Category Archives: Madagascar

Veloma Madagascar

I’ve been back in the United States for a month now. Adjusting to the eight-hour time difference and sixty-degree temperature change in the midst of Christmas celebrations was a bit difficult. But it was certainly nice to arrive at a time when family and friends were gathering together and wide varieties of food were both abundant and delectable.

As nice as it is to have certain amenities once again, such as hot showers, temperature controlled houses, and flushing toilets, these things feel almost like luxuries now, and I would trade these comforts for more time in Madagascar in a heartbeat. I have not stopped thinking about the people and wildlife of Madagascar and am eager to return one day. Although I miss the country so much, it is time for me to refocus and put all my energy into my next experience (which I will begin writing about in the next few weeks). But first, since I was unable to post any blogs during my last few weeks in Madagascar due to spotty connection, it is time for a short recap.

Being very disconnected to the outside world, with the eight-hour time difference and slow internet connection, had huge perks over the three-month trip. Throughout each week, I had time to study for the GRE (although not the most fun things to do in Madagascar), read books and scientific journal articles, keep a daily journal, write blog posts, and learn as much Malagasy as I could.

The weekends were either spent synthesizing and entering data for our bi-weekly reports, or traveling. The plague epidemic made travel more difficult so we were encouraged to spend the extra money required to rent a minivan and driver for our trips. The only other alternative was the cheap, but overcrowded taxi brousses that had contributed to the spread of the plague. Nevertheless, we traveled as much as possible.

Our first weekend trip was to Manajary, a little town on the coast of the Indian ocean about an hour and a half away. We spent our days wandering around the village, trying various street foods, shopping for souvenirs, perusing the market for fresh fruit, wandering down the beach and dipping our feet in the Indian Ocean. At night, we played cards and went to the karaoke bar down the street. We even saw Dadi Love, one of the famous Malagasy bands, arriving to eat at the same small restaurant where we were eating a very American meal of pizza and ice cream.

Our second weekend trip was to Ranomafana National Park, just two hours farther west into the mountains. We saw the famous Golden Bamboo lemurs for which the park was created, as well as the last two Greater Bamboo lemurs left in the park (a father and daughter), a group of Red Bellied Brown Lemurs with a few babies, a pair of Black and White Ruffed lemurs with two babies, and a group of Red Fronted Brown lemurs with several babies. We also happened upon some of the unique creatures that Madagascar is known for, such as the giraffe weevil, the ring tailed mongoose, a couple of streaked tenrecs, and a satanic leaf-tailed gecko. The park truly felt like a rainforest, damp and blanketed by heavy fogs, and made us reflect on how Kianjavato would have felt 30 years ago when there was continuous rainforest stretching from Ranomafana to Kianjavato.

Our third trip was to Anja Community Reserve, a six hour drive from Kianjavato. When we arrived, we were almost immediately surrounded by ring tailed lemurs. They were in the trees, on the ground, sunbathing on rocks, and leaping less than a foot away from us on their predetermined paths. The hundreds of lemurs in the park were completely indifferent to us, as it should be with well-habituated lemurs. This, of course, made for incredible photo opportunities and made us feel like true tourists. We also made the slightly regretful decision to hike the mountain towering above the reserve. The mountain was almost entirely composed of continuous rock, and our guide, with bare feet, sidled up the mountain with the ease of a mountain goat. We barely had ten minutes at the summit before our guide became anxious at the rain clouds quickly moving toward us so we were forced to hurry down the backside of the mountain after him. We didn’t even have much time to wonder why we hadn’t gone up this way, a much easier path, before the rain was upon us. The next morning, we were able to spend a few more hours with sunbathing lemurs before embarking on the six-hour drive back to Kianjavato.

A couple of our reporting weekends were even spiced up with some excursions to the highest peaks of Sangasanga and Vatovavy (our two study sites). We woke up at 3:30am for the Sangasanga hike, so we could see the sunrise. There could not have been a better way to start a Sunday morning than seeing the first light of day set the rivers and rainforests below us ablaze with color. Vatovavy was a longer and more challenging hike, so a sunrise hike was not a consideration, but we still started early to beat the heat. We saw and heard several groups of lemurs as we were hiking up, and were rewarded with a 360 view. The Indian Ocean could be seen in the distance, and our Malagasy friends pointed out Mananjary, and the mountains that lead to Ranomafana.

These trips could not have been possible without the help of Fredo, the field station manager, and the Malagasy graduate students at the field station. They were always so gracious in helping us arrange rental cars, joining us on trips and hikes to watch out for us, and translating for us when needed. Our time in Madagascar was so much more because of them and they all became our close friends.

Saying goodbye to them was so difficult, and our last week was full of farewells; we said Veloma (goodbye) to our field guides who we had spent almost every day with for the past 10 weeks, to the reforestation workers we had come to know, and to our English students who we had spent every Monday and Wednesday night working with.

Our last adventure in Madagascar was actually a last-minute decision to see Indri (the largest extant species of lemur) before we left the country. Mine was the first flight out of the country, so it was a race to see this species. We arrived in the capitol on a Saturday night, left the next morning to drive four hours to Andasibe, spent the remainder of Sunday as well as a couple hours Monday morning in the forest with Indri, and drove the four hours back to the Capitol to pick up my luggage and drive another hour to the airport to make my 5:00 flight on Monday. Every road block or traffic delay on our way back to the capitol raised my stress level, but I made it to the airport and caught my flight with a half hour to spare. Any rise in blood pressure was well worth it, however, because the Indri were awe-inspiring. Their large bodies reminded us of gibbons. But their piercing vocalizations, loud as a siren, have almost no comparison except for the calls of humpback whales. The forests echoed with groups of Indri responding to one another. And standing in the forest, listening to what is known by locals as the song of the forest, was a surreal experience.

When it came time to leave the country, I did not feel ready to part ways with the island of lemurs. But the memories and friendships will never leave my heart and mind. And I know that I did not say Veloma (goodbye) to Madagascar forever. I will return.

Fire and Rain

My time in Madagascar has been sandwiched between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. And indeed, the first five weeks of my adventures here in Madagascar were very hot and dry. Whenever I was exposed to the sun, whether hiking through deforested mountainsides or walking to the market, the repetitive chorus of a popular Malagasy tropical song ran through my mind: Mafana Mafana Mafana. Hot Hot Hot. The blistering temperatures signified the final weeks of the dry season, a window of time in which many Malagasy use for tavy (slash and burn). The dry trees and underbrush of the forest can easily be coaxed into lighting up in flames. As rainforests are naturally wet and rainy, it has taken many years and unbelievable deforestation to change the entire biosphere into one that is conducive for burning. It is not a pleasant thought to dwell upon.

But, this year the rainy season started early. These last two two weeks have brought endless downpours, showers, sprinkles, and drizzles. The forest is happy, and much safer than is typical in November. The rain smothers the fires from tavy and draws out the fire millipedes. The foot-long arthropods, wanting to avoid the flooded/saturated forest floor, crawl from unknown hiding places and into the trees. Their numerous bright legs seek dry branches in vain and mesmerize us with their fluid movements. Purples, reds, and oranges, their hues of their legs are taken from the same palette as sunsets.

I am still of two minds about whether I prefer the dry or rainy season better. Regardless of season, I am wet, either from perspiration or from rain. But at least in the rainy season, the forest is safe from fire. For humans however, the rain makes hiking through the forests much more difficult. We slip, we slide, and we fall whether we are going uphill or downhill. Last Monday in Vatovavy, I endured a particularly arduous day. It had been surprisingly sunny for a couple days during the weekend, but started pouring on Sunday night, continuing all night and into the following day. I was to follow a lemur that was markedly far away, so Edgard (my guide) and I set off at a brisk pace that morning.

The narrow paths had transformed into small creeks and our hiking shoes were soon soaked through and covered in mud. About half an hour into the hike, we came to the fields of rice paddies that stand between the tiny communities on the hillsides and the forest fragment that lays behind it. (pictured are the rice paddies during the dry season) I heard my guide say “uh oh” as he arrived at the bridge connecting the path with the dikes of the rice paddies. I rounded the corner and saw the reason for his dismay. The “bridge” (two small pieces of warped wood) was nowhere to be seen, under at least a foot of water from the turgid creek. And the “railings” (two tall sticks stuck vertically into the bed of the creek) were swaying with the current and too far to reach from land. (pictured is the bridge when during the dry season) Edgard hesitantly put one foot into the water, finding the makeshift bridge, and successfully inched his way across. It was my turn. All the warnings about avoiding contact with the rivers and waters flashed through my mind. But I had no choice; it was much too far to jump. I stepped into the dark water, finding the bridge, and made my way across. Little did I know, the bridge was the least of my worries. We began traversing through the dikes of the rice paddies. The fields are shaped to hold water, and even during the dry season traversing the paddies was treacherous and required small makeshift bridges to avoid swampy areas. In one such place, a couple pieces of wood lay several inches submerged under water from the flooding. The wood only stretched a couple feet, and I eyed the ground where the bridge ended. “I can make that”, I thought, thinking I would cleverly avoid soaking my shoes once more. Suddenly, one of my legs was knee deep in swampy waters. My jump had resulted in one leg on solid ground, and one engulfed by a rice paddy. I pulled my leg out with a squelching noise, the mud having formed a suction around my leg as if it was reluctant to let go. I scrambled to my feet again, trying to regain my dignity as Edgard glanced back and saw me sprawled on the ground, one leg disappeared into a rice paddy. After assuring him I was okay, we set off again to finish our hour and a half hike to find FIG, our focal lemur for the day.

I had somehow convinced myself while in the forest that the way back through the rice paddies and bridge would not be quite as unseemly. But alas, I was sorely mistaken. The way back resulted in going stomach down in the rice paddies, this time, my arm going elbow deep into the muddy waters. And the creek had fully claimed the bridge as its own, the water flowing at least a foot above the planks, and the muddy banks causing Edgard and I both to slip and fall while exiting the water.

I was soaked to the bone when I returned to the field station, and after drying myself, retreated to my tent for the dry, warm comfort of my sleeping bag. But thankfully, after a few hours, I was able to laugh about my misfortune when sharing my adventures with the other volunteers at dinner. Because really, how bad could it be, when I’m tracking lemurs in Madagascar.

A Madagascar Thanksgiving

It’s a little strange being in Madagascar during such a celebrated North American holiday such as Thanksgiving. It has no meaning to most people in the country. Nevertheless, we were served one of our favorite meals for dinner: pasta and beans. Because today is also the birthday of another volunteer, we topped off our Thanksgiving meal with a chocolate almond cake drizzled in pink icing. It did not taste quite like a western cake, but it was a welcome addition to our Thanksgiving feast and satisfied our cravings for dessert.

While writing this, I am in a tent surrounded by Malagasy mountains, something I have dreamt about for a long time. So as I would do if I was in the United States during this holiday, it is time to reflect on some of the many things I have to be thankful for.

Lemurs: This is an obvious one, but I have wanted to travel to Madagascar to contribute to lemur research for many years now and feel incredibly blessed to realize this dream so soon after graduating University. And as of now, I have seen 8 species of lemur in the wild: Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, Red Fronted Brown Lemurs, Red Bellied Brown Lemurs, Greater Bamboo Lemurs, Golden Bamboo Lemurs, Aye Ayes, Dwarf Lemurs, and Mouse Lemurs.

New friends: The October – December cohort of volunteers has proved to be one of the easiest going and likeminded groups of people I have had the privilege to work with. We are a small group, with 3 Americans, myself included, and a German, but we instantly realized that we make a great team. Along with our cohort are the Malagasy Ph.D. and Masters degree students stationed at KAFS; they travel with us when we go on adventures on the weekends, or when we walk to Kianjavato for the market or a concert. They are always ready and willing to help us (whether translating for us or making sure we don’t get an unfair deal) and watch out for us. They have also introduced us to the vibrant Malagasy tropical music that has become popular across the country. They are some of the kindest people I have ever met, and we would truly be lost without them.

Learning a new language: Between working with Malagasy guides in the forest each day, befriending the Malagasy students at KAFS, and interacting with various members of the community, I have had the privilege to learn bits and pieces of Malagasy. I discovered a love for language while being here, and am delighted each time I am taught new words and phrases, especially ones that I can use to surprise the non-English speakers around me.

The fruit: So many kinds! Jackfruits, Mango, Papaya, Pokenel, Zebu Heart (the local name for a fruit related to the Pokenel), tamarind, apricots, leche, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts. Some I have previously eaten but that taste so much better here, to the point of seeming like a new fruit, while others I have never tried or heard of before. I am in heaven every time I eat fruit here, even if I have to wash my hands four times after eating Jackfruit and still can’t remove the sticky residue.

Learning to Live Rough: If I am to follow my dreams of becoming a primatologist, I need to be able to handle rugged living. And living in Madagascar has certainly toughened me and prepared me for future research endeavors, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Bucket showers, washing clothes by hand, and living in a tent have become second nature. And eating rice for every meal, and rarely being fully dry (I’m either wet from perspiration or wet from the rain), seems as natural as if I have been living here my whole life.

Malagasy Mountains: Anyone who knows me very well, knows that I have a deep affinity for mountains, forests, and hiking. And working and hiking in Malagasy mountains nearly every day has been exhilarating.

Becoming a Birder: Thanks to a couple of the volunteers’ infectious passion for birds, I have become an amateur birder. I can now identify almost 20 bird species here, some by their calls, and others simply by sight. This pales in comparison to true birders, but I now know more Malagasy birds than North American birds and have developed a new interest in birds.

Teesh: A medium sized brown dog, with upright ears, Teesh is our resident field station dog who is surprisingly vacant of fleas. This dog, though as independent as any Malagasy pup, spends most of his time at the field station acting as a canine garbage disposal for leftovers. But he has staved off some of my longing for my own dogs by always tolerating my showers of affection, and for this, I am especially grateful to him.

And these are just a few of the many things I have to be thankful for during this venture into a new country and culture. Life is good. Enjoy it. Count your blessings. And……Mas toa bestaka sakafo androany! Enjoy Lots of food today!


The shouts and giggles of small children echo through the valley as we walk past clusters of tiny houses roofed with Ravinala leaves. Sometimes we don’t see the body that the voice belongs to. Other times, the children are peering out behind a bamboo fence. If they are very brave, and this only happens when they are in a group, they will greet us while they are walking past us on the street. Regardless of location, the greeting is always the same: “SaluVasaha!” Salu is a French hello, and Vasaha means foreigner. Hello foreigner! My response is always the same as well; “Salama Zanika Gashy!” Salama is Malagasy for hello, Zanika is child or children, and Gashy is short for Malagasy, a common slang that Malagasy people call themselves. The children never fail to light up or shriek with laughter at the tall white foreigner speaking their language. And the adults nearby will often repeat my words and laugh themselves. We greet adults in passing with a more respectful greeting of “Akoryaby”; good day to you all.

                These are the interactions that can be expected each time we walk through the villages surrounding the field station that now feels like home. There are 9 villages in the Kianjavato commune, the largest being Kianjavato, where we travel every morning to buy snacks for the field and sometimes on Sundays for the market. And if we are working in Sangasanga and finish early, we will make the trek from Kianajvato back through the villages to the field station. Ambalahosy and Ambodibinary lie between the field station and Kianjavato. They look almost identical, the only difference being a small school in Ambodibinary. The villages stretch only for 100 meters or so before the clusters of homes give way to rice paddies that once again engulf the land on either side of the road.

Kianjavato is only slightly bigger, but is home to several tiny shops and a few more roadside vendors that serve up various types of mofo (bread) and fruit. On Sunday market days, however, the streets are packed with people, some walking from several villages away, to peruse the piles of clothes, the produce, and the electronics that are laid out on either side of the road, on blankets or in small bamboo stands. Roosters, chickens, and the occasional duck peck and waddle their way through the crowds, while loose dogs take shelter in the shade between houses or vendors. We see familiar faces as we walk through the crowds: reforestation workers, a lemur monitoring guide, our driver, one of the cook assistants. And we purchase bananas, slices of jackfruit, and bags of mofo, for less than 3,000 ariary ($1). On the way back to the field station, we never fail to stop at one of the road side vendors in Ambodibinary or Amalahosy for peanut brittle, usually buying them out with our insatiable appetite for the sweet, nutty flavor and the ability to buy 30 pieces for 3,000 ariary.

And seemingly regardless of the day, or time of day, encountering small herds of zebu, directed by small boys and their sticks, is almost unavoidable. They commandeer the sidelines of the roads, leaving rather large and slimy gifts behind. But neither the zebu nor the roosters and chickens occasionally strutting across the road, and no, not even the pedestrians walking from village to village have the right-a-way to the occasional taxi-brousse or truck flying through the curvy mountainous roads. Horns blaring, vehicles quickly clear the roads in front of them. It’s nice when you’re the one in the car, though not quite as nice when you’re the pedestrian.

Regardless of the constant need to watch for zebu poop or listen for taxi-brousses at every curve, I never tire of walking through the quaint villages of Kianjavato while returning the calls of “Salu Vasaha”. The walk not only provides opportunity to practice my Malagasy and load up on delicious snacks, but also gives a brief glimpse into the simple, but happy, lives of those in the communities that I feel lucky to be a part of, even for a short period of time.

Person not Chicken

When our focal lemurs are lounging up in the forest canopy, we relax as well, and use the time to bombard our guides with multitudes of questions about the culture, history, education, wildlife, politics, and language of Madagascar. In turn, we share stories about our lives in other countries and provide new English words. One of the most entertaining moments in the field has been swapping Malagasy and English tongue twisters. Our guides, knowing much more English than we know Malagasy, memorized our tongue twisters before we could even begin to pronounce the Malagasy tongue twisters correctly.

But in my opinion, English tongue twisters pale in comparison to

“Rambon-doumba ndRalambo Lava, Ralambo lava Rambon-doumba”
(The shirt tail of Ralambo is long; Ralambo has a long shirt tail)


“Voropotsy folo fotsifotsy volotsofina”
(Ten egrets with white ear hair).

Our guides have also taught us a number of Malagasy phrases and expressions that, although commonly used, make other Malagasy people laugh when we say them for the sheer amusement of hearing foreigners use their colloquialisms. One of these phrases is “Olombelo Tsy Akoko” which translates to “person not chicken”. This phrase is used when someone needs to go to the bathroom, because chickens do not urinate. Everyone chuckles when one of the volunteers, or guides, says this phrase before disappearing in the woods. Another Malagasy expression is Piso (pronounced Pee-shew), which is used as a Malagasy word for “bless you” after a person sneezes. But Piso also means cat in some dialects, and in others, is only used when a baby sneezes.

Madagascar has 18 dialects, which results in occasional confusion and miscommunication even among Malagasy people from various regions. But for foreigners, this can make cross-cultural communication nearly impossible when traveling across the country. Luckily, most important words and phrases are fairly universal, even if pronunciation varies across dialects. However, after learning that the word for yes in the capitol differs from the word yes in Kianjavato, just an 11 hour drive southeast, I came to realize that English-Malagasy dictionaries can only go so far in this country.

World Lemur Day

Since the beginning of October, I have spent most every day tracking lemurs through the forest. But this past Friday, World Lemur Day I didn’t see a single lemur. Why? Because to celebrate this special day, all MBP employees and volunteers joined forces to plant over 15,000 tree seedlings in one day, bringing the week’s total 20,200 seedlings! That’s a lot of future trees! Typically, around 3,000 seedlings are planted on planting days, which occur 2 times a week. Planting over double the weekly amount in one day required all hands-on deck. Each volunteer in our current cohort, all the lemur monitoring guides, all the reforestation workers, and many people in the local villages all came out to spend the morning planting seedlings. We split up into five groups, starting in one of the local villages and parading to one of five nurseries.

The reforestation efforts here are critical to the long-term survival of the lemurs residing within Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and the other small forest fragments in the Kianjavato area. The lemur monitoring projects, although producing invaluable data, are not what will ensure the future of these species. As Dr. Ed Louis (the executive director of MBP) stated, “if all we did was monitoring, we would be monitoring these species to extinction.” The eventual goal of the reforestation efforts occurring here is to connect Sangasanga and Vatovavy, along with a few others forest fragments, with forest corridors to allow population movement and increased genetic diversity between these areas. Sangasanga used to be connected to Ranomafana National Park, about a two-hour drive away, but due to tavy (slash and burn agriculture), the forest has been isolated since the 60s. Vatovavy has been isolated for an even longer period, but is only about a 20-minute drive from Sangasanga.

However, these efforts will be for naught unless the communities in Kianjavato support these projects and experience a change in perceptions regarding tavy and the importance of the non-human primates living in their forests. To inspire a love of lemurs and promote conservation education in the communities, MBP and their partner (Conservation Fusion) held a World Lemur Day event for the schools in the Kianjavato area. While waiting for the schools to arrive, we set up a speaker connected to a solar panel, and spent two hours dancing with the children in the host village. My dancing skills need improvement even by American standards, so trying to keep up with Malagasy children was next to impossible. And when I tried to take a picture with a few Malagasy children, I was rushed by at least 15 kids, all wanting to be in the picture and see their faces on the tiny camera screen. Once the schools arrived, two children from each school competed to win prizes such as soccer balls and frisbees for their school by answering various questions about lemurs and the rainforest. Each child went away with a lemur stuffed animal, several prizes for their school, and a deeper appreciation for lemurs and the land where they live.

Cheers to two exceptional days of celebrating World Lemur Day!

First Two Weeks in Kianjavato

I had barely been in Kianjavato for 24 hours, before I found myself at an El Idiote concert, attempting to converse with the MBP field guides and reforestation workers to which I had just been introduced. A week prior, I could only use my imagination to envision how it would feel to be completely immersed in a culture that few Americans are lucky enough to experience. But there I was, listening to live Malagasy tropical music, in a village surrounded by partially forested mountains spotted with distinctive Traveler’s Palms.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’ve now experienced living in a tent for two weeks, showering with a bucket, and eating rice for every meal. The rustic life at KAFS (Kianjavato Ahmason Field Station) requires a willingness to forfeit air conditioning and running water for lemurs and reforestation, but these are sacrifices that all volunteers here are happy to make. When walking from the field station to the tent sites, the surrounding mountains give glimpses into the deforestation that has occurred, the reforestation efforts that are currently underway, and the remaining forests.

The black and white ruffed lemur monitoring team that I am working with collects data in two forest fragments within the Kianjavato region; Sangasanga and Vatovavy. Seven lemurs are collared in each area, allowing the guides to easily locate these focal animals. Black and white ruffed lemurs form subgroups with high rates of fission fusion, meaning the number of individuals in their group fluctuates based on numerous factors such as food availability and the presence or absence of infants. We follow the focal lemurs for two hours at a time, writing down everything from the tree species the focal lemur is residing in, to various social interactions between lemurs in the focal animal’s group. It is surreal to spend the day gazing up at these primates, watching them groom each other or carefully climb to the tops of Traveler’s Palms for a sip of nectar. For the most part, black and white ruffed lemurs stay at least 10 meters above us in the trees. But occasionally they come a bit closer, sometimes hanging from their feet about 4 meters above us as if to study us. Although it’s a little difficult to photograph animals inhabiting the forest canopy, I am confident that the memories of lemurs leaping from tree to tree will be etched in my mind forever.

Who is this Strange Blonde Man?

I arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar a week ago, jetlagged after more than a full day of travel, but attempting to stay coherent as I navigated my way through customs and baggage claim. A bright orange vest and a sign with my name on it told me I had found the MBP driver amongst a crowd waiting outside the airport doors. Signs for National Geographic and World Wildlife Fund caught my eye as well. After introducing himself as Jean Pierre, he led me back into the airport to exchange money and purchase a SIM card, and back out again to find a black Volkswagen bug with the MBP logo on the side. The drive into Antananarivo gave me my first glimpses of the country, though at 1 in the morning, there were more stray dogs than people wandering the town. Though Jean Pierre was very kind, attempts at conversation were short, as I don’t know any French and only know basic phrases and words in Malagasy. After we arrived at the hotel, Jean Pierre helped me check in, and I bid him farewell. Although roosters were already crowing at 3am when I had finally settled in, a large mattress about a foot and a half off the floor welcomed me into a deep sleep.

The next couple of days were spent sleeping, learning new Malagasy words, getting to know the other three volunteers, and eating delicious food prepared in the hotel’s restaurant. Rice dominated most of the vegetarian meals, but vegetables added savory flavors. The most expensive meal I had cost 7,000 Ariary, the equivalent of about $2.25. Watching the town’s activity from my balcony or the roof helped keep us entertained. The third and last full day in Antananarivo began with a morning shopping trip to purchase cheap phones for a couple of the volunteers and electrical adapters for all of us. Traffic in the city was unlike anything I had experienced, with constant honking and weaving around the foot traffic, bicycles, and mopeds on either side of the road.

When we returned, a palace on the top of a nearby hill tempted us to go explore for the rest of the afternoon. We were met with an incredibly steep path winding up the hillside, with Malagasy people on the sidelines talking in small groups, tending the tiny shops along the path, or watching the kids playing on the path. At first, it looked like the small children sliding down the stony path were seated on small skateboards. But as they were propelled toward us, we saw that they were riding on thin wooden boards. Some of the tiniest in the group tumbled off their boards after a few feet, while some of the older kids had mastered the technique needed to whizz down long stretches of the path, yelling “beep beep” at us as they flew past. As we traveled up the curvy hillside, eyes followed us the entire time. If we nodded and said hello (Salama), the adults and teenagers would smile and repeat the greeting. The youngest children just stared, wide eyed. A few of the older kids and adults delighted in having short conversations with us in Malagasy. Sometimes, people would greet us in French, at which I looked baffled and would respond with a Malagasy greeting, equally baffling whoever had greeted me. As we greeted and occasionally had short conversations with people while walking up the path, I wondered how often they encounter people like me. I am tall, white, blonde haired, blue eyed, and I speak more Malagasy than French. I can imagine this is a strange concept for many people in Madagascar.

At the palace, we were directed toward a guide that spoke excellent English and, after finding out we were here for lemur research, interspersed our tour with lemur facts that none of us were familiar with. The stories of the kings and queens who had ruled on the hilltop seemed almost make-believe. The most interesting story was of the first king and his twelve wives. They inhabited the first “palace”, which looked like a colonial hut. When guests had come to the palace, he hid in the rafters, listening to the conversations they had with his wives. If he decided they were not welcome, he would drop a stone on the head of one of his wives and they would dismiss the guests and tell them never to return. If the wife did not feel the drop of a stone, she would invite the guests to explore the palace complex and the king would climb down and be seated in the palace when they returned. Another fascinating story was the construction of the largest palace on the complex, pictured on the right. It was originally built from wood, but during the rule of one of the last queens, stone was used to build around it to symbolize the country’s conversion to Christianity. Because concrete was not available during this time, the stones were held together by a mixture of egg whites crushed sea shells, and other crushed stones. Luckily, eggs were plentiful, because only recently has the Malagasy culture accepted eggs as part of their diet.

The following morning, we were awake at 5am to eat breakfast and prepare for the 12-hour journey to Kianjavato, the field station where we will be spending the next 10 weeks. We pile into a large van, and quickly leave the city behind. About an hour and a half into the drive, American music like Shakira, Nicki Minaj, and DJ Khalid fade into static, prompting the driver to  insert a Malagasy tape that plays on a loop for the rest of the day. Mountainous roads with constant switch backs induce motion sickness in most of us, at least once during the drive. But there is constantly activity on the roads or hillsides, and my neck quickly becomes sore from looking from right to left, trying to absorb as much as I can. Near villages, the streets were overtaken by carts filled with hay or bricks pulled by zebu, bicyclists, woman balancing baskets on their heads, and men or boys pushing small wooden carts filled with supplies uphill or riding them downhill like wooden go carts. Vehicles weaved past, honking to alert travelers of their upcoming presence. The villages built along the road turn from brick, to clay, to wood as we distanced ourselves from the capitol. But, reds and browns were the predominate hues of the surrounding mountains until the last few hours of the journey, when the landscape finally turned green. We passed through Ranomafana National Park and numerous tiny villages before finally arriving in Kianjavato, where we were greeted with the current volunteers and a meal consisting, of course, of rice and vegetables.

Why Madagascar?

Manao ahoana (good afternoon)! In 36 hours, I will be in Madagascar, an island on the southeastern coast of Africa. I have been in a whirlwind of preparations; packing 90 pounds of luggage (mostly cliff bars) for my three months there, learning as much Malagasy (the language of Madagascar) as I can fit in my brain, and mentally preparing for living in a tent for three months.

What is so special about Madagascar?

Madagascar is a country with extraordinary biodiversity, prompting many scientists to refer to it as the eighth continent. Madagascar supports an extremely high level of endemic plant and animal life, meaning that most of the flora and fauna of this island, approximately 90%, is not found anywhere else in the world. The “flagship” endemic mammal species of Madagascar is the lemur. Lemurs are some of the most primitive species alive today and evolved on the island with very few predators or competitors. Once humans began arriving on Madagascar, lemur species were hunted for meat, and many lemur species, some as big as apes, began going extinct. Today, 90% of lemur species are on the endangered species list, with 20% listed as critically endangered. They are hunted for the bush meat trade and the exotic pet trade, and are quickly losing their habitats in the wild. It is estimated that Madagascar has lost 80-90% of their forests and rainforests to slash and burn agriculture and human development since humans arrived on the island. This has put all of Madagascar’s biodiversity in danger, not just lemurs. The people of Madagascar can hardly be blamed, as they are doing anything they can to survive and provide for their families. The average citizen of Madagascar earns less than $1 US per day, with over 70% of the population living beneath the world poverty line.

Why am I going?

I am traveling to Madagascar as a volunteer field research assistant for a lemur population monitoring project. I will be working in Kianjavato, in a forest fragment containing an array of critically endangered species. The Omaha Zoo and Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) have paired up in their efforts to protect this forest fragment and the species within. Cohorts of volunteers come from around the world every three months to monitor the Black and White Ruffed Lemurs and Greater Bamboo Lemurs that reside in the forest. These two species are critically endangered, making it crucial to monitor their populations to ensure these species continue to survive. The data collected from following family groups throughout the day is also used for research aimed at discovering how habitat fragmentation effects lemur populations and how conservationists can most effectively support these species. Kianjavato is also home to eight nurseries, tended to by locals and volunteers, which have resulted in 1 million trees planted in the last five years. Reforestation efforts are a necessity for connecting forest fragments, allowing population movement and increased genetic diversity. Although following lemur populations and reforesting barren landscapes is critical, engaging and educating the people of Madagascar is perhaps the most important aspect of the conservation efforts in Kianjavato. The Omaha Zoo and MBP have developed a Conservation Credit Rewards program, allowing locals to earn points by helping with reforestation events. These points can be collected and used to purchase sustainable, green items such as rocket stoves, solar kits, sewing machines, bicycles, and other necessities. Helping communities become more sustainable, while instilling the value of conservation is incredibly important for the long-term success of any conservation efforts in poverty stricken countries. It is especially important for communities across the country to learn about the importance of biodiversity, because as ecotourism grows in popularity, the economy in Madagascar will see the benefits. It is in the best interest for both types of primates, humans and lemurs, on Madagascar that the remaining populations of lemurs do not disappear.

If you would like to support the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership and the work that we are doing in Kianjavato, click here to donate and choose Madagascar Biodiversity Project in the designation drop down. Misaotra (thank you)!