18 September 2011

Anatomy of an Expedition. Part One.

In August, two fellow grad students from UW-Madison came out to Madagascar to conduct fieldwork for a project to document the critically endangered Greater Bamboo Lemur, Prolemur simus, using trail cameras, and to gather interview data related to forest use and specifically the culture of hunting. They stayed for 2 weeks. Here is a log of our expedition (a word I do so love to use).

August 4
I picked up Erik and Britt at the airport a bit after midnight. We headed back to the hotel to have a preliminary meeting with a preliminary THB (Three Horses Beer, the national beer of Madagascar), and to catch up and revel in the excitement of the impending expedition, before catching a few hours of zzzs.
Erik and Britt still bleary-eyed from two days travel in the down-stairs part of our little loft at Sakamanga
We spent the morning meeting the team and going over our plan. Maholy is the representative from the NGO we are working with, Dilah is the driver, Lucien is the primatologist that has been working in our region for a while, and Felana and Anjara are the students from the University in Antanarivo who will be helping out and learning methods. It is Malagasy policy that all foreign researchers work with Malagasy students to help transfer knowledge, a policy that I highly support. I was only supposed to be helping get things rolling and then help get Britt and Erik back to the airport but the students will have to come back to Tana for a week in the middle and won’t be able to translate the interviews for Britt so I get pressed into sticking around for the whole thing (you don't have to press too hard to get me to stick around to track one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world).

The plan is to go to Sakalava, a village adjacent to the eastern rainforest, to get to know what local life is like, learn about forest use and local forest management, and to ask the local authorities for permission to work in the forest and for their help. Then we will go camp at a nascent research station in the forest for a few days to place the cameras, conduct vegetation transects and interview the forest patrollers and people living in the forest. We will move north to another village, Raboana, for a couple days because they also have the bamboo lemur. Then, we will go to Andasibe to hike in a forest with habituated lemurs so we could better get to know the sympatric species, before returning to Tana to debreif and get back on the plane.

After meeting the team, we spent the afternoon outfitting the expedition. This mostly consisted of going to Jumbo Score, the Walmart of Madagascar, to buy tarps, headlamps (broken), sleeping mats (useless) and tons and tons (not quite literally) of tuna, sardines, and chocolate. All nice things to have that are not easily acquirable in the countryside. Most of our diet will consist of rice and beans, which will be had out in the villages we are working in.  
August 5
The whole team piled in the Land Rover
on the way to Andasibe
Travel day. After another fantastic breakfast buffet at the Sakamanga Hotel we headed out toward our field site. Though it is usually only about 3 hours to Andasibe, where we were to stay the night, it took us all day to get there. A late start, bad Tana traffic, too much difficult finding a working ATM, vegetable shopping, gassing up the vehicle, lunch- you get the picture. We finally arrived around 5:30pm and scheduled with a friend at Mitsinjo to guide us on a  night hike.  Hoping to see nocturnal lemurs, including the Goodman’s mouse lemur which is endemic to the area and usually readily seen even along the main road, the drizzle kept them from our vision and limited our sightings to myriad chameleon, frogs and insects. Still, it was our team’s first excursion in to the forest together so it was a good experience, though Britt was sick and fearing getting worse so had to sit this one out. 

August 6
Travel to Sakalava. That about sums it up. 30 km on Route Nationale 7, a beautiful and well-paved but wendy highway that connects Tana with the port city Tamatave, then 20 kn north on RN44, a pothole ridden gravelled road, paved in part with cobblestones (not an improvement) that links the breadbasket of Madagascar, the Ambatondrazaka region, with RN7 at Moramanga (adoringly translated as “The Easy Blue” by local Peace Corps volunteers but more probably meaning Cheap Mangos) and from there to the capital or the port. Then one must travel back east again for 12 km on a hilly dirt road. I’ve travelled this road on bike and foot a number of times and never thought twice about it. Driving in a 4x4 when the rain coats the amazing red clay into a slimy mess that causes the vehicle to fishtail toward the precipitous edge, though, will raise the neck-hairs of even the most seasoned travellers. It’ll also mean that though you’ve travelled less the 70 kilometers it still takes until afternoon to arrive in Sakalava. After introductions and a late lunch, we were given the old house of the previous Peace Corps volunteer, Pitters, for the couple nights we would be in town. 
Late afternoon we had a meeting to explain our work to the community. It was meant to just be the VOI authority, President of the township and the traditional leader who should always be informed when you want to work in the forest. But instead they opened it to the community and the meeting turned into an airing of concerns over enforcing the laws that aren’t being followed, repeated assurance that nobody hunts anymore so there is no point talking to people about it, and the worry that the trail cameras were going to be there to catch them doing unexplained things in the forest (but certainly not hunting, of course). It was an incredibly interesting dynamic that would be ripe for a political ecological study. In the end, we were permitted to interview people as long as we didn’t try to force them to talk and to use our cameras on the assurance that the pictures were confidential and we had no interest in enforcing the laws but rather were focussing exclusively on the lemurs. All in all, I think the meeting ended up doing more to air some common fears and deal with them then to put up new barriers to open dialogue about hunting practices, though it may have reinforced a particular narrative about “hunting is bad” that the participants picked up without any such prompting.

August 7

Field work. And play. From my field book: “First day awakening back in the field - feels good!” Spirits were running high and after a breakfast of eggs and rice (we forever after coveted morning omelletes) it was time to get to work. Britt trained the students on qualitative interview technique while Erik headed out with Lucien and the VOI president to get to know the landscape, take pictures and get GPS points of various land cover types. I was planning on doing some of my interviews from my thesis work that was otherwise on hold for a couple weeks, but realized that some of my flashcards were missing (it is a participative interview). That, coupled with a few forgotten foodstuffs and other supplies as well as an impeding cash shortage (never underestimate the fickleness of malagasy ATMs) meant I instead headed out down the now thankfully drier road back to town.
I returned just in time to catch the debrief of Brittany’s third interview, with a local farmer who it turned out had recently been caught and fined for hunting, which proved to be incredibly enlightening and a rare opportunity because we didn’t expect to meet anybody who was currently hunting. He said that he doesn’t know how to trap so he uses a blowgun and hunts during April and May when he says that the lemurs are fat.He thinks conservation is important but that hunting doesn’t decrease lemur numbers and that the VOI is too strict in not giving concessions in exchange for all the restrictions. He also thought that hunting was rather common and said he would like to be a patroller. I was very intrigued by the co-mingling of the conservation ethic mixed with subsistence use that while it makes sense to him doesn’t fit within the bounds of current regulations.
Then it was time for soccer.  We had brought a ball and pump which would later be given to the local school teacher, so we headed out to the terraine and had us a game. After about ten minutes, despite the just-dusk hour, we had enough people for a 5 on 5 match including the presidents of the township and the VOI, some young men and some boys. As the only woman on the field, and one of the best players, Britt had her own cheering section. The game did a lot to help us bond with the community, and more urgently, made us hot and sweaty enough to brave the river for a much needed rinse. 

After following a narrow single track in the dark down to the waters edge, we boys each had to take turns balancing on a pair of poles set horizontally below the waters surface, spanning the tail out of a deep murky pool, swiftly flowing water and slick, unstable footholds threatening to shoot us down the rushing channel (though of course, in the day, it appears in the guise of a gently flowing stream), splashing ourselves with the frigid winter runoff. It might be the tropics, but winter at 1000 meters is still quite chilly.

To be continued….

Voiceover: Join us next time, and follow our heroes as they journey deeper into the forest in search of the elusive bamboo lemur and knowledge of local forest usage and lore.