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?
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
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.