Saturday, June 28, 2008

Maztoa a Kirindy Mitea!

A mere 6 days after I left North Carolina…and I arrive at my destination, Kirindy Mitea National Park. A glorious arrival. I was greeted by Dr. Rebecca Lewis, the founder of the research station here, and researcher on sifaka social behavior from the University of Texas-Austin. She’s worked in Madagascar for several years now, but only recently began working in this park. Starting a new research station means a lot of work and a lot of waiting—for permits, for water, for the process to work its way through the Malagasy system. With a lot of patience, she just recently established the gridded trail system and infrastructure for research at Kirindy Mitea. She gave me a tour of my new home, which is comfortable and beautiful, but didn’t take long to tour……see for yourself!

The camp is a colorful, friendly mix of researchers, camp staff, and a Malagasy student, which means 3 languages may be spoken at any one time (Malagasy, French, or English, in that order of frequency). We all eat our meals together, which generally consist of rice with roasted peanuts for breakfast, rice and beans for lunch, and rice and beans for dinner. We try to spice things up a bit and throw in a few new flavors every once in a while. The grated parmesan cheese I brought from the US was a hit, although it was met with some skepticism at first. You mean…….cheese……….as a powder? After some inspection and a little smelling, the staff tasted it. “Tsara,” they replied, which means “good” in Malagasy!

(Top L-R) Tagloire (cook), Vagely (trail maintenance), Dr. Chris Kirk (Physical Anthropologist).

(Bottom L-R) Renari (driver & mechanic), Felana Rakotondranaivo (Malagasy master’s student), Dessy (camp manager), Dr. Rebecca Lewis (camp founder, Primate Social Behavior).

The Lepilemur sing us to sleep and the fosa keep us on our toes--I’m really going to enjoy living here!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Public transport, Mada-style.

Of course, if this 4x4 thing doesn’t work out, I always have another option for transportation.

Introduce: The charrette, the local transportation of choice.

Kirindy Mitea or Bust!

Getting to Kirindy Mitea National Park is no easy feat—in fact, it’s virtually impossible by road for most of the year. Over the 70 or so miles from Morondova, there are several river and water hole crossings only passable in the dry season. Be careful if you try a bit too early—your car may wash downstream into the Mozambique Channel. Visitors and researchers will often take a motorized pirogue (wooden canoe) down to a coastal town, Belo-sur-Mer, and then walk to the park. We’ll try that later this summer, but for now we’re cruising in the 4x4.

I’m excited to reach Kirindy Mitea and see what it will be like—I’ve spent many months wondering about this moment. Onward to the river!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Indri indri? Call for you!

Working with Indris last summer definitely captured my interest. They are beautiful, graceful and stately lemurs, and they possess a great importance to the Malagasy people. Tradition states that the Indri, or Babakoto in Malagasy, is the "grandfather of the forest," an ancestor to the inhabitants of Madagascar.

Click to hear the eerily beautiful call of the Indri. Groups of Indri use this call to communicate and demarcate their territory.

To learn more about this gentle giants, read here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Catch a falling star

This summer I'll be focusing on the smaller species, namely the mouse lemurs. But last summer and in the future I'll continue to work on Eulemur and Indri, who both require a little more complicated capture strategy.

People often ask just how exactly we go about catching a lemur, so I thought I might share this little video and describe the process.

The capture team, made up of a darter, a couple of spotters and 4-5 people designated as runners, walks slowly through the forest. If a lemur is spotted, the darter waits and maneuvers to get the perfect shot. The dart gun, pressurized with carbon dioxide, is fairly accurate, but you usually only get 1 chance before the lemur is long gone. No accidents here over 450 lemur captures, the Prosimian Biomedical Survey Project has not had a single lemur injury. If the dart successfully hits the lemur (it's best in the meaty rump!) the team watches to see the lemur's reaction. I've seen some lemurs take off and cover 300 horizontal feet through the forest in a matter of seconds. Other lemurs, such as the Indri, gaze down and wonder peacefully what has transpired. In either case, the runners of the team position themselves under the lemur and....wait. And in some cases, we wait and wait and wait. I've seen an Indri take over an hour and a half to go under the anesthesia, but some will take just 10 minutes. See our neck muscles of steel in the picture above.

When the lemur is ready, it's grip will slip on the tree branch and we are there to catch it. This was a million dollar catch of a black-and-white-ruffed lemur from almost 100 feet up. Gol!

At this point the lemur health evaluation process begins, which takes about 40 minutes. We'll hold the lemurs (and sometimes keep them warm under our jackets) until they've fully recovered. Then they're released to their original location.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Morondova--last stop before Kirindy Mitea National Park

Greetings from Morondova, gateway to the Baobabs! I flew in yesterday morning early on a small D60 plane, with propellers and all. There wasn’t a safety presentation, but needless to say, for once in my life I read through the safety card thoroughly, cover to cover. But all was well, even when the pilot got the plane steadied at our cruising altitude and started reading the daily paper. Such is life here….

I love Morondova—it’s a bustling, friendly town on the shores of the Mozambique Channel, a mere 300-400 kilometers from the African continent. I head down to Nosy Kely, the strip of land that juts out into the channel for dinners, where I can watch the sunset on the beach, eat lots of fresh seafood, and sip Malagasy rum flavored with lychee (there are perks to fieldwork). I watched a local woman come into a restaurant last night carrying freshly caught langostines, or lobsters. They were gorgeous, with bright blue, yellow and red coloring.

I’m getting all my supplies (i.e., toilet paper and chocolate) ready to head out for my first stint of field work. I’ll be in Kirindy Mitea National Park from tomorrow until the 4th of July, with a possible break on the 25th and 26th of June to come back to Morondova to take part in Madagascar’s Independence day festivities. I’m sure it will be a party! I’ll send stories from the field when I get back….wish me luck with the ol’ mouse lemurs.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tana: the land of rice and taxis

Tana is an interesting place—the largest urban center in Madagascar and the political, economic and industrial capital of the country. About 1.7 to 3 million people live here, most of them perched in small houses on the hillsides. The flat valleys are reserved for rice production, right smack in the middle of town.

Tana is fairly spread out, so it’s best to take a taxi if you need to go to the downtown area. I love walking around the city, checking out different streets along the way, but I think saving my lungs from sucking down fumes will be worth it in the long run. The town is overrun with taxis so you never have to wait long. And no taxi ride is the same—on several of them now my driver has asked for my fare early so that he could fill up with just enough gas to get to our destination. That usually ends up being about 2000 Ariary, or about a $1.30. Gas (or l’essence, as I’m learning) is pricey here—about $8 - $10 a gallon, which makes our $4 a gallon hike in the US seem measly. Most of the taxi drivers have taken to popping their old puttering Peugots into neutral down the steep hills of town to save gas. Never a dull moment, I tell you.

Last night I met 3 American researchers on a countrywide quest to find the blind, un-pigmented, cave-dwelling fish that live only in Madagascar. I felt rather run of the mill with my lemurs!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Landed in Tana!

After a near-miss of my flight at the Paris airport (a minute to spare), I made it to Tana, where miraculously all of my bags arrived as well. Things are looking up, since last summer I spent 3 weeks without my luggage. A change of clothes is a beautiful thing not to be taken for granted.

I'm here in Tana for a few days to arrange for all of my required permits and my extendable visa. Madagascar has a fairly serious permitting process, with a full application and review process that takes about 3 months, so researchers have to apply far ahead of time. The process is facilitated by MICET, an organization that supports and coordinates visiting researchers throughout Madagascar. Each foreign visitor that does work in the country also sponsors a Malagasy student. I met my assigned student today, a master’s student named Herman. He’s interested in comparing the feeding preferences of mouse lemurs in the dry and wet forests, which will fit in nicely with my project. We did pretty well with our communication, although my bad French and his limited English will be an interesting combination.
Photo: Steve Evans, 2005, Wikipedia

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lemurs back in the wild

The Duke Lemur Center (DLC) plays a central role in lemur conservation. Who knew that the second largest grouping of lemurs--other than Madagascar--lived right here in Durham, NC? With a captive population of almost 300 prosimians, the DLC sponsors research, a breeding program and educational programs to help people learn about Madagascar.

Duke helped to release 13 black-and-white ruffed lemurs back into the wild in Betampona Strict Nature Reserve (one of the sites that I will visit this summer) over 1997, 1998 and 2001. Some of these original lemurs have learned how to live, eat, and mate in the wilds of Madagascar.

Check out the story in this short video clip from Duke Research:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What is a lemur health evaluation?

We can get very useful information from the lemurs when we have them in hand. For the larger lemurs, we need to capture them with a dart gun (more on that later), but for the smaller lemurs, such as mouse lemurs, we can use small traps that don't hurt the little guys. Put a little piece of banana in there and the mouse lemurs love it.

During the evaluation, I'll note a lot of information about the individual, such as age, sex, any abnormal behavior, and general coat, eye and teeth condition. I also take a small hair sample to later measure stress hormone levels in the lab, a fecal sample (mmmm....yes, my life is glamorous) to look at intestinal parasites and a small skin sample to get DNA from each individual.

All this data will come back to the US for analysis, and combined with geospatial and habitat data, we can tell a great deal about lemur health.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

T minus 0!

I'm sitting here, bags mostly packed, trying to send off a few words before I start my 36-hour journey to Madagascar. Sad, but excited, a little will be an adventure.

I got all my stuff into 3 bags, not two. Perhaps the airline will take pity on me? Doubt it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome to lemur health & conservation!

Thanks for joining me--I'll be posting this summer from the island of Madagascar. Please stay tuned for tales of dirt, lemurs, rice and beans from several remote field stations throughout the country.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Where in the world?

Field research is far from glamorous. As the summer goes by, you'll see me picking up lemur poop, collecting lemur hair, pushing my way through dense dry forests and slogging through ankle-deep mud in the rain forests. And showers, you ask? Probably about every 3 weeks in the dry country, and every 30 minutes in the rain forests, whether I like it or not.

So why would I put myself through something like this? Well, I think wildlife health is an important issue (more on that later). But also, Madagascar is an absolutely amazing place. I'll try to share some of those fantastic moments from this summer through pictures and videos. And lucky for you, those glimpses will come without having to withstand my 3-week hiatus from bathing.

I'll work on both the west and east coasts of Madagascar this summer. Because I'm interested in how lemur health levels vary based on location, geography, climate and type of forests, I need to visit several parks throughout the country. I know, rough assignment. I'll spend a lot of time in Kirindy Mitea National Park (west), then in Betampona Strict Nature Reserve and Parc Ivoloina (east). Check out the map below!

a few notes on me...

I came to Duke University's Program in Ecology in the fall of 2006, after working for a number of years on field research projects around the globe. What did snails in Tanzania, white-tailed deer in Minnesota, seabirds in Alaska, colobus monkeys in Equatorial Guinea and howler monkeys in Ecuador all have in common? They showed me that conservation efforts must consider wildlife health in order to be effective.

I also learned that global human health cannot ignore its connections with wildlife and ecosystem health, and that this interconnectedness will become more and more important as human populations grow. Armed with these ideas, I knew I wanted to work towards figuring out how conservation and public health can better approach the increasing interaction between humans and wildlife, which could lead to disease transfer. I hope my dissertation research on lemur health and human development in Madagascar will contribute to our knowledge of wildlife health and will guide us towards new policy options.