Archive | September, 2011

Ranomafana National Park

20 Sep

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.

Children on home-made stilts.

Selling cooked cicada larvae by the road.

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.

The new Centre ValBio dorm building under construction.

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.

Ring-tailed mongoose

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.

Madagascar paradise flycatcher



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.

Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus)

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.

male red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer)

baby red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer)

gecko licking a cracker

Sam trying to kiss a large spider.

Leaf-tailed gecko. Can you spot it?

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.

Trying on the local handcrafts in the village of Ranomafana.

Swimming pool fed by hot springs.

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.

Performer in the Artists for the Environment group.

Dancer and musicians in the Artists for the Environment group.

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


A Fistful of Ariary

15 Sep

The arrival of Monday meant that offices were open and staffed and that I could finally begin taking care of business. I got an early start and walked down the road to the MICET office. I’m staying at the Hotel St. Laurent, which is well outside of the touristy city center. There really isn’t much to do nearby, but the hotel has one key perk: walking distance to MICET.

MICET stands for the Malagasy Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and is an NGO that facilitates environmental research in Madagascar. For a single fee (good for six months) they provide vehicles and drivers for within the city and traveling to field sites and, more importantly, they apply for and obtain research and export permits.

Before I arrived in Madagascar, MICET had already arranged for my research permit, allowing me to follow the lemurs and record their behavior, to collect plant samples from the forest, to collect lemur feces, and specifically NOT to capture animals.

One more thing MICET does is liase with local universities to arrange for my Malagasy student. There is a rule in Madagascar that every foreign research project must involve a local Masters student. As a researcher, you are supposed to give this student a side project of your research that they can use as their Masters thesis. You are also supposed to provide them with all of the equipment necessary for this research: tent, sleeping bag, binoculars, etc.

After I had arrived at the MICET office and taken care of paying their fee, I was told that my student and his advisor wanted me to meet with them at the University of Antananarivo. I hitched a ride with a MICET truck and headed up to the university.

At the university I met with my student, Vula, as well as his advisor who is the head of the primatology program, and the head of the paleontology and biological anthropology department. The four of us sat around a large desk in a room full of specimens. There were skulls from extinct lemurs and herbivorous crocodiles. There were bones from hippopotami. There were even some dinosaur skulls (sorry no mosquitos in amber)!



None of us spoke the same language fluently. Both professors spoke Malagasy, French, and very little English. Vula spoke Malagasy, some French, and more English than his superiors, but we still managed to max this out. And I spoke English, some French from high school (thank you Monsieur Lord), and a handful of words in Malagasy. Our conversation was anything but smooth as we had to continually stop and try to translate a word or phrase with our often incompatible language sets.

The department head explained the importance of the partnership between Malagasy researchers and those from abroad. He showed me a poster with all of their partner universities around the world, including Japan, France, the US, and Canada. Apparently the national research budget in Madagascar is $0. So this means that the universities get no money from the government to conduct research. The resources that I am providing for Vula to do his research are the only way he would be able to get his masters degree. We negotiated Vula’s per diem rate, since I am also obligated to pay him and cover his food and shelter costs. The department head also stressed how little equipment they had and urged me at the end of my trip to donate anything I could for the future use of students. He also asked me to give a research presentation to the graduate students in the department when I come back to Tana in February.

After the university, I ran some errands around town. I picked up a couple liters of ethanol for preserving my fecal samples, but more importantly I needed to change more money into Ariary. The MICET fee and shopping had greatly depleted my initial stash of Ariary, so I headed to a currency exchange to replenish. I walked in with a pocket full of Euros and walked out with a fistful of Ariary. Actually, it was closer to a sac full of Ariary as I was now a septamillionaire.

A trip back to MICET saw my fortunes once again wane as I paid the Madagascar National Parks fee for me, my field assistant, and my Malagasy student. I also had to pay a large “lab fee” to Vula’s department. I’m not exactly sure what this fee covers, but I’ve been told it is used to cover general departmental expenses as well as to fund masters students who are not paired up with a foreign researcher. And lastly, I had to pay another large fee for Vula’s thesis printing at the end of his degree.

So in one day I saw my wallet shrink, the swell, then skrink again. Thankfully most of the large one-time fees are now taken care of and I mostly have the transport, daily living expenses, and food costs remaining.

Supermarket Sweep

13 Sep

Sunday was shopping day. Determined to make some progress on my list of things to do before departing Tana, the biggest task available for a Sunday was to go shopping. After a simple breakfast of baguette, butter, jam, coffee, and strawberry juice (freshly squeezed and a different flavor each day), I had a driver from MICET pick me up at my hotel.

MICET is a Malagasy NGO that helps facilitate researchers from abroad while working in Madagascar, but more on them later.

I jumped up into the van next to my driver Glod, the same guy who picked me up from the airport, and we headed off to the magical JumboScore. Equivalent in size and stock to a Walmart, JumboScore is a one-stop shop for nearly everything I needed to buy. I entered armed with a shopping list and a belly full of coffee and staggered out two hours later with an overflowing shopping cart and an empty wallet.

These are just a few of the things I bought there:

Toilet paper


Tomato paste concentrate

Laughing Cow cheese


Chocolate bars


Soybean oil

White vinegar

Soy sauce

Iodized salt

Ground black pepper

Ground cumin

Ground coriander

Ground masala

Powdered milk



Shaving cream

Laundry detergent

Large, wide basins for laundry

Buckets with handles


A clothesline


Rubber bands

Aluminum foil

A bocce ball set

and so much more…

I had originally planned to purchase much more, but I ran into a slight snag at checkout. With all of my items scanned throughthe register, my total bill was about 100,000Ar (about $50) over the amount of cash on me. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the manager and cashier. In one synchronized look they said, “Silly vazaha (foreigner)!” I can’t say I blame them.

So I started frantically bailing items out of my shopping cart, trying to reduce my total to the amount of cash on my person. Out went the canned tuna, out went the alcohol (sob), out went the water and the sugar. Thankfully I was clever in only removing items I could purchase elsewhere or that weren’t completely necessary.

Before I knew it, my total was down to where I could pay it. I emptied my pockets onto the conveyor belt and took my cart full of supplies and headed for the door. Glod and I loaded the van and I exhaled with a sigh of relief as i slunk into the passenger seat, happy that my shopping fiasco was finally over.

My first day in Tana

10 Sep

This morning, when I opened my fourth-floor window and leaned out onto the balcony, I was greeted by the sights, sounds, and smells of Antananarivo. The smells were of burning wood and 100% pure, unfiltered automotive exhaust tempered with a rolling breeze carrying much fresher air. The sights were of children running around wherever there is space, making do with nothing more than sticks and other detritus for toys, of women with mammoth piles of laundry, with their dozens of shirts and pairs of pants laid out to dry on the ground appearing as a multicolored tapestry from above, and of women and men walking down the edges of the street with stiff necks and impossibly-large bundles atop their heads, trying to maintain their progress while dodging the violent torrent of mechanical traffic zooming past at breakneck speeds.


I requested a room on the back side of the hotel since my previous stay here two years in a front-side room had been a bit raucous. The hotel has frontage on a busy traffic circle and beginning around 5am there is quite the scene going on all around the circle, with little beige taxis whipping around the edges of the circle, a dozen taxi-be’s (local buses) lining up with their conductors shouting out their destinations, and just for good measure one or two policemen trying to direct traffic and keep things moving with nothing besides their industrial-grade whistles and their powerful lungs. So, as you might imagine, the noise from just beyond the window and my significant jet-lag made it a tough first few nights the last time I was here.

With this memory at the front of my mind, I made the wise decision to request a room as far from the traffic circle as possible and I have not regretted my decision one bit. And so the sounds of my morning consisted of a general din of activity effectively insulated by my thin-glassed window.

Having arrived just in time for the weekend, most of my business here in Tana will have to wait until Monday. So I have a few days to wander the city and acclimate before the real work begins.

I decided to head to the heart of the city: Analakely and Isoraka. These adjacent neighborhoods contain the main market, the upscale touristy hotels, and the old train station.


Not one to take a taxi when a more proletarian mode of transportation is available, I boarded the taxi-be number 129 and headed off into the city. Public transportation in Madagascar makes up for what it lacks in safety with their stellar passenger capacity efficiency. A vehicle that the manufacturer might suggest could hold 15 people commonly contains upwards of 20 people. Thankfully the taxi-be was already mostly full when I boarded, so I took the front seat by the door that the conductor had occupied and wasn’t jammed into the middle of a back row.

To help you understand what a taxi-be is, take a large van with a bench seat up front and three to four rows behind that. The main cabin has a single sliding door along the right and an aisle on the right to allow access to the rear rows. No seatbelts and no assigned seats. Instead, everyone crams in as tightly as possible. There are even fold down seats for the aisle, stretching each bench from wall to wall when the van’s in motion.

So I was now sitting in the fold-down seat of the second row, with the conductor squeezed between my knees and facing me as we navigated potholes and pedestrians. The flat fare for taxi-be’s in the city is 300 Ariary (Ar) The current exchange rate is about 2000Ar for every US dollar and about 2800Ar for every euro. So my exciting ride cost me only 15 cents US or 10 cents EUR. The conductor makes change as we drive, with passengers passing money forward and change backwards. Taxi-be’s are staffed by a two-man team: one driving and one collecting passengers and their fares. I’m calling this latter person the conductor for lack of a better title.

Fifteen minutes and five stops later I arrived in Analakely, along the road behind the central market. I spent the afternoon walking around, taking in the sights and remembering my way around. I experienced another wave of nostalgia as I realized that I still had a fully intact mental map of this area. I knew where the supermarket was to buy some bottled water, where a great pizza shop was, and three different ways to get up the hill to Isoraka and the fancy Hotel Colbert. No relation to the TV-host Stephen Colbert, as far as I know, the Hotel Colbert is the only four-star hotel in town an has a Paris-quality bakery and pastry shop in front.

Resisting the urge to indulge my sweet tooth so soon into my trip, I kept walking and was constantly accosted by locals selling handicrafts, wooden instruments, sunglasses, newspapers in multiple languages, and of course vanilla beans by the handful. These sellers, with their wares in their hands, would follow me for blocks, not even blinking when I repeatedly say “no” in every language I know. Eventually they see that I won’t fold and peel off to find another victim, I mean customer.

I took a greatly-needed coffee break mid-afternoon and sipped on some tasty Italian espresso while sitting comfortably on some plastic lawn furniture on the patio of a cafe with a nice view of the park next door. Having recharged, I took another lap around the area, going down and eventually back up the hill for the third time today.

As dinner time approached, I sought out my favorite Tana restaurant from last time, Chez Suzette’s. They specialize in creole food, but last time I had a duck breast with a Madagascar bourbon vanilla sauce that was absolutely divine (especially after three months of rice and beans). As I approached Chez Suzette’s, I got a bad feeling as there was a heavy gate chained closed before their door. I suppose the duck with vanilla will have to wait for another time.

Just down and across the street my backup plan awaited (as a great friend once told me “always have a backup plan”). Indigo is another recommended restaurant and tonight they were having some sort of Spanish celebration with a large private party expected. Though I wasn’t able to join the private party, I could still benefit from the Spanish-themed specials, particularly the sangria. Yum!


After a $7.5 dinner of a huge, delicious medium-raw tuna steak, rice, and veggies, I took a quick taxi back to my hotel (for safety reasons at night). As soon as I entered the hotel lobby, I heard a familiar sound, English. Now it is immediately apparent that these are no Brits or Kiwis or Aussies, but fellow Americans.

I spent some time with them, drinking beers on the roof of the hotel and got their story. As opposed to my original supposition that they were here for tourism, they are all enrolled in a 12-week field biology course through SUNY Stony Brook run by Pat Wright. These undergrads are budding scientists and it was great to see their excitement as they embark on the adventure that is field work. I gave them as much adivce as I could (especially to the ones considering grad school), but I’m sure they’ll have the experience of a lifetime!

















If I were a rich man…

10 Sep

This is what it looks like to be a millionaire in Madagascar. It’s my first time and hopefully not my last.


Initial Reflections

10 Sep

I’m at 30,000 feet, somewhere over the western edge of the Indian ocean. There’s something strangely anonymous and displaced about the inside of a wide-bodied jet. Unless you have a window seat, you really have no reference point to tell you where you are. You could be soaring through the air anywhere in the world and it would all feel the same inside the plane. Maybe this is because I’ve been doing a lot of long trans-Atlantic flights since moving to Vienna, but I think there’s something more to it than that. I’ve especially noticed it on these long flights that there’s a particular air of camaraderie among the passengers. A feeling that we are all in this together and that none of us have any control over the next few hours, so we had best stick together and try to make this as enjoyable as possible.

Things went smoothly enough at check-in in Vienna. My one-hour layover in Paris was more of a close call. Of course my incoming and outgoing flights from Charles DeGaulle airport were several terminals apart and this means exiting the gating area, transversing a few miles of airport halls, and then having to go through customs and re-screen at security. Some airports have a really nice setup where it’s feasible to transfer terminals from behind the curtain of the security checkpoints. Alas, Paris is not one of these. I made it to my gate just in the nick of time to board my flght down to Madagascar.

It’s amazing how 11 hours in this seat makes me a bit reflective. Actually, maybe that isn’t so surprising. In either case, here are my initial thoughts on this trip to Madagascar that is finally beginning. I say finally, because I have been seriously planning for this journey for the past year. It surprises me every time that I realize that it’s finally here. For weeks now my emotions have ricocheted back and forth between excitement and anxiety. Yesterday, with the last of my laboratory supplies arriving in the nick of time, i swung back towards the excitement end of the spectrum.

One of my biggest concerns was what to bring with me. My field site is so remote that the only things I’ll be able to purchase locally are rice and seasonal vegetables at the weekly market. So I’ve made lists and lists of everything I could possibly need while at Beza. Once I had my list of things to bring, the question turned to quantity. Let’s use an example to illustrate this point. How much contact solution do you think you’ll need for six months? Two bottles? Three? Four? It’s been tricky to find the right balance between not running out of a vital supply and overpacking and incurring crazy overweight baggage charges.

So now that I’ve arrived we’ll see just how well I have prepared for this trip. One thing for certain about field work is that things go wrong and you run into unexpected hurdles. The adventure is finding a way to solve these problems as they arise.

Driving to my hotel at midnight, zooming down the empty streets, it’s incredible how much I recognize and how much I’ve forgotten. Thinking of it brings a smile to my face and I have to say it’s nice to be back!

Where you can find me.

8 Sep

I was talking to some friends today and trying to show them what my life would be like at my field site: Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve.  I pulled up this google earth map and can actually pinpoint the tree I’ll be camping under.  If you’re in the area, feel free to drop by.

Setback #1

6 Sep

So it’s Tuesday, September 6 and I’m writing from Vienna. I should have been in Madagascar for the past few days, but I’ve run into some delays.


The problems started a few weeks ago when I was leaving the US to come back to Vienna. I had sent my passport to the Madagascar Embassy in Washington DC to obtain my special long-term visa. After a few days of processing, they mailed my passport containing the visa back to me. I waited for a week with no sign of their package and I realized that my passport was lost in the mail and was not going to show up.


No passport meant no boarding my flight to Vienna, so I changed my flight and spent the next week obtaining a new passport. So, only a week after I had originally planned, I finally made it back to Vienna to finish preparations for my half-a-year in the bush.


Now for those astute readers out there, you’ll pick up on one very important detail: I once again have a passport in hand, but this passport has no Madagascar visa within. So with a few week left before departure I had to reapply for a visa with the nearest Madagascar embassy in Berlin.


Having sent all of the same application materials to the Berlin embassy as I had to successfully receive a visa from the Washington DC embassy, I assumed that there would be no problem in issuing the new visa. I assumed wrong, very wrong. It was bad enough that I needed to reapply and that they couldn’t reissue the visa I had already been granted, but now they never seemed happy with my documents. Once they received my application, they informed me that I also needed a criminal record check and proof of health insurance. With the days rapidly ticking away until my trans-equatorial flight, I spent the day running around Vienna gathering up these documents for them. Once they got these docs, they wanted even more from me: proof of my funding for my Madagascar  research.


With all of these delays in processing my new visa application, my passport was still with the embassy in Berlin when I was supposed to be boarding a plane to Madagascar. So once again, I delayed my flight a week to get everything in order.


I now have my passport and new visa in hand and I’m all packed and ready to leave this Friday. Wish me a good flight and the next update will be from the capitol of Madagascar, Antananarivo (or Tana for short).

%d bloggers like this: