Stories of Week Three – Part I

If Week One was about adjustment, and Week Two was about getting into the work and hardcore poop collection, Week Three was about the Cool Things and Changes.

This post is about some of the Cool things.  The first happened after one particularly bad day, where I ended up alone in the forest until almost 4 pm waiting for one lemur to poop in the 100 degree heat (many curse words that day, lots of name-calling to the lemur, who continued to snooze). I have to admit I called it quits early the next day.  We already had samples, we had been tramping around

Lemur catch!

for over an hour looking for a 2nd group, and I really wanted a HOT lunch.  It’s amazing how important the difference between hot and lukewarm becomes when you’ve had two not great days and been eating the same thing for 2.5 weeks.  So I made the decision to head back early…only to find the capture team in the middle of camp attempting to dart a male lemur!  Of course, rather than head to lunch, Tahiri and I helped the capture team to keep track of the animal, and call Anafa when he was in a good spot to be darted.  After over an hour, we finally managed to get him cornered in the big kily tree in the middle of camp and darted him.  And I managed to capture the whole thing in still shots!  Pretty amazing right?
Lunch, of course, was cold by the time we got to it.

Somehow, Week Three was also the week that I ended up in the middle of about 4 pitched lemur routs.  It’s very disconcerting to be peacefully hanging out with one group, and suddenly there is another group around you, and your previous group has completely vanished.  It’s much harder to catch up with them than you might imagine.  One afternoon, I was hanging out with Blue group, just enjoying the late afternoon heat, when I heard crashing off to the side.  A female from Pink exploded out of the bushes and, suddenly, all of Blue group is in full retreat.  I couldn’t believe one female could chase off 12 members of another group by

Mouse Lemur

herself, while the rest of her 6 individual group just sat there, but she totally did it.  They didn’t run far, so I was able to keep up, but so was 185 from Pink, and man, she was not happy they were there.  What followed was a series of chases and halts over the course of like 30 minutes, in so many different directions that I was completely turned around.  I managed to get pretty badly snagged in some thorny acacias, and while extricating myself, saw a brown furry foot sticking out of a tree stump.  For a second, I was sure it was rat, but the longer I looked, the less sure I was.  Then it disappeared and a head popped out the other side of the stump.  It was a mouse lemur!!  I found a wild mouse lemur, which is nocturnal, while there was still daylight out!  I literally stood there, unmoving, with my camera trained on that stump, for over 45 minutes.  Luckily, the group I was with settled down around me, so I didn’t miss anything.  Truth – this was a once in a lifetime chance.  Had the ring-tails left, I totally would have let them go and stayed with the mouse lemur.  About 20 minutes in, I got another surprise – there were two!!  They were literally the cutest things I had ever seen.  I did finally manage to get some good photos of them, but I had to scare them out of their wits to do it.  But they were super cute!

Two Mouse Lemurs are even better than one!

I also saw a Malagasy radiated tortoise that week, which are super endangered.  Tahiri and I were chasing Pink group again, and I literally tripped over him.  He was the size of a basketball and super cool.

Part II contains more of the unexpected, so stay tuned!

Radiated Tortoise

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Stories of Week Two

During week 2, we had a visitor in camp and traveled to the Wild Wild West, Madagascar style!  One night, I had just turned off my computer and pulled up the sleeping bag when I started hearing some very weird noises.  As they drew closer, it sounded like these odd thunking sounds and REALLY heavy breathing.  At first, that’s what I thought it was one of the feral dogs that occasionally, but once it was right outside my tent, I realized it had to be a zebu!  I was sort of afraid it would walk right over my tent, but after a couple of seconds of porn-style heavy breathing literally right outside my tent, I heard it take off running out of camp.  The next day, our darter, Anafa, was really late showing up.  Like almost 2 hours.  Later he told us that he was late because the night before, cattle rustlers came through and stole 28 zebu!  Apparently, cattle theft happens somewhat frequently in Madagascar – the cattle are stolen to drive north and sell to the mines.  The drama continued that evening when two gendarms showed up on a motorbike to ‘investigate’, although all I really saw them do was drink a lot and sleep with our cook.  It was pretty scary to have two really drunk guys with AK47s hanging around all night, and I have to confess I locked the zipper on my tent from the inside, since they made a really big point of trying to talk to me while I was sitting on the veranda.  The next afternoon, however, after lounging around shirtless (and pantless for a bit) for most of the morning, they departed on their motorbike.  That was one of only two times I really felt unsafe at Beza, mostly because I was out in the forest alone and really didn’t want to run into them with no one else around.

My highlight clumsy moment of the trip (if you know me, you know there were many others, but this takes the cake) also happened

Lemurs at the well

during Week 2.  It was only a matter of time before something ridiculous happened, and I was glad it was relatively harmless, instead of like breaking a leg or something.  It was early morning, but the capture team had already left.  It was shower day for me, and that started the whole thing.  Clearly, I should just have given up showering like the men did; they had an undeclared competition the first week to see who went the longest before being too disgusting to be allowed at the dinner table.  Shower day means you spend 15 minutes filling your shower bag before you go out for the day, and leave it in the sun to heat up before showering in the late afternoon.  There are three methods for filling the shower bag: (1) pouring from the bucket on the rope that drops into the well, which is quite messy and frequently results in lots of spilled water and needing to pull up at least 2 extra buckets of water, (2) using a cup that is sometimes by the well, which is much neater and easier, or (3) using the pink plastic funnel that Frank and Michelle keep by their tent, also much neater although requires about 3 hands.  My preference is the cup, but the cup was nowhere to be found that morning, so the funnel it was.  And then it was not.

In a fit of common nonsense, I set the funnel on the well, set the bag on the ground, unscrewed the top of the bag, and then reached for the bucket on the edge of the well…and knocked the funnel into the well.  I grabbed for it, and then just froze in that ridiculous position, hand outstretched, staring down the deep, dark hole, listening to the funnel hit the wall on the way down.  I must have sat there for 2-3 minutes trying to figure out what to do.  And despite what my embarrassed, I hate making mistakes self said, I knew I could not shimmy down the bucket rope and try to retrieve the funnel from 50 feet down in the well.  After several minutes of internal argument, I finally decided just to tell Frank and Michelle when I got back that afternoon, and face the shame and teasing, because surely in a week someone else will do something stupid and my mistake will be forgotten.  I went out to the forest, and came back, stopping at the Katadyn to refill my water bottle and turned to go…but wait a minute, there was the funnel, sitting on the table like usual!  It was like a ghost returned from the dead.  I swear, I stared at it for a full minute trying to figure out if I had hallucinated or dreamed dropping the funnel in the well.  Frank came over and said, “Yeah, I was pulling water up for lunch today, and imagine my surprise when I pull up the bucket and see my name was staring out of the bucket!”  So the funnel has now attained god-like grace, as it has returned from the dead.

Week 2, I also met my Malagasy student!  When we left Tana, he was still doing his training course at Ramanofana, so he couldn’t come with us; however, he was able to take a taxi-brousse to Betoiky, and Frank, Jim, and Andrina went into town to pick him up.  I was really afraid of having an assistant, for several reasons.  First, my project is pretty simple: Follow lemurs around, pick up poop, get

Tahiri, my Malagasy field assistant

100-150 samples in 4 weeks.  It didn’t really require two people, so I didn’t feel like I had anything for him to do.  Second, Beza is really remote, and I was really afraid he wouldn’t want to be here, would be miserable, want to go home, would refuse to do anything, etc.  Third, he told me his English was bad and my French is worse, so that was going to be a problem also.  He turned out, however, to be amazing!  His English was fabulous, he was very eager and smart, and super helpful!  On his second day in the field with me, he even found part of a sifaka skeleton for the museum collection.  Hanging out with another person also made field duty much easier, since together we could keep track of many more lemurs than I could alone.  He was amazing and I’m so glad he came to Beza to help me.  Even better was his desire to potentially do his Masters research at Beza, and continue into the field of primate behavior and conservation.  It was a really good feeling to contribute to training a Malagasy student and help build the country’s own interest in preserving its fabulous wildlife.

I was doubly glad for Tahiri’s presence several days after he arrived because he saved my life!  While in Madagascar, I encountered three Golden Orbed Spiders (Go here to see a picture – http://holykaw.alltop.com/golden-spider-silk-makes-rare-cloth): The first and third were approximately the size of my palm or a little bigger, while the second was a little smaller.  I saw the first and third literally inches before walking into them, but the second I walked right into.  Tahiri was quick enough to pull me out of the web and luckily the spider stayed on his web and ran away.  I did Not scream, but I did jump about five feet in the air and utter a string of profanities.