Notes from the field: June 2019
As of last week, I have been in Madagascar for 2 months. Time flies here and it’s hard to wrap my head around how much has happened in what seems like such a short amount of time. Since my initial post, I’ve arrived in Ranomafana at Centre Valbio (CVB) and already have three expeditions under my belt. CVB is hard to describe, but the best comparison I’ve heard is its similarity to buildings seen in Jurassic Park. State-of-the-art facilities, ultra-modern design, rainforest right outside your window and the seemingly constant coming and going of acclaimed conservationists from around the world all put CVB in a league of its own. *Enter David Attenborough* While CVB is a sight to behold, the surrounding forest is equally, if not more, extraordinary...
About 5 minutes into the rice paddy filled trek to Mangevo (project field site), you cross a river by way of lakana (essentially a canoe made by hollowing out a tree trunk). Once on the other side, you pass through a handful of small villages where children call out “Salama vazaha!” or “Hello foreigner!” Roughly an hour in and just when you think you’re a halfway decent hiker, a porter shoots past and beats you to camp by a solid 2 hrs. If that wasn’t enough, these particular porters are often shoeless and carrying 20-30 kilos of rice on their HEADS! This hike takes most people 6 hrs., completing it in 4 is what we call ramming speed ladies and gentlemen. Seeing this is humbling and grounding in a number of ways. Once at camp, you quickly realize why you’ve flown to the other side of the globe to get here.
Depending on who you talk to, Mangevo can sound like purgatory, but to others, it might elicit visions of paradise. Anyone who knows me knows, I’m of the latter group. This place is teeming with life and would make any biologist feel like a kid again (as it has done to me). Just a few animals you might encounter on a given day include Dr. Suessesque insects, many different species of moths and butterflies, chameleons, millipedes, leeches galore, lemurs (obviously), bats, brilliant colored frogs, and occasionally a friendly snake as there are no deadly serpents slithering about Madagascar. As for the people, the project team is an absolute joy to work with. You’d be hard pressed to find a group more upbeat and hardworking all things considered.
Tracking and observing these animals for an entire day is no easy task and the team’s skill and focus is first-rate. Additionally, they happily coach me through the language and cultural customs. Noro, who I must thank for putting up with my frequent questions, has been especially helpful in this way. While I’m sure it feels similar to having a little brother who wants in on the fun, they also patiently explain jokes that have flown over my head due to the language barrier and have long lost their effect by the time I understand. In addition to all I’ve learned from my fellow-workers, the little forest experience I have has also taught me a few lessons.
Here are three tips from my short time here that I believe will help anyone enjoy forest life:
Pray, pay alms or freaking sacrifice something to the leech deities before arriving. These animals have little understanding of the idea of a personal bubble and are insatiable. Regardless of your opinion on western medicine, I guarantee that any deterrent, however slight the effect, will be appreciated once you’ve found 20-30 on yourself in a single day.
Pack a well built, comfortable and warmfleece jacket. You might hear Madagascar and think tropical island, but don’t be fooled, these austral winters can bring temps in the low 40oFs! In a place where the goal isn’t to be dry, but instead to just stay relatively wet, adding a good rain jacket on top will have you set and ready.
While brushing your teeth, wear a headlamp. You never know what you’ll stumble across in the primary rainforest of Ranomafana National Park. Just last week while cleaning my chompers, a feeding bat flew circles just above me and a Madagascar sunset moth landed on my arm almost simultaneously. For me, few situations can compete with one in which you’re able to add a new species to your personal life list even during your nightly hygiene routine.
Hopefully these are useful notes as traveling Madagascar is a journey filled with surprises: *Enter David Attenborough again* a place where all it takes to stumble across a brand-new species, whether personally or to science, is bending down to fix your laces.
From trying to learn as much as I can about the fauna of the forest, to remembering my flashlight on my nightly walk to dinner in case of a chameleon sighting, to picking apart as many brains as possible during meals at CVB, I feel that I’m making the most of this experience and have already learned so much. And yet, with this info, I’ve come to realize I know next to nothing about this country and its many
people and ecosystems. All in all, these two months have zipped by for very good reason.
With that, and on the eve of Madagascar’s Independence Day festivities, may the Gods Of Dance smile upon our feet.
**Special thanks to David Attenborough for lending his valuable time to the creation of this work.