I was all ready to head down to my field site and start my research except for one thing, my assistant had not yet arrived in Madagascar and would not be here for almost another week. Having accomplished all of my work-related preparations, I had nothing left to keep me busy in Tana. I had already been to most of the touristy places around town, so with six days to wait, I decided my time would be best spent seeing lemurs. After all, that is why I came to this beautiful island nation.
I was considering several national parks within a day’s drive of Tana when the decision was made much easier for me. Rachel, another American graduate student, arrived at my hotel in Tana one day before. She was heading down the following morning to her field site at Ranomafana National Park. She had a truck ready to take her and her eight big bags of gear south and there was room for me to catch a free ride too.
The journey took about 10 hours and brought back many memories of the last time I drove south out of Tana. Along the way we saw some kids having fun on some homemade stilts and a barrage of people selling plates full of cooked cicada larvae. We arrived that night and setup camp at the research station. Ranomafana was established as a national park about thirty years ago by Dr. Pat Wright. While doing research in the area, Pat found a new population of golden bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur aureus) and rediscovered a long-lost population of greater bamboo lemurs (Prolemur simus) that had not been seem in the area for some three hundred years. It was largely the discovery of these rare lemurs that instigated the government to designate the area a protected park.
Since Pat’s early days at Ranomafana, the research station has changed quite a bit. What was originally tent camping in the middle of the forest and eventually a small research cabin is now a thriving, growing world-class research station. They currently have a three-story building with a kitchen, dining hall where they serve three-course meals, offices, computer lab, laboratory space, and three bathrooms with flush toilets and showers with hot water. Compared to a lot of research sites, this is super cushy. And as if that wasn’t enough, they are currently in the final phases of constructing a new four-story dormitory building able to house over fifty people and with a large multipurpose conference room and a clean lab and a wet lab. This extremely green, partially glass-clad building with a living roof is going to be spectacular! I’ll admit that I’m jealous of the resources they have there, but it really is a testament to Pat’s perseverance and dedication over the decades at developing Ranomafana as a leading research site.
I had planned to find a hotel to stay at upon arrival, but we got in so late to the research station, Centre ValBio, that I just slept on the floor in the dining room that first night. The station manager was kind enough to let me stay there for the rest of the week and get the researcher’s rate for food and accommodation. This meant that I got to spend the next three and a half days at the research station, hanging out with the resident researchers and the SUNY study abroad students that I had met earlier in Tana.
During the first day I went into the forest with Rachel and her Malagasy student looking for lemurs. Unfortunately we didn’t find any lemurs, but we did see a ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans, related to weasels and ferrets). This initial hike also gave me a feel for what working in Ranomafana must be like. As opposed to my site much farther to the south and west, Ranomafana is nestled in the eastern mountainous rainforest belt of Madagascar. Our hike took us up and down steep slopes. I had to always keep a hand on any tree thicker than my wrist so that I could catch myself if I started to slip down the slope.
Early the next morning, I tagged along with the study abroad group to go bird watching in a nearby patch of forest. The guide, who does research on the local birds, had set up some mist nets designed to catch birds that foolishly fly into them and get caught. The researcher can then measure and mark the birds with leg bands before releasing them back to the trees. Our mist nets caught a Madagascar paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata) and the guide showed us how he puts the colored bands on the bird’s leg. On the way back from the birdwatching hike, we stopped along the road at a scenic waterfall and ventured into a small cave to see its bats sleeping through the day.
Centre ValBio is run in collaboration with ICTE (for conserving tropical environments) at SUNY Stony Brook. ICTE is the American side of the same organization as MICET in Madagascar. That afternoon I tagged along with Pat Paladines who works at ICTE at Stony Brook and was visiting Madagascar for the first time. She was going with the ICTE education and outreach staff to visit one of the partner communities near Ranomafana that participate in their conservation club program.
We visited the village of Sahavondronina, about a twenty-five minute drive from Ranomafana. There we met with the members of that village’s conservation club, which happened to be mostly adults. They told us about their efforts to protect their local forest in hopes of one day soon turning it into a national park like Ranomafana. Seeing the increasing wealth of their neighbors down the road in Ranomafana village from the decades of researchers and ecotourists coming through has helped show the people of Sahavondronina that protecting their environment can be a sustainable and productive economic model. To this end, they have stopped harvesting trees and other resources from their community forest for over ten years now. They have received some support from the Italian government for their efforts and had this funding recently renewed for another few years after the Italians saw how well they had protected the forest and the at least five species of lemurs found there. Now that they have protected, pristine forest, the challenge is turning it into a park. That is where ICTE can help in providing training and tools to make this a reality. Some of the conservation club leaders had already journeyed to another park to talk to the locals and see how they made it happen.
As my last full day in Ranomafana rolled around I had still not seen any lemurs in the area. Determined to rectify this, I headed over to the park to hire myself a guide and see if we couldn’t find some lemurs. A handful of the study abroad students tagged along as they had the day off and were always excited to see more lemurs. After only fifteen minutes into the hike, we were rewarded with a lemur sighting. Just a few feet from the path and at about eye level was a beautiful male greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) munching away on some bamboo shoots. He stayed and ate for awhile and eventually decided to move off, but not before marking a tree with the scent glands and spurs on his wrists. This was the clue that told us he was male.
Farther into the forest, our guide spotted a group of red-bellied lemurs (Eulemur rubriventer). When we first arrived they were all balled up and resting (we call it a lemur ball). Eventually we saw a little tail hang down from the ball and we realized there was a baby there. As they started moving about and grooming, it was revealed that there were actually two babies there with a male and female adult pair. We couldn’t hold back the “oohs” and “aahs” as the babies played and climbed all over the male. Later on we also saw a small group of red-fronted lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons) but they were obscured by branches and sleeping very soundly. Besides lemurs, we also saw some crazy looking spiders, beautifully colored geckos, and a very cryptic leaf-tailed gecko.
Sunday afternoon, I went with the study abroad students to the town of Ranomafana for a very special event. ICTE and the Centre ValBio partnered with the US Embassy in Madagascar to sponsor a cultural performance. They had assembled Malagasy artists (musicians, dancers, performers, painters) into a group called Artists for the Environment. They had done several performances around the country and this was to be their last. Many important people from MICET and the US Embassy drove down from Tana just for this event.
Before the event started, I had some time to wander around the village of Ranomafana. The village is named after a naturally occurring hot spring there and literally means water (rano) hot (mafana). Before the creation of the national park, this hot spring was the main attraction and they have constructed a public concrete pool that is fed by the flowing warm waters.
When it was time for the event to begin, everyone in the village gathered at the cultural center. It began outside with a woman dressed up with facepaint and a colorful costume giving loud calls and chants. Then everyone proceeded inside and found a seat for the main attraction. There were a pair of male dancers moving forcefully and playing off of each other in a mix of modern dance and acrobatics. Providing background music were a drummer and a guitarist on the stage behind the dancers. After several awe-inspiring songs, they stepped down and a series of other musical acts came up. There was a small local band and then there was a group of children dressed in traditional garb doing a chant/dance. When the event was finally over, everyone dispersed and us scientists went back to Centre ValBio for dinner. We had an after-party with the musicians and dancers and gathered around a small campfire, with the rain lightly drizzling down, passing around a handful of beers, and having a generally good time.
The next day after lunch I said my goodbyes and wished all of the study abroad students an amazing time in Madagascar. From the looks of it, they were already having the time of their lives that I’m sure none of them would forget soon. I hopped into the truck with the guys from MICET who were heading back up to Tana and settled in for another ten hour windy yet scenic drive through the heart of Madagascar.
See more photos at https://picasaweb.google.com/ibeandy/RanomafanaNatLParkMadagascar?authuser=0&feat=directlink