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

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 – 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.

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  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 –