Travelling, trekking and the trip of a lifetime…
In November 2017, through the zoo’s Keeper for a Day process, I got the amazing opportunity to visit our field projects in Madagascar with Claire Raisin, Field Programme Co-ordinator for Madagascar and the Mascarenes.
With the knowledge of our developments of a lemur walkthrough at the zoo, I was tasked with heading out to Madagascar to capture as much footage and photos as possible of this fascinating place for us to use within our learning programmes and interpretation at the zoo.
I’d never done anything quite like this trip before. I was quite anxious initially, about the long trip to Madagascar and the aspects of camping out in the wild. Fortunately, Madagascar is one of the few places where there aren’t any large predators like jaguars and lions, so a little less scary than other places!
We arrived in the capital city of Antananarivo, a hot and smoky city – very different from the cold, late autumnal scenes I’d left behind in Chester. The city is smoggy, dusty and noisy but also full of colour and activity. There are people everywhere, selling things on the side of the street, walking to school, meeting friends for coffee, even filling in pot holes. It really is a hive of activity – I’ve never seen anything quite like it! The Malagasy people never seem to rest, if there’s work to be done, they’ll be doing it!
First we spent a few days to the east of the capital, in Andasibe National Park, as it is renowned as one of the best places to see an array of native wildlife in secondary and primary rainforest. Unfortunately, over 80% of Madagascar’s forests have been lost, meaning there’s little original habitat left for the species that live there, so I felt very lucky to be within some of the forest that’s left. Whilst we were there, we did a night walk and a day walk led by a wonderful, passionate guide, Tiana. We saw numerous chameleons, nocturnal lemurs… and even a leaf-tailed gecko – my favourite! The leaf-tailed gecko is completely camouflaged in the day time, looking just like white moss on a tree – I was blown away by the guide’s ability to spot species that are so small or up so high you’d never know they were there unless someone pointed them out to you.
We then travelled to Moramanga in the east of Madagascar to meet up with our field partners, Madagasikara Voakajy (MV).
We’ve been working with our partners for a number of years, providing technical support for herpetology surveys as well as some financial support for their lemur work and work with the local communities. We travelled to the field site in Mangabe New Protected Area over rocky roads, eventually having to cross a river in a pirogue to get to the camp site. Where we met up with Pip and Tamas, some of the keepers at the zoo, who were also out there to support MV with biodiversity surveys.
The camp at Mangabe is amazing! They have an allotment of vegetables set up, a kitchen, a makeshift shower (a large bucket of water), and of course, a long drop toilet! The staff MV staff were all so welcoming and friendly and helped us settle in for our week long stay. We had so many interesting conversations with the help of our translator. We even had an occasion where we had a language exchange session, where we learned Malagasy words and the rangers and staff learned our English words. It was illuminating to share our different cultures with one another and to discover how shocked they were that we don’t have lemurs in the wild in UK. They were equally intrigued by our photographs of snow!
The first night they also took us on a night walk, exploring the dense forest for lemurs and other animals. Claire had brought a thermal imaging camera from the zoo with her which she used with the team to try to find nocturnal lemurs. They are very elusive animals and notoriously difficult to spot. We did manage to see some glowing eyes in the dark, though and many, many geckos!
The next day, we went for our first trek through the forest. Wow! From incredible views to the searing heat of the sun; the whole experience was very intense but also totally magical. That first day, we went to meet some of the young people who take part in the Youth for Lemurs programme which we support. This project encourages young people from the ages of 15-25 to start using more sustainable farming techniques, as well as educate them about the importance of conserving wildlife, specifically lemurs. The biggest threat to lemurs is habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and the slash and burn culture that accompanies it to create more land to grow crops and keep cattle. So the Youth for Lemur scheme gives these young people in Madagascar the skills to farm without the need to reduce more forest. The young people showed us their plot and told us about some of the things they’d learned through the project. It was inspiring to see such young people working so hard to protect the habitat of wildlife and looking towards the future in sustainable ways.
The next couple of days we ventured into the forest again to focus on two other areas where the zoo provides technical support. The first is our work with golden mantella frogs. We met with Eddie who had been carrying out the surveys on the frogs at these ponds for the last few years. Claire and Tamas helped with the capture, mark and recapture process to gather the necessary data to understand how the populations have been affected over the last few years.
The other was to help the team with their lemur surveys. Claire and I ventured out with Pierre and some of the guides to walk transects of the forest to record any signs of lemurs. This may be traces of poo, or signs of traps from poachers or even, if you’re lucky, seeing a lemur or two! We got lucky that day and saw some Sifaka leaping from the branches up above. We also ran into a few leeches on our travels though too! The lemur surveys were one of my favourite parts of the trip – it was amazing to be trekking up and down the steep habitats in the depths of vegetation, hearing all the sounds of birds, insects and sometime lemurs. I spent a lot of time with my camera and audio recorder just trying to capture as much of the essence of being there as possible.
One of my most favourite memories of the whole trip was when we visited a local school in Mangabe and the school leaders had gathered all the children to sing for us.
The experience of having 100 or so children singing with complete passion was overwhelming. You can hear this for yourself in the zoo at Madagascar Play! Basecamp on our musical wall by turning the wheel that plays sounds from Madagascar.
After our week in Mangabe, we travelled back to the capital to attend the annual World Lemur Festival, which was another reason I was in Madagascar at that time of year. As part of our lemur walkthrough developments in the zoo we had already talked about holding our own form of festival to celebrate lemurs and all things Madagascar when it opened, so I wanted to gather some ideas and inspiration! The festival was full of life! People being face painted to look like lemurs, dressing up in colourful traditional dress, performing incredible music and dances. We met with Professor Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a leading expert on lemurs, who spoke passionately with us and to the crowds about how important it is we are all involved in conserving lemurs and their habitats in Madagascar.
The trip didn’t end there; we were soon back on the road again heading to the north west of Madagascar to a very remote area… one specific lake called Lac Tseny. Lac Tseny is unique as it’s the only lake in the world that has pinstripe damba fish living in it. The fish was thought to be extinct in the wild until a few years ago, when fisherman rediscovered it in Lac Tseny. Since then, the MV team have been working hard to find a way to protect this species. So far, the team have managed to breed the fish outside of the lake in an ex-situ breeding centre elsewhere in Madagascar, so when we were there, we observed Felicien from MV working with the local community to create a sealed off area within the lake itself to try to encourage the wild population to increase whilst in their natural habitat. It was a really fun project to see happening, we went out on to the lake in pirogues, whilst the team took out weighted nets and posts to a small area of the lake to create the area for the fish to be protected within.
Working with the communities in both areas of Madagascar is a vital part of the work that Madagaskara Voakajy and Chester Zoo are collaborating on. With the support of the local people, the conservation actions taking place can really embed into the local culture. It was really useful for me to visit the different areas of Madagascar to see how our field partners are already working with the community. When I got back to Chester, I was able to pass on this knowledge to the rest of the Discovery & Learning team – which really helped when it came to developing new activities and events in the zoo – but also when Nic Buckley and Phil Blackburn went out to Madagascar on the expedition in 2018!