head high and appeared angry.
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After Alicia scared them (as part of her experiment on stress), they were moving very quickly and traveled far, but we managed to catch up with them feeding after a bit. From then on, we followed them down steep tracks and climbed back up, but most of the time we were able to observe them feeding. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and though the lemurs were silhouetted, it was cool to see them climbing up the tall trees and hanging vines on the steep cliff. It seemed very much like classic rainforest. At some points when they were along the ridge, we were eye level with them as they leaped gracefully from tree to tree.

A bunch of noisy Varecia came through, strutting their black and white fur and creating trouble with the sifaka. The varecia do not jump gracefully. We watched the turf wars, and the varecia chased them away. So we climbed up the steep cliffs after them until they finally settled down after a bit more feeding. a bunch of red bellied lemurs came through as well, leaping wildly from branch to branch, following the leader, with their tails swinging like pendulums. It was wonderful seeing three types of lemurs all in the same place. After they went to sleep, we went back and watched the varecia a bit longer, but they were not happy to see us, and they growled and pooped on us to assert their dominance.
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Back at the camp, we saw a bunch of red bellied lemurs pass over the treetops. It was incredible watching them as the sun set over the canopy as their sillhoutes went out of sight.
And to top it off, we had French fries and pasta for dinner!

Vohiparara

A great part about our research protocol is that we are comparing lemurs from many different sites. This takes us to a variety of forests, and some are better than others. This last week was particularly challenging in Vohiparara (meaning “Mountain flute” in Malagasy), one of the secondary forests in the park. There are lots of invasive guava trees, which grow in dense clumps and are miserable to climb through. Lots of marshes are there too, so I got stuck knee-deep in the mud more times than I would like to admit this week.
When I wasn’t tripping over vines and thorns, I was able to follow the lemurs pretty closely because Vohiparara has such short trees. oftentimes, I’d be running off-trail trying to find the lemur I was following and-all of a sudden-find him eating some leaves no more than a meter off the ground. It was fun being able to observe them eating so closely. They sort of slurp up the leaves in a couple of bites and rarely use their hands, which are excellent at gripping branches (kinda like a chameleon).

Speaking of eating, the food is pretty great at camp! It was usually meat over rice, but the cook gave us lots of vegetables too, and we even had pasta one night. All of the meat cooking over the fire attracted a fosa fosana, a mongoose, to our campsite, so it was exciting having this cute visitor around! Sitting around the fire at night, keeping warm and having good conversations with my field companions made the evenings go by quickly even though the days were long following the lemurs.

Though they moved fast and far when it was sunny, they are pretty sluggish when it’s rainy, so even though it was rainy this week it made our jobs a bit easier following them around. Even though it was rainy, there were no leeches because Vohiparara is higher elevation. There were lots of biting flies and mosquitos though, so there was no relief there.

This group was particularly exciting because the adult female has a baby! It was cool seeing the baby sifaka peeking his head out behind his mother’s fur when doing observations.

A day in the life of a lemur researcher

Today was probably the most challenging but most rewarding day of my life. After yesterday’s struggle of walking around all day only to find the study troop in the afternoon, I thought following the sifakas around for 3 hours was hard. Observing the lemurs all day, I thought, would be impossible. We lucked out with another sunny day, and we found our troop fairly quickly! Alicia was sick, so the remaining three researchers paired up with a field guide, and I was with Raliso. Already it was difficult stepping one meter off of the path, tripping over vines and thorns ripping at my field clothes. We followed our focal individual, a subadult male, down ravines across rivers, up 45 degree slopes (sometimes steeper!), picking up dozens of leeches along the way. Somehow, thanks to my quick field guide, I managed to record the activity nearly every 3 minutes, though I might not have caught up with the lemur every time.

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We followed the endangered lemurs around all morning until they finally fed at a tree near a river for a while, where we stopped for lunch. Having lunch, less than a meter away from the sifakas, was an incredibly amusing and powerful experience. They were snacking on leaves as we were chewing our sandwiches. It was a very serendipitous moment. And just like that, it was over as the first lemur decided to leap gracefully to the next tree, and the next one, and soon enough we were chasing them again through the dense fores up another steep slope. As I was slipping and falling up a very steep cliff, thinking it was impossible to get up, I saw the female in the troop come to the ground and begin eating soil! No one knows why they do this, but I thought it was funny that she was eating dirt just as I was eating dirt myself.

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After I pushed myself up the hill, I began chasing after my focal animal as the rest of the lemurs were following behind him. As I was hiking after him, the adult male (nicknamed “Orange-blue” for the color of his radio collar) was jumping along right next to me. He chose a tree right above my head, landing perfectly and looking about ever so carefully for predators (he didn’t pay me the slightest bit of attention). And after our moment of incredible closeness, him looking at me with his one good eye (the other is blind), he was off again bounding through the forest, and I continued to try and catch up with my study subject.

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The best part came when they finally were resting at 2 o clock, grooming in what we thought would be their sleeping tree for the night. They settled down to rest, and I too could relax with them! Just watching them groom each other for several hours, I almost fell asleep! But good thing I didn’t, because just as I let my guard down, a bird swooped by and they hopped off again. After a bit of foraging, they settled down for good in a tall tree. Despite all of the leech bites and scrapes from my falls, it was still worth it to be able to follow this group of sifakas around all day. I am so lucky that a hard day at “work” involves getting to spend time with sifakas.

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