A visit to see the work of the AEECL in the forests of Madagascar

26/10/2017 in RZSS

Above: A female bue-eyed black lemur in the forests of Madagascar - photo by Georgina Cook.

Madagascar has been of great personal interest to me, and for almost a decade felt like the one that got away, when political instability there meant that a trip I was planning with a group from Glasgow University in 2002 had to be cancelled. Thankfully, In that time, my job as a Primate Keeper at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo gave me the opportunity to work with many different species of lemur.  I was fascinated by this diverse group of curious yet laid-back animals.  My role also allowed me to be present at several meetings of a lemur conservation organisation with links to the zoo, called the Association Européenne pour l'Étude et la Conservation des Lémuriens (AEECL).  Through meeting representatives from AEECL, I became acutely aware of the plight of lemurs in the wild, and the complexities of the in-situ conservation work carried out at the Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park.

In 2010 I realised a dream by finally visiting Madagascar as a tourist, and spent 4 weeks exploring the island. It was an amazing insight into the country and its wildlife, but rather than fulfil an ambition the trip only fuelled my appetite - I wanted more!  I was now even more determined to visit Sahamalaza National Park, which had not been possible in 2010 due to its remoteness.

My chance finally came via an RZSS Individual Development Award, through which staff can apply for support to carry out activities to develop themselves both personally and professionally.  Thanks to some helpful contacts at AEECL and beyond, I was successful in my application, and at the end of June 2017 I set off once again to Madagascar.


Some examples of the incredible biodiversity in Madagascar. Above a chameleon, and below, a leaf tailed gecko - photos by Georgina Cook.


Slow start

I arrived at midnight and, even at that hour, Antananarivo airport is an onslaught of activity.  Baffling numbers of officials issuing visas, checking visas, looking at and stamping passports, and then a long wait for my luggage.  I had packed carefully, and can carry all my bags myself, so only 4 or 5 porters offer to help (for a fee of course) to carry my bags the 10 metres to the car park.  I am very relieved to be met by a driver from my hotel.  My French is bad (French is the official language here along with Malagasy) but we talk about the weather; it’s winter and about 10ºC, so all the locals are wrapped up in jumpers and woolly hats.

The next morning I meet my travelling companions, four Masters students from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. I have been in contact with their supervisor, about their research, but know nothing about them.  Thankfully they are all very nice, and don’t seem to mind that I have gate-crashed their trip.

We had planned to stay in the capital for a couple of days, to get permits sorted and visas extended.  In the end it took 4 days of visiting various government offices; firstly, trekking through the streets to find the right building, explaining our situation, queuing, waiting, filling in endless forms (in French), photocopying, waiting, explaining things again to someone else, more waiting. Almost everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful, but protocol must be followed, and nothing happens quickly.  In the end we left Antananarivo, or  ‘Tana’ for short, without research permits or visa extensions, but with assurances that such things did exist, somewhere.

While in Tana we took in the limited tourist attractions, arranged transport to the research camp, bought supplies, and met with Guy Randriatahina, the AEECL’s programme director.  Guy met us at a restaurant to go over our transport to the research camp, and answer some of our many questions.  Guy has been with AEECL since the beginning; he could see how precarious the situation on the Sahamalaza Peninsular was, with forest rapidly disappearing, and knew he had to act.  After years of hard work from Guy and other AEECL members based in Madagascar and Europe, the area was officially recognized as a National Park in 2007.  Speaking to him was fascinating and made us all impatient to leave the city and see wild Madagascar.


On the road

We finally hit the road to Sahamalaza at 5am, in a comfy 4x4 with our luggage expertly strapped to the roof.  I had brought a GoPro camera with me and decided that I would film the landscape as it changed.  We would be travelling about 700km, passing over the central highlands and down to the north west coast.  The journey was exciting, on tarmacked but badly pot-holed roads, up hills and through valleys.  However, the landscape was a virtually unchanging monoculture of grassland. The central highlands, which have been inhabited by people the longest, are particularly devoid of wildlife.  The forests which once grew there have been burnt down long ago, bit by bit, as part of the shifting agriculture which is widely practiced in Madagascar. The grass feeds the Zebu; a type of cattle which is widely kept for its meat, but cannot support the amazing variety of wildlife which once lived there.  The videos I took on this journey did not show what I expected; they are monotonous and, when I think of what might have been there in the past, heartbreakingly sad.

Below: Driving past the vast stretches of cleared forest on the way to camp - footage by Georgina Cook.

The second day of our journey was off-road, 3 hours on a rough track which would have been pretty scary if our driver wasn’t so experienced.  Finally we were seeing trees and birds, and could begin imagining the lemurs which awaited in the larger patches of forest.


In Camp

When we arrived in camp, we were all surprised by how homely it was. There were already several people there; researchers, guides and cooks, and it felt organised and welcoming. The sun sets quickly so close to the equator, and there was only one solar powered light in the camp, so we wasted no time in starting to pitch our tents. As we did so, we suddenly became aware that a very special welcoming party had turned up.  A female blue-eyed black lemur, Eulemur flavifrons, the very species we had come to study, was right there in the camp.  I had been closer than most to lemurs at work, but it was still an overwhelming experience to finally see one in the wild. We had travelled so far to find her, and here she was, approaching us in that curious but laid-back lemur way.  She had a sniff about and did a bit of scent marking while her family, a male and a younger female, watched from the trees.  We would see her again, and a second family too, who came to the camp regularly in search of food.

Below: Take a tour of the field camp - footage by Georgina Cook.

Over the next 2 days we got to know the surrounding area, we visited the nearby tourist camp which had hosted its first group of tourists just the week before.  We also visited the two closest forest patches and saw more of the blue-eyed lemurs.

On the third day we started collecting data for the various projects.  One of the students left camp along with a guide to walk to the nearest village where she would be surveying the people on their attitudes to wildlife and the environment, and finding out how they lived their lives and the changes they had seen.  The rest of us headed to the nearby forest to survey the lemurs; log their locations, count them, assess their body condition, and hopefully collect their poo.  Being in the forest was great, it was shady, cool and full of life; birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians as well as the lemurs.  There was lots of noise from the birds and insects, but nothing that was man-made, except for our boots crunching though the leaf litter.

Below: Surveying lemurs in the forest - footage by Georgina Cook.


The next day we turned to the habitat survey part of the research.  Walking transects and recording tree type and size.  Even in the relatively small patches of forest we found a huge variety of plant life; dense evergreen forest, towering bamboo, big mature trees, scrubby areas where wild pigs lived, and swampy areas with huge palm trees and ferns.

Below: Surveying habitat in the forest - footage by Georgina Cook.


On the sixth day at the camp we got up extra early to walk to Marovato, the small coastal village where our friend Audrey had been doing her survey.  It took about 3 hours to walk there, and we were rewarded with a beautiful white beach, and made very welcome by the villagers.  The coral reefs and small islands off the Sahamalaza peninsular are also part of the National Park, and there are mangroves further along the coast too. This diversity of habitats is one of the things that makes the area so special in terms of conservation.

Below: Walking through formerly forested areas, cleared for grazing on the way to a local coastal village - footage by Georgina Cook.


Camp life took on a routine after a few days.  We would collect data in the forest in the morning, and spend the afternoon in camp.  The researchers would be inputting their data, and we would all share domestic duties such a laundry and water filtering at the nearby small river. The river is vital to the camp as, like most of the country, there is no electricity or running water.  Our power came from solar panels, and our water from the river.  


After 10 days at the camp it was time for me to make the journey back to Tana, and then home.  Of course part of me wanted to stay, to travel wider with the others and find out more about the lemurs in other areas.  Though it was a relatively short trip, and only touched on some of the activities of the AEECL, I felt I had got a real sense of what active conservation is all about.  There are so many complicated issues involved; politics and poverty in particular.  It can seem that these are insurmountable things, that human ‘progress’ is inevitable and that wildlife can never win.  But there are people; researchers, scientists, guides, cooks, teachers, farmers, and more, who do understand and value the wildlife and the remaining stretches of native habitat. They will never stop fighting for them, and with the right support, I really hope that they can make a difference.

RZSS Edinburgh Zoo animal keeper

Below: A male blue-eyed black lemur in the forests of Madagascar - photo by Georgina Cook.

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