Category Archives: Ventures

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)!


Reflections from Wolf Park

My summer at Wolf Park came to a close a couple weeks ago, and I am already missing the two legged and four legged residents of the park. The internship was a whirlwind of once in a lifetime experiences, ranging from seeing dental surgery performed on a fox, to forming relationships with wolf pups as they grew into adolescents.  Everything was much more hands on than I expected from an internship with apex predators. Interns were tasked with most aspects of husbandry, such as butchering road kill, feeding and medicating animals, training wolves and coyotes through the fence, and free training foxes.

The big news of the spring for Wolf Park was the arrival of five wolf pups, the first pups the park had raised in five years. Because wolves are naturally neophobic (scared of new things), the socialization process of the pups is an intensive 3,000+ hour project. The pups need to learn at an early age that wheelchairs, golf carts, crowds, and loud children will not harm them, and are a part of a typical day at Wolf Park. Because the wolves are used for research and educational purposes, and will never be placed in the wild, it is important for them to experience as little stress as possible around crowds, vehicles, and strange noises. They would naturally be afraid of these things if not for the training and desensitization protocols that are in place. Interns assisted in the socialization process by scheduled “puppy help” shifts throughout the summer, as well as assisting with their training and desensitization as the summer progressed. We watched the puppies grow from about 10 pounds at the beginning of the summer, to 50-60 pounds by August.

Because of the immense amount of time spent near or with the animals, it was easy to develop close relationships with many of the animals within the span of a few months, making it very hard to leave. Fiona, a black phase 5-year-old female, is a good example of this. I didn’t meet her face to face until about halfway through my internship because she didn’t always like making new friends. However, the moment she met me, she licked all over my face (mostly in my mouth) and began to scent roll and crawl on me. And each time she interacted with me after that, she did the same thing. In my last visit with her before I left, she had barely greeted me before she flopped on the ground and presented her belly for scratches, something that most adults won’t do unless they are very comfortable with a person.  Khewa is another example of the relationships I formed at the park.  She was one of the puppies, and was less than 10 pounds when I first met her. After a couple of interactions with her at the beginning of the summer, she began using me as a comfort person when she was frightened. And any time I entered the enclosure, she would make her way to me as quickly as she could and flop on her back for scratches. The close bonds I formed with Fiona and Khewa made my internship incredibly special.  And between these relationships and the vast amount of knowledge imparted to me from staff and volunteers, I left Wolf Park with a lifechanging new perspective on canine conservation.

First Month at Wolf Park

The first month of my internship at Wolf Park has already flown by.  Living on site and being surrounded by adult wolves and wolf puppies every day is a refreshing break from the real world.  Each staff member, intern, and volunteer come from distinctly diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, but we are all united by our love for wolves, conservation, and research.  Between phone problems, poor service, and slow wifi, I have been a little cut off from the rest of the world, but it is small price to pay for living around wolves.

Wolf Park is a nonprofit education, research, and conservation facility that raises and trains socialized wolves.  Captive wolves need to be socialized to give them the best life they can possibly have.  Being trained and acclimated to strange and unfamiliar body handling allows them to receive any medical treatment that is necessary.  In the wild, a toothache or an infected cut could mean a death sentence, but if socialized, a captive wolf can receive the necessary treatments.  Having socialized animals also allows researchers to study the behavior and social interactions of wolves.  Because wild wolves have such a long flight distance (how close a human can get to a wild animal before it flees), humans rarely get the opportunity to study wolf behavior.  Typically, wild wolves are studied through the use of radio telemetry, high power binoculars, fecal samples, and tracks.  At Wolf Park, an ethogram, a catalog of behavior, has been compiled over the last 45 years for wolves.  This assists facilities with captive wolves by providing a better understanding of wolf behavior so they can better care for their wolves.  It also benefits researchers studying wild wolves who may not get close enough to observe their behavior.

Socialization simply means that the flight distance of a wild animal is reduced to zero.  That doesn’t necessarily mean an animal likes people or is friendly.  Most of the Wolf Park wolves, however, love people.  The animal care staff goes in several times a week to brush coats, apply fly repellent on ears, and do training and enrichment activities with the wolves.  Interns occasionally have the opportunity to join the staff on these visits, which has made every aspect of the internship worth it.  The park also has 5 wolf pups that have been getting 24/7 care and have been progressing on a highly developed training regimen.  Leash walking, learning basic behaviors, and crate training are all becoming second nature for the pups so that when they are older, they can easily be moved to different enclosures as well as receive medical attention if needed.  Starting training and exposing the pups to new stimuli while they are young also helps them adapt to and handle new stimuli later in life and results in lower likelihood of behavior problems arising when they are older.  Interns have had the opportunity to help with socializing and training the puppies, which is arguably the best part of our internship.  Being swarmed by excited wolf pups is an experience like no other.