Stories of Week One

My first day in the forest on my own followed the tone of the rest of the trip: It was amazing!  The day before I did a dry run, following Orange Group around camp for an hour and collected three samples.  Michelle gave me a map of the forest with the groups’ favorite “spots” identified, and I headed out.  I was all prepared for it to take a while to find any groups, but I found Hot Pink (the lemur groups are identified by the color of their collars, so all the collared animals in Hot Pink have Hot Pink collars).  And then the daily rhythm began.  If I was lucky, I found a group right after they woke up.  The lemurs would munch their way around their sleeping tree for breakfast, then climb down, take a poop (which I would hopefully collect!), and then head off for their mid-morning snack.  Once they get to the next feeding tree or bush, they would eat for a while, then either move on or nap.  A lemur’s day day pretty much goes: up at 7:30 or 8, eat, poop, move, eat, move, poop, eat, move, nap, eat, poop, move, eat, move, poop, eat, move, eat, bed!  It’s hard to be a lemur at Beza, right?

A day in the life of a lemur

Since I couldn’t forage in the forest and actually needed to bring water, I would usually bring several liters of water and a cliff bar.  The morning poop was pretty great because you’ve only been out there for an hour or two, but waiting for the afternoon poop is HORRIBLE.  That’s when I daydreamed about throwing things at constipated animals, but maybe instead of rocks I should have thrown laxatives.

That being said, when the lemurs poop, it always seems like they ALL poop together.  Collecting fecal samples from lemurs is sort of like watching baseball.  There’s a whole lot of sitting, standing, or walking around for hours and then a short period of lots of activity.  As the lemurs always seem to poop together, and when you’re trying to identify which animal is which, this poop bonanza can turn into a disaster really quick.  I would usually try to position myself between two or three animals from which I needed samples and then wait.  When they started moving, I would have to make a decision on who I was going to prioritize.  It’s simply not possible to keep 11 collared lemurs in sight when they’re spread along 30 m of forest.  And since the poop often falls from a height of 2-5 m, it bounces, sometimes feet into the air.  And the forest floor is covered in old poop.  A lot of times you need 5 minutes or so to locate the ‘fresh’ brown poop from among all the brown leaves, old brown poop, and dirt on the ground within that 2-3 m area.  So if Lemur A poops, and while I’m looking for Lemur A poop, Lemur B would begin to assume “the position”, I would scribble Lemur A’s number on a glove, drop it in the vicinity of where I thought the poop was, and then chase Lemur B.  At least once during the first week, I did this for 20-30 minutes, and ended up with 5-7 blue gloves scattered on the forest floor, looking like really bizarre leaves.

I also had a pleasant surprise on my 4th morning.  I had originally stored all of my lab supplies and extra electronics in the lab instead of my tent, since a 6 ft x 8 ft tent does not have a lot of room for things you don’t need right at hand.  The fourth morning at Beza, I went to refill my pack with formalin vials and gloves…and found rat droppings on everything and holes in several bags of gloves and several vials of formalin.  The one blessing is that the rats did not get into the formalin tubes with actual fecal samples, just the unused ones.  They also nibbled on several small souvenirs I had bought, including the painting for my boss!  Makes it authentic right?  After that, I kept everything in my tent or right outside my tent on my tent pad.  Since it was the dry season, it never rained and the worst thing I had to worry about was lemur theft.

Lessons Learned in the first 5 days of Camp:
1) Ration the electronics!  With only 5 plugs, and 5 people, and a limited amount of time to charge something, you pretty much play electronic equipment roulette or make a Sophie’s choice between your ipod and your laptop.  I’ve never spent so much time planning what I could get done on each laptop and how long I had to charge my ipod to get through the next day.

2) Time means nothing here, especially to the Malagasy.  Jackie even commented to me that, “In America, time owns you, but here, you own time.”  First, few Malagasy people own watches.  When the team decides breakfast will be at 6:30, the cook really means sometime between 6:45 and 7 am.  When the capture team is supposed to leave at 7:00, the darter really means maybe 8?

3) You will eat twice what you eat at home.  Even if the food is bad.

4) Food shall be hoarded.  Be prepared to shoot jealous glances at other people’s cookies, and to feel sort of mean that you don’t offer to share your one package of candy or box of juice.  My southern upbringing did not prepare me for the guilt of selfish food hoarding (let’s be serious, I didn’t share, I just felt bad about it). When in the field, it’s every man for himself when it comes to gear and especially food!

5) Zip up your backpack all the way, everyday!  Otherwise you might drop a sample or two while charging through the woods after the next one.  And that totally did happen.

6) And finally, never ever lose track of where the baby lemurs are, if possible.  They are the ones who think it’s HILARIOUS to sit on a

Baby lemurs are so mischevious!

branch above you and poop while you’re occupied with identifying another lemur.  This happened at least twice in the first week there.  You’re frantically trying to catch sight of the tag of Lemur A, and suddenly you hear the sound of rain pattering on the leaves.  Except it’s not rain, it’s poop!  You know that sound!  Who’s pooping?  I need that sample!  And then you realize… it’s not only a baby lemur, which is a useless sample, but he’s pooping right on your head while staring down at you, daring you to do something about it.

How to Find Wild Lemurs

The first question every morning is, “Which group are you chasing today?”  The capture team has first dibs on which groups they dart each day, and after they make their choice, Jim and I would usually hold a quick conference on who was going to go after whichever groups were left.  Then off everyone went – Me to Forest Location A, Jim to Forest Location B, and the capture team to Forest Location C.

With ten groups of lemurs in a 1.6 by 1.0 km tract of forest, you would think, “how hard can this be?”  Well, most days it’s easy, and other days, you may as well have just stayed home.  Some groups have small ranges, some groups have large ranges, and one group, Yellow was the nomadic group that you could never predict where they would be.  If you found Yellow somewhere, you stuck with them because it could be days before anyone found them again.  Ring-tailed lemurs have homeranges, or a part of their habitat where they are most often found, but the boundaries are very loosely defined and are more like “suggestions” than boundaries.  Knowing a group’s ‘normal’ homerange was no promise of finding them.  They could easily be off in a completely different part of the reserve, just because they felt like being a pain in the butt that day.  For example, Hot Pink group usually hangs out in the middle of the reserve, except for the several days I found them up North, or the one day I followed them out of the Reserve to the West, you get the idea.  In other words, you pick a group, head to their normal area, and then tromp up and down the paths for 20 minutes, or for 2-3 hours looking for that group. Or really, after 2 hours, any lemurs at all.

How do you find lemurs?  Simple – stop, look, and listen.  Obviously you look for the lemurs, but 30 m up in the tree, a 2-3 kg animal is really difficult to find in dense foliage.  Sometimes you get lucky and see a head poking out of the top of the leaves, or a ringed tail hanging from a crook in a branch, so keep your eyes peeled.  Otherwise, your best option is to listen for them.  My strategy was to walk about 30 steps down the trail, stop, and listen for 1-2 minutes.  Then repeat. Again. And again.  And again.  When searching for either ring-tailed lemurs or sifakas, you’re listening for two things.  The vocal sounds they make, and the noise they make moving through the trees or on the ground.  If you get out at the right time of day, and happen to find your group while moving, you’ll hear two things.  The first are the contact calls between group members as they spread out through the trees.  The stragglers call to the ones in front, and the babies call their mothers.  If you’re good, can make the calls yourself and sometimes they respond.  Their responses can be a huge helping in finding them.  Getting the pitch right can take a little practice, but Michelle makes baby lemur calls like a pro.  I’m decent, but not amazing, so I only got responses if I was right on top of them.

Alternatively, you hear them moving through the trees.  With sifakas, it’s like listening for a ghost.  You hear nothing unless they jump from tree to tree, so you listen for one or two crashes.  If they’re not moving, however, you can walk within 2 m of them and never see them.  Ring-tailed lemurs are a little more clumsy.  And by a little, I mean a LOT.  Every few days you would see one try to jump between branches and miss, or frankly just fall right out of the tree.  So when they move through the forest, you can definitely hear them.  Assuming, of course, that they’re moving and not napping, and that it’s not windy, which it was often.  On windy days, you are a little screwed.  You’re listening for branches and leaves rattling, and watching for branch movement, and the wind is making EVERYTHING rattle and everything move.  So you spot a shaking branch and hear crashing!  Hooray!  Crash through the thorns to get a lot closer, only to see nothing and hear the trees snickering.

Beza Mahafaly – A typical day at Beza

Days at Beza started at 6:00 am for me.  Breakfast was not until 7 am, but since I was spending 6 weeks with the same 10 people, I did my best not to be a huge grouch in the morning.  No grouchiness meant I needed to be fully awake, so I was up at 6 in an attempt to be cheerful by the time breakfast rolls around.  First things first – head to the bathroom, not an easy task when you have to put on clothes while laying down (the tents were too small to stand up in), then find your roll of toilet paper, put on your jacket,  then put on shoes, etc.  Morning ablutions finished, I would usually go to the Lapalapa, stretch, and watch the sun come up.  If I had enough time, I would fill my shower bag, or do some laundry, or maybe even prep my gear for the day.  Finally, breakfast at 7!  Cora and I were usually the first ones over to the dining hall, as we had both been up for at least an hour and were hungry.  Everyone else usually got up at 7 and wandered over a few minutes later.  At Beza, you have two options for breakfast: whatever you brought with you, or warm rice with sugar.  The first week and a half we had nice, white rice from Toliara that was rock free.  The last week and a half, those eating the breakfast rice had better chew slowly as the rice came from the market in Betoiky and had its share of Malagasy pebbles.  I went with the “bring from home” option, so I had oatmeal brought from the States, and supplemented with muesli bought in Tana, since I like my teeth where they are.

After breakfast, it was time to fill up your water, finish prepping your gear, change out of pjs and into field clothes, lace up your boots and head out.  For my research, I was trying to get a morning and afternoon sample, from the same day, from each individual, to get a thorough sampling of the parasites in their GI tract (there is some evidence that some parasites shed more eggs in the morning or afternoon).  Thus, once I found a group, I stayed with them until I got two samples from as many lemurs as possible, and the 2nd sample had to be after 12:30 pm.  Sometimes the lemurs cooperated…and sometimes they REALLY did not.  It was not uncommon for me to be standing underneath a sleeping lemur at 4:00 pm yelling nasty names at her (it was ALWAYS a girl somehow) and contemplating throwing rocks at her, while she ignored me and slept on.  I never did throw anything, but I thought about it a lot.  Nine hours without food in the baking heat makes me super grumpy.  After the last sample, I would trudge back to camp and eat ‘lunch’.

Every day, lunch was rice and beans.  We have FIVE separate types of beans, which was super exciting, even though they mostly tasted the same, and the ‘good’ rice, meaning you only found a rock in it like once a week.  Lunch mantra: Chew slowly.  This is quite difficult when you’re shoveling food into your mouth after not eating for nine hours (Yes, I was bitter about the long period without food).  Also, the flavor and consistency was not helped by the 3 hours my lunch usually sat on the table until I got there.  There is no cold storage or way to heat things up at Beza, so my lunch usually was in a bowl, covered by a plate, on the table.   If I was super unlucky, and either the plate didn’t get covered, or someone or some lemur knocked off the plate, the flies really enjoyed my food for a few hours before I got to it, but it’s all just extra protein, right?

After lunch, I entered the day’s sample information into my computer, and then chores, or on every other day, I showered!  As sunset was around 5:15, I was usually hauling butt to get showered before it was too dark to see anything (or bring a headlamp).  It was dark by 6:00 pm, at which point we all went to the veranda or Frank and Michelle’s table for Happy Hour.  We would just hang out, unwinding, talking about the day, or listening to stories of past field seasons at Beza, and avoiding the rats that ran under the chairs or along the window sill.  After an hour or so, Frank would put dinner out for Lala or Sambasua to cook, usually around 7 or 8 pm.  In true European fashion, dinner was usually between 8 and 9:00 pm, and we usually even had electricity for the one lightbulb in the dining hall!  For dinner, we rotated between 4 types of pasta, canned tomato sauce, and some sort of treat.  Treats could be french fries, or steamed potatoes, or sliced pineapple, or even a tomato and cucumber salad a couple of times, heavily dosed in vinegar to kill whatever was in the water the veggies were washed in.  Always remember never to eat anything in Madagascar unless it’s cooked or peeled.  I cannot accurately describe how exciting these treats were.  The pasta was usually cold, although how they managed to get the pasta below air temperature in a place with no refrigeration, I’ll never know.  A lot of times the olive oil for the pasta ended up in the sauce, so we had a little sauce with LOTS of oil to flavor it.  After dishing your pasta, you got to choose between 4 types of spices, salt, and pepper.  The pasta sauce lost its appeal somewhere around day 5, the spices lost their ability to make it any better around day 10, so the extra veggie dish was always the highlight of the evening.  

Meals were always a fun internal conflict of hierarchy/manners versus hunger/selfishness.  You know you should feed the professors first, and you shouldn’t take everything for yourself, so how much do you put on your plate and how many more people are left to pass the dish to?  And also which people are left?  Some people ate a TON (like 3-4 helpings), some people ate only 1.  If you’re only going to eat one, are you justified in taking more now?  We usually sat in the same spots for every meal, and we would joke that once the food reached the ‘growing boys’ (or the students), it never came back.  So if you have to pass to them, do you take more because you know they will and there might not be enough for you if the dish comes back around for a 2nd trip?  Lunch was usually pretty plentiful, but dinner was a whole other ballgame.  After your own internal discussion about how much to take on the first go around, you then spent 15 minutes watching everyone else to figure out who they had to compete with for a second helping.  Fortunately, everyone was pretty polite about it or else things could quickly have deteriorated into a scene from the OK Corral.  When the food is rationed and there are only 15 fries left to be divided among 10 people, things can get ugly.  Stabbing forks even get involved.

After dinner, everyone headed to bed.  The campsite was pretty much one big bedroom, as the furthest person from you was no more than 5 m.  This meant that if anyone talked, or passed gas, or got up to use the outhouse, everyone heard you… and then commented on it at breakfast the next morning.  With all those beans, some nights we had a virtual symphony!

My Research – Why so obsessed with poop?

When I first told friends and family I was going to spend the summer in Madagascar studying ring-tailed lemurs, EVERY SINGLE person I spoke with volunteered to be my assistant.  Some of them even offered to pay their own way.  It would be a magical amazing adventure, they said.  Then I told them what I would actually be doing and, suddenly, everyone had ‘plans’ or a ‘conflict’ but they would “have loved to go” if not for A, B, and C.  For some reason, following lemurs around was cool, but following lemurs around to pick up their poop was gross?

Why did I go to Madagascar to pick up lemur poop?  Well, my PhD is an investigation of how an individual’s genetic make-up influences their health, survival, and reproduction.  More specifically, I’m looking at how variation in MHC genes, or genes that control the immune system’s ability to fight off infections or parasites, affects one individual’s health and survival in comparison to the health and survival of another individual.  Thus, I went to Madagascar to get fecal samples from wild ring-tailed lemurs so I could see if their genetic make-up influences their resistance or susceptibility to gastrointestinal parasites.  (If you’re really interested in the technical details, you can read my official research bio http://evolutionaryanthropology.duke.edu/research/drea-lab/people/kathleen-grogan).  In other words, I needed to pick up a lot of poop samples from lots of lemurs so we could look at how many worms or worm eggs they have in their stools, and relate this to their immune system function.  And, as no one from the USA would come to Madagascar to help me catch crap all day, I luckily found a Malagasy Masters student who was more than happy to come to Beza to help me!  And that is what the next three installments of this blog will be about – my adventures while staring at lemur butts waiting for them to poop.

Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, Madagascar – The Camp

As remote as Beza is, the camp is pretty amazing.  Camp is south of the Reserve, situated a little east of center.  There is a very small welcome (Tonga Soa! in Malagasy) sign to the left of the road, you turn right off the road, pass between two buildings of cinderblock and the road opens up into a large empty space.  Of the two buildings you have just passed between, on the left is a building with the offices of the Reserve staff, including the Madagascar National Parks Park manager, and the ESSA manager from the University of Antananarivo.  On the right is the Beza Mahafaly Museum, which includes our storage room and the “lab”.  The lab is actually a tiled counter, with a sink, desk, and cabinet, with a microscope and some American plugs (huzzah!), and disposable lab supplies spread out everywhere when Cora is working.  It looks like a mess, but I promise Cora has it all under control.  Just watch out for the rat droppings.

Past the offices, Camp opens into a large dirt area, with a few decoratively planted cacti, and some very large kily trees.

Immediate across from you is the Lapalapa building, which is essentially the center of camp.

The Lapalapa!

The Lapalapa looks like an open-sided picnic shelter in the USA, complete with metal picnic tables with wooden table tops.  Underneath the thatched roof of the Lapalapa is where all lemur processing is done, including physical exams.  The tables are supposed to be for dining when there are too many people to sit in the dining hall, but cover them with garbage bags and they make great exam tables for unconscious lemurs, as long as  you don’t mind the uneven planks, the wobbly table, and the lemur poop where you’re could be eating tonight.  That stuff just wipes up off the plastic, though, right?

Past the Lapalapa is a large wooden building, mostly eaten by rats.  I’m really not kidding, all the walls are essentially hollow from rats, and at night, we would eat dinner and listen to the derby races they would hold up in the roof.  This building houses the dining hall and several closet-sized bedrooms for the Malagasy staff, including the cook, and the maintenance guys.  I say maintenance loosely because there really isn’t any maintenance to be done as there are only four buildings, but they do empty the trash, dig pits for the trash, and sweep the main area of anything that might dare to grow. This ensures that instead of the central area being grassy and beautiful, it’s dusty all the time and every morning while they’re sweeping portions of it, it looks like an Afghani sand storm.  Also inside the main building is the “kitchen”, which is really just a closet with counter space, a sink for washing dishes, and cabinets for storing the 10 sets of dishes and 5 pans that are the entire cooking apparatus of Beza; however, lest you be confused, no actual cooking happens in this kitchen.  Cooking is done behind the building, on a counter with two little fire pits built into it.  It is sheltered by 3 walls and a tin roof, which is new since just a couple years ago it was just a counter with fires but no walls.  It is still open on one side, and the lemurs LOVE this al fresco design for cooking.  It affords all sorts of opportunities for “helping” by stealing food, drinking the water used for cooking, etc.  Near the “kitchen” is the concrete well, one of my favorite places in camp because the lemurs stage daily battles over access to the well and the buckets around it.  The rope to pull the bucket up also makes this really awesome motor noise at 4:30 am when they’re pulling up water to make the breakfast rice.  Great alarm clock.

Several meters to the left of the Lapalapa, is the fourth actual building in camp, a small house where resides the MNP manager, Miandrisoa (said pretty much how it’s spelled).  He was … helpful… but that is a story for another blog.  Behind his house is the camping area for foreign researchers, complete with tent pads and a cement path to the outhouse!  There are six tent pads of varying sizes, from 2 x 3 m up to 3 x 3.5 m.  The camping area is grassy and somewhat uneven, so it was nice to have tent pads, which are concrete blocks filled with sand.  To the left of the camping area is a concrete path that led to the shower building, and the outhouse, which is awesome because when the lemurs walk along it, the cement catches and holds all the little presents they leave.  In other words, watch your step on the way to the toilet!

Researcher tents

Both the shower and outhouse buildings are cement, painted white with a tin roof.  As you enter the shower building, you go left or right into the shower stall of your choice, hang your portable shower bag, and Tada!  The floor is tiled, and there is even a porcelain basin funneling to a hole for the water to drain out.  Of course, it drains right into a giant pit in the back of the building, so bring biodegradable soap because sewage systems or plumbing are totally out of fashion here in the woods.  There is even a bar on which to hang all your clothes and towel, and a dirty cracked mirror!  It is the height of luxury, trust me.

If you think think that could rival the Hilton, just wait until we tour the outhouse!  It’s concrete, which is an improvement over the wooden outhouses I’ve used at other field sites.  Believe me, nothing makes you appreciate a nice, open air tree better than a wooden outhouse that’s been absorbing outhouse ‘stench’ for the last 50 years or so.  The outhouse at Beza is relatively new, as apparently, when the long-drop pit underneath the outhouse fills up, they just build a new one somewhere else.  The old one is still there in case you ever feel the need to experience a filled up outhouse.  In the new one, there are two stalls, one on either side, and the doorway literally opens right into the ‘toilet’ area.  The floor is tiled, the walls are concrete, and there is a porcelain basin with raised places to put your feet.  We’re pretty sure there was a “Mens” and “Womens”, as the basins on either side were differently shaped, but no one could figure out which sex used which side.  The porcelain basin is shaped like a

The long-drop in all it’s glory.

long-neck gourd (or a short-neck gourd on the other side) and has a 3 inch wide hole at which you must aim.  At 3 am, this is no joke and could actually be considered an Olympic sport if you catch the Betoiky plague.  There is a trashcan for toilet paper, which shall not be thrown down the hole, and a bucket of water to wash down any mess you create.  There is no way to NOT make a mess, it’s more a question of how hard the mess will be to clean up.  We even had an old Katadyn water filter with a spigot to wash your hands, but that didn’t work as well as one would hope, since the rats kept stealing the soap.  And always remember, when using the long-drop toilet, make sure to put the gauze-wrapped rock across the entrance so others know not to enter!

If you’re curious, here is the site for Beza from the Madagascar National Parks Service –  http://www.parcs-madagascar.com/fiche-aire-protegee_en.php?Ap=8

Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, Madagascar – The Forest

A map of Beza and its location in Madagascar.

Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, or Beza, has been a protected area since 1986 and consists of two pieces, Parcel 1 and Parcel 2.  Parcel 2 is huge, a sprawling area of 500 hectares of desert-like, spiny forest, and the animals in Parcel 2 are extremely skittish of humans and livestock.  Parcel 1, by contrast, is only  80 hectares, and is essentially a rectangle that measures about 0.7 km by 1.6 km.  It has a system of trails on a grid, with the trails only 100 m apart.  The trees along the trails are marked with color coded  paint so it’s easy to find your way, assuming the lemurs don’t leave the path or venture outside the reserve, in which case, you’re on your own.  The official southern and western boundaries of Parcel 1, are roads. Beyond these roads, the forest actually continues  and some of the lemur groups live there, even if it is much more degraded by humans and livestock than Parcel 1 itself.  The eastern boundary is the Sakamena River, which since it’s the dry season is one huge sand pit right now.  When it’s running, the river is only 3-5 feet deep, but is well over 100 feet across.  Near the river, the reserve consists of majestic, arching gallery forest.  It’s super green and verdant, with a thick, lush canopy and tree trunks 100 m tall.

The gallery forest near the river.

The drier forest to the west. Can you find the lemur?

Thick vines hang from the trees and there’s much less undergrowth than the western part of the reserve, which is awesome for following lemurs when they’re on the ground; however usually they’re so high up in the trees that even with binoculars, your chances of figuring out who is who are slim.  Right on the river bank is the thickest tangle of vines I’ve ever had the misfortune to follow lemurs through, and all of the vines have 1 inch thorns.  You can almost hear the lemurs snicker as they head into the thickest tangles while you follow, cursing and tripping and trying not to lose sight of those black and white tails.

As you move west, away from the river, the forest dries out, and the canopy shrinks until the tallest trees are only 40 m tall and the undergrowth literally explodes until by the western edge, you’re fighting for every foot.  And, for the cherry on top, the term ‘spiny forest’ is not a joke.  While most of the tree trunks lack spines (most, not all), anything under 2 m is typically covered in them: small spiky ones, large spiky ones, small hooked ones, etc.  Despite several days of over 100 F and high humidity, I wore long sleeve shirts over my tank tops because then I only came out of the forest sort of scratched up.  The alternative was to be cooler sans overshirt, but to walk out of the forest hemorraging and possibly in need of a blood transfusion.  Ok, it wasn’t that bad, but go chase lemurs at a dead run for 100 m and it will definitely feel that way.

Despite the thorns, the forest is gorgeous.  It is peaceful and full of lemurs.  There are at least 10 groups of ring-tailed lemurs, and over 40 groups of Verreaux’s sifaka, plus nocturnal lepilemurs and mouse lemurs.  That means hundreds of lemurs in this one  square of forest and its surroundings!   It’s like lemur paradise.  Exotic birds are everywhere and if you are lucky, you might even glimpse a chameleon, for which Madagascar is famous, or highly endangered radiated tortoise the size of a basketball.  There are no large predators except the fossa, and feral dogs, neither of which are a worry for people unless you worry about your research subjects getting eaten.

Lemurs love the trails!

Both the ring-tails and the sifakas have been studied here for almost 3 decades, and they are extremely used to humans.  We clumsy humans do not disturb their daily routine as they forage, nap, fight, and play.  If they are on the ground and you crash through a particularly thick tangle of thorns, they might run up the nearest tree.  If they are already in the tree, they usually just give you the most disgusted look for interrupting their breakfast.  Because both the sifaka and ring-tails are the subject of long term capture studies, they all have collars with numbered dog tags.  This is totally great for identifying individual animals, except when you’re on the wrong side of the ID tag and can’t see the number.  Imagine your frustration when, after spending an hour looking for any group of lemurs, you finally spot some!  Then you wait for one to finally come out of the foliage where you can actually see the collar, wait for several more minutes while cricking your neck staring straight up for the lemur to finally turn the ID tag enough to see one side, and then you discover it’s the blank side.  Fortunately, lemurs move around a LOT, so you’ll get another chance to ID that one…provided you can keep track of it as it disappears into the very thick canopy of course.
Next up, the Camp!

The “Road” to Beza Mahafaly

ImageIf you’ve been reading this blog for the last two weeks, and are frustrated with how long it’s taking me to get around to talking about actually being at Beza, well now you know how we felt waiting to GO to Beza.  But, finally, after almost two weeks of ‘traveling’, we left for Beza at 8:00 am on June 9th.  For an idea of our route, we drove from Toliara northeast on Route Nationale 7, until it intersected with Route Nationale 10, at which point we turned back southeast, crossed the Onilahy (Own-i-la-hee) River, reached Betoiky (Betuke, rhymes with Duke), and from there took the road to Beza.  I say “road”, but keep in mind that in Madagascar, outside of Tana, there are no paved roads, and in lots of places, it’s not exactly what you would call a road.  It is 190 km from Toliara to Beza, or 118 miles.  Not really that far.  Well on those “roads”, it’s an eight hour trip if you don’t want to rattle every single brain cell in your head, and just think, the first hour (or 40 km or so), is actually paved!  After that, nothing but sand and boulders.  Listening to Frank and Michelle talk every day about how bad the roads were, they definitely were not as bad as I had imagined.  It was a lot like off-roading back home in Kentucky in a SUV or regular car, except it lasted for 8 hours.  For your viewing pleasure, I’ve uploaded some videos I took from the back of the car of what the drive was like.  Try not to get motion sickness watching them!

Driving on Route Nationale 7 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyyr0pyXgjs&feature=youtu.be
A drive through a Malagasy village – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTnpWZiQRrk&feature=youtu.be
Driving from Betoiky to Beza – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GI7Xz2XbwT0&feature=youtu.be

The roads were actually in really good condition relative to their usual when we drove through.  Normally, everyone has to get out of the car several times so it can go over giant boulders.  If you take public transportation in Madagascar, the taxi-brousse, the Malagasy version of a Greyhound, you drive this road in a 30-person bus with over 50 people in it, and baggage and animals strapped 6 feet high on the top, or tied to the sides of the bus.  The Route Nationales 7 and 10 were actually big enough for two cars to pass side by side, or with little offshoots where one car could go around another.  Once we passed Betoiky, however, no such luck.  The road was two very rocky tire tracks through fields or spiny forest.  Around every turn, Andrina would honk his horn to signal any oncoming traffic.  We were on that road for 2 hours, and all we saw was one zebu cart coming in the opposite direction.  The best part about the drive is going through the villages.  Whenever the kids heard a vehicle, they would all run to the road shouting “Vaza!” and waving like mad, and when you wave back and they all run away laughing.

The road from Betoiky to Beza!

The other best part about the drive was actually getting to Beza!  We even had daylight to set up tents since we got there at 4 pm.  It’s winter in Madagascar, so the sun is completely down by 5:30 and it’s dark by 6:00.  Once we arrived, we rushed to unpack, put up the tents, and set up our sleeping stuff inside the tents.  Jackie and Andrina had put all the gear we sent down in the car into the museum building for storage, and Frank and Michelle actually leave all of their tents and most of their gear in the back room all year.  So we pulled everything out and got a lovely surprise!  Apparently, the museum had become infested with rats over the last year, and they had chewed holes in EVERYTHING.  The bags Michelle and Frank store there were covered in rat feces, and several rats had actually nested inside.  The bags we sent from Tana in the car were in much better shape, but had definite evidence of investigatory nibbling.  We also discovered just how much of the food the rats had gotten into.  Luckily, almost nothing was destroyed, but some things definitely had to be thrown out.  Finally, the night ended on our first dinner at Beza, only a little rat chewed and we rolled into our sleeping bags.