4 Dec 2012
Getting prepared

I never know how it happens but I always manage to leave all the packing until the very last minute instead of having it all done on time and in a relaxed way when I am going on a field trip. So the night before I was taking my long flight to Madagascar-I was collecting equipment from around the zoo. From the Herpetological Department to the Aquarium… water pumps-marking equipment-bits for the filters and a never-ending list of gadgets related to amphibians and captive husbandry.
A very busy week of lectures-workshops-exercises and discussion is planned to take place in one of the hotspots of amphibian diversity of Madagascar-in the National Park of Andasibe/Mantadia. Thanks to the local NGO being based in the core area of the park-Mitsinjo-we’ll be in a unique place surrounded by 100 species of frogs.
Up to 30 participants on the course from all parts of the island of Madagascar will meet at Mitsinjo and we’ll run a very ambitious programme related to skills for the captive management of amphibians on the island. It is going to be the first time this programme will have been run in Madagascar although the  Chester Zoo staff lecturing on this course have been involved with this type of course over the last six years in different continents.

Heterixalus punctatus

I personally had the opportunity to be exposed to the magic of Madagascar during my early days of my data collection for the my PhD on the endemic fresh water turtle-Erymnochelys madagascariensis-on the northwest of Madagascar….but that was a long time ago – 14 years ago in fact… Since then the links with the island and the conservation initiatives have never ended and this project is going to be the most ambitious approach so far in terms of developing capacity in a country facing the imminent threat of the chytrid in Madagascar (one of the few places in the world that has not so far shown any outbreak of the fungus).

The challenge is enormous because there are 290 described species in Madagascar but if you speak with the taxonomists they’ll tell you there are probably up to 500. But they have not had enough time and resources to describe them yet. That means a current 4% of the world amphibian diversity and possibly up to more than 6%.

I am not going alone – Javier Lopez-our Head of the Veterinary Department who also has the same length of experience working in Madagascar – is coming too. We have years of experience working together running amphibian courses-in-situ and ex-situ conservation programmes as well as being exposed together to a real outbreak of chytrid and seeing how an entire population of a frog was disappearing not long time ago. Having the veterinary topics running simultaneously with the biological ones in ex-situ conservation is  perfect.

Participants on the course

There are a very few initiatives in country in terms of experience keeping and breeding amphibians. Only three centres have amphibians in Madagascar-the Parc Botanique et Zoologique of Tsimbazaza in the capital of Antananarivo and the Parc of Ivoloina in Tamamatave and Mitsinjo in Andasibe. Only the latter has large facilities-specialised equipment and dedicated staff for the captive management of the species. So we’re in a race against time to get a rich toolbox of techniques to keep and breed amphibians. And all before the chytrid arrives to the island…

04:00 AM-Taxi arrived. Short trip to Manchester airport and then a long 11 hour flight to Antananarivo. Each time I take this flight I feel a special excitement. Madagascar was my first exposure to real conservation-understanding the needs for species conservation from the roots. So I will always be in debt to Madagascar-its community and the unique wildlife.

The transfer to the small hotel in the capital went relatively quickly and with a short sleep I was ready next day to meet the rest of partners for this course. By mid afternoon I had met the team from Durrell and the co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group for Madagascar-Dr. Franco Andreone-with the majority of participants meeting in Andasibe National Park. We arrived quite late at the Parc so we just had time for a quick dinner and then straight to bed before a very busy week ahead.
There are lots of familiar faces amongst the participants. Some were involved in the chytrid workshop I was involved in last year but the family of amphibian specialists in Madagascar is also relatively small.

Immediately after breakfast the course started – and in a totally unique environment-surrounded by the forest and listening to the Indri lemurs calling around us. How you could anyone not be inspired by conservation in these surroundings? We even have brown lemurs that jump around in the closest trees-curious about all these presentations.

Gerado Garcia in Montserrat with a mountain chicken frog

Each course is totally different and it has to be like that because each country has different challenges. The background in keeping amphibians is different and if you really want to see facilities developed afterwards you must start by developing equipment that is feasible to obtain in country and also possible to be repaired. One of the classic errors is to develop a programme with technology or equipment that is impossible to get in the country.

Most of the exercises and workshops will be orientated towards exploring alternative set ups and equipment that could be built and maintained in Madagascar such as external filters-hydroponic systems and rain chambers to recreate rain inside the terrariums.