Archive | November, 2011

A Day in the Life

27 Nov

Four weeks in and life has become a comforting routine. I follow the lemurs around the forest every Monday through Saturday, with Sunday as a day to stay in camp, relax, and do laundry. Here’s a walkthrough of a typical day with the lemurs…


— 5:10am —


My watch beeps shrilly to rouse me from my slumber. I sit up in bed, rub the sleep from my eyes, and mentally prepare for the day. I put on some warm clothes to guard against the chilly morning and unzip my tent to emerge into the tranquil dawn.


I stretch out my sore muscles and then take care of some early morning chores. I pull up three buckets of water from the well and give one to our slow, gravity-based water filter (essentially a huge 10-liter Brita filter) and give two buckets to my black plastic solar shower. I drop off the shower bag, sagging with its heavy burden, on a stretch of porch with maximum sun exposure, ensuring that the water inside will soak up as much solar radiation as possible and provide me with a warm shower later on.


— 5:30am —


Finished with my chores, I songa songa (“walk” in Malagasy) over to the main building for breakfast. There are three table settings arranged at the north end of the table and Joach, Vola, and I take our customary seats, bidding each other a good morning. I pull the single pot on the table closer, lift off the lid, and reveal a crock full of steaming watery rice. Near the consistency of a runny oatmeal, I mound the rice high on my plate, adding some sugar and honey or jam to add some flavor and make it part of this complete, balanced breakfast. I’m starving from my overnight fast, so I dig in on my pale breakfast porridge.


To wash down the rice, we make a sort of milk tea. You pour a tablespoon or two of powdered milk into a bowl, add sugar to taste, and pour scalding hot water over top. I wouldn’t call the reconstituted beverage ‘milk’; instead I think of it as ‘hot milk water’ (similar to Arrested Development’s hot ham water). Some days we splurge and have some horrible tasting coffee (due to the heavy mineral load in the water here), with our cook, Lala, grinding the beans herself.


The table is usually silent at first, save the odd slurp or scrape of spoon on plate. As the rice and milk tea warm us from inside, we discuss the plan for the day: which group we will be searching for, where we think we’ll find them, and what samples we need to collect.


Stacking up our empty dishes, we fill an empty pot with the raw ingredients for lunch: rice, beans, oil, garlic, onion, spices, and maybe some potato or carrot depending on our supply and leave it out for Lala to prepare later in the morning.


— 6:00am —


I head back to my tent and finish getting ready, sliding my feet into my well-worn boots, brushing my teeth, and applying some sunscreen to the few bits of skin left exposed to the elements. I open the vents on my tent, allowing fresh air to circulate all day and hopefully keep the contents from getting too hot at midday. I don my gear and feel the weight of every pound. I strap my large digital SLR camera, secure in a holster on a wide belt, about my waist. Then I sling a strap over one shoulder with my large binoculars dangling at its nadir at my right hip. I buckle my waistpack above the other belts. Though lightweight compared to my heavy optical gear, the waistpack contains many essential items: a handheld GPS unit, flagging tape for marking trees for later measurement, bags for collecting plant and fecal samples, a compass, a short ruler for providing a standard scale in photos of plants, extra batteries for the GPS, a portable battery pack for recharging iPads, a small folding camp stool, my data notebook, and one liter of water in my battered aluminum SIGG bottle.


Laden with gear, I grab my wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt as I make my way towards the front of camp. As I go, I stop by a small wooden box on a pole housing a digital thermometer and a rain meter. I notate the high and low temperatures and the rainfall for the past 24 hours and reset the meters. Meeting up with the rest of my team by the front gate, we head off into the forest in search of lemurs.


— 6:30am —


As we leave camp, we come to a three-way fork in the road: forward up black trail and through the middle of Parcel 1, left towards the western side of the forest and the area south of the road where some groups range, or right towards the lush riverine eastern wing of the parcel. Our choice depends on which group we are seeking.


Of the three groups of maki (ring-tailed lemurs) and three groups of sifaka, I have intentionally chosen groups with home ranges across the east-west gradient of the forest, so that I can investigate any effects from the different microhabitats in which they live.


Today, we are looking for maki red group, which means that we turn right and head for the river. As we near red group’s territory, our pace slows and we walk stealthily, our eyes and ears scanning the treetops all around for any sign of lemurs.


We split up, each taking a parallel path cutting through the heart of their territory. Joach and Vola take blue east trail north as I continue over to green east trail. The paths form a reasonably standard grid, but the route of the road along the southern border of the parcel is a jagged sharkstooth. Similarly, the eastern border is the currently bone-dry Sakamena river, which arches down to slice off the southeast corner of the parcel. When I enter at green east, the river is very close.


I meander up the trail, checking the treetops for balls of grayish-brown fur nestled along the thick branches. This early in the morning, the lemurs are usually still up in the treetops, where they can sleep soundly, safely out of the reach of any terrestrial predators.


Every few meters I stop moving and silently gaze all around me, listening to the sounds of the forest. I hear the calls of many birds, chirping in the morning air. There’s the wind blowing through the tall trees, causing their crowns to sway back and forth. The trees make their own noise as well, as the wind causes one tree’s branches to scrape against those of another, weaving their woody fingers together for a moment before pulling them back apart. What I want to hear is the rustle of a single branch as a lemur leaps and lands on it or, if I’m really lucky, the call of a lemur mewing to the others in its group.


Hearing nothing to suggest lemurs, I continue onward, stopping frequently to silence my footfalls and scan the forest for activity. On the far side of red group’s range, the team converges. None of us have found our lemurs so we layout a new plan, this time with each of us walking an east-west trail.


— 7:00am —


I continue as before, spotting two groups of sifakas, but no maki. I’m nearing an intersection of trails when I hear a sound in the trees behind my right shoulder. I freeze immediately, listening to see if the noise will be repeated, slowly swiveling my head in the direction of the disturbance. I hear it again, that distinctive rattle of branches from a landing lemur, and this time I see the tree as it’s still quaking.


I turn off of the trail and bushwhack through the undergrowth. I weave left and right as I try to pick out the most unobstructed path. As I near the tree, I snatch my binoculars from their spot at my hip and gaze up into the tree’s canopy. It doesn’t take long until I spot one patch of fur, then another. These are definitely maki, but the question remains of whether or not they are red group.


A few minutes later, one of the lemurs walks along a high branch. As it moves, the round yellow dog-tag dangles from its bright red collar. The image is magnified greatly in my binoculars, but still it is difficult to make out the tag’s numbers with the lemur twenty meters (about 65 feet) up. Eventually I get a good look and read the tag numbers, 347.


That’s confirms it; this is red group. With the search over, I call my team over with a loud “HOOOOOO. HOOOOOO.” My call rings out through the brightening forest, with the double hoot carrying the message that I’ve found the group we’re searching for. Joach and Vola hoot back once to confirm they’ve got the message. As they start to zero in on our location, I survey the group and start identifying where all of the lemurs are lurking.


— 7:30am —


Now that we have the team and the lemurs assembled in one place, we can get down to business. Joach and Vola each pull out an iPad and start to record behavioral data on one of our focal animals. In the meantime, I record the group activity and get out the GPS unit to get an exact location of where we are.


There are two types of data and two types of samples that I am collecting in the forest. The first (and most time intensive) type of data is the focal activity. We choose 3-4 animals in each of our groups and record their activity whenever we are watching the group. These chosen few are our focal animals. One of us watches a focal animal for ten minutes, recording everything the animal does and when they do it. We record all sorts of behaviors from resting to moving to grooming, but we largely focus on diet-related activities, such as eating, foraging, sniffing, and licking. If the focal eats something, we record what the plant species is and which part of the plant they’re eating (leaves, fruit, flowers, etc.), as well as how many bites of food they consume and the location of the lemur in the tree.


The traditional way to record this type of data is with a pen and paper: simple, inexpensive, and proven. The main drawback from this approach is that you later have to sit down and digitize all of that handwritten data, entering each activity, bit by bit. This can be extremely time consuming and dangerously error prone.


I have decided to avoid these drawbacks by digitizing my data in real time as I collect it. Using an iPad and a touch-optimized spreadsheet application, it is easy and fast to enter the focal’s behavior on the spot. At the end of the day, I download the data to my laptop and voila, I have digitized data.


I only have two iPads with me, so I have assigned Joach and Vola to collect the focal activity data, while I take care of everything else. I collect the second type of data: group activity. Every fifteen minutes, I record the location and general activity of the group. For the location, I indicate the nearest trails, as well as the GPS coordinates of the group. Later, I can map out these locations and see the daily path and range of each group.


I am also collecting plant samples for later analysis back in the lab in Vienna. I collect a sample of every plant we record them eating. If they eat the mature leave and the unripe fruit from the same tree species, then I collect both of these. Sometimes collecting plant samples is really easy, as the food item of interest is well within my reach, but other times it is not so simple. Some of the foods they eat are only found at the tops of big, tall trees. I’m not about to try and climb 20-meters into the canopy, so I am left to scavenge on the ground for any food the lemurs might have dropped. Thankfully, these lemurs are really messy eaters, dropping half-eaten food with every other bite.


And finally, the last type of sample that I collect is poop from our focal animals. My entire team is on the lookout, in case one of our focal animals should be seen defecating. They shout “Focal poop!” and I come running. I’m interested in studying the lemurs’ gut bacteria as measured in their feces, so it’s important that I collect and preserve the fecal samples as soon as possible to keep these bacterial populations from changing or becoming contaminated.


Crouching down in the area that the lemur did its business, I scan back and forth among the leaf litter blanketing the ground. I spot one pellet of poop, and then another, and then a large cluster of pieces. I gather the bits into a little aluminum foil pouch and fold up the edges to keep the feces from leaking out.


— 8:30am —


After about an hour of watching red group break their fast, foraging among the tall trees near the river, they start to move west across their territory. They move fast, leaping between the treetops and scurrying along the thick lateral branches. We struggle to keep pace and not lose track of the lemurs as we push through the undergrowth.


The habitat in this region of Madagascar is aptly called a spiny forest. There are easily a dozen different plants in this forest with all manner of spines, thorns, and needles. These weaponized trees and vines each have their own nasty skin-tearing effects. Azima has shoulder-height needles with firm, sharp tips. As you brush by the plant, the needles stab into you and break off from the plant. Acacia trees have thick woods thorns all along their branches. And then there are the vines. Sticking out to catch your legs, the thorns on these vines are concave, so that as you push by, they dig into you deeper and deeper. Unlike Azima, these thorns don’t detach but ensnarl your leg, their deep roots keeping you from plucking the entire plant from the ground. The only course of action to disentanglement is to take a step backwards and spin away from the vine, the thorns painfully ripping themselves free.


As we run through the forest, eyes upward as we track the lemurs, it is not a question of if we will be stabbed and scratched by these sharp plants, but when.


— 12:00pm —


Lunchtime has arrived and not a moment too soon as my grumbling belly reminds me how ravenous I am. Lunch will only take an hour, but we don’t want to lose the group while we are gone, so someone always stays with the group, while the other two hurry back to camp for lunch.


Today is my turn to stay with the group, so I suppress my hunger, take an iPad from one of the guys and send them off to get their grub. Today is a normal day, which means a long midday siesta for the lemurs. It’s easy to collect both focal and group activity data when the lemurs are just resting and sleeping and not switching places too often.


— 1:00pm —


Before I realize it, I hear the distinct trudging footfalls telling me that my team has returned from lunch. I give a sitrep (situation report), hand over my gear, and head back towards camp. Today, it’s only a 5-10 minute walk back, but some groups range so far that it can take nearly a half hour to walk back for lunch.


I turn into camp, drop by bags, refill my water, change into a dry shirt, and splash some water on my face. When I sit down at the table, there is only one place setting remaining. I scoop out the lumps of now cold rice onto my plate, cover it with the beans and their thickening juices and begin to wolf it down.


I’ve got my water with me, but there’s another beverage set on the table, ranopangu. I pour myself a bowl of the now lukewarm liquid and take a deep draft. When you cook rice, there is often a layer of slightly burned grains on the bottom of the pot. This leftover is called pangu. Ranopangu is made by adding more water to the pangu pot, and then heating and infusing this slightly burned rice flavor into the water. It sounds strange, I know, but it doesn’t take long to develop a true liking for the stuff.


My belly full, I strap on my bags and trek back out to red group, hoping that they haven’t moved since I left.


— 2:00pm —


The lemurs are still resting in the same tree as before. Occasionally, they find a more comfortable spot in the crook of some branches or take a minute to groom themselves, but otherwise it’s a group-wide napfest.


— 3:15pm —


Red group has finally begun to stir and start descending from the arboreal heights. They move along, in a single line, striped tails held high as they saunter to a patch of ground thickly blanketed in the bright green leaves of Metaporana, a vine. Once they start munching, they keep at it, shoving leaf after leaf into their pointed little mouths. Only occasionally do they stop to chew and swallow, all the while looking around for their next bite.


The rest of the afternoon is alternating periods of sleeping and eating. The heat of midday has only slightly worn off and nothing makes a lemur sleep like a hot day.


— 5:30pm —


After a long day with the lemurs, we record our last bits of data and pack up for the day. We are currently thick in the bush, somewhere between the trails, so we pick a direction that we think will lead us quickest to a trail and start trekking. Emerging onto blue east trail, we head south towards the road that will take us back to camp.


— 6:00pm —


Exhausted and dirty, I exchange my gear for my solar shower, full of hot water and clean up for the evening.


— 6:30pm —


There’s still some time before dinner, so I go to the lab to start processing the samples I collected today. Joach joins me shortly thereafter and we chat and put on some music as we preserve today’s fecal samples in tubes of ethanol. We take the plant samples and press some of them. The other plant samples get a heavy pour of absorbent silica gel beads to their bags, so they will dry out quickly and prevent any mold or mildew from growing on my precious samples.


— 7:15pm —


The steady clanging of a handbell means dinner is served. We close up the lab and walk across camp. Meals here are no surprise, but the rice and beans are hearty and filling. Tonight we’ve also roasted a mammoth sweet potato. I bought half a sac of these baggeda (as they’re called here) from a local villager for just a few dollars and they are quite a delicious treat.


— 8:00pm —


Joach and I head back to the lab for one final task, data entry. Josh reads out the group activity data as I type it into the computer and we get to relive the day 15-minutes at a time.


— 8:30pm —


In no time, the computer data is entered and I wish Joach a good night as he heads back to his tent. I remain and work on some basic data analysis of the focal animal behavior to look for trends and changes since we last watched red group. This is one huge advantage to using the iPads and recording my data digitally, I can get instant feedback and analysis of that day’s data.


— 10:30pm —


Yawning more and more frequently, I finally close the computer and call it a night. Back at my tent, I take my daily dose of anti-malarial drugs, brush my teeth, and slide into my cozy sleeping bag. I try to read before bed, but within the first few pages my lids droop with the weight of sleep and I pass out. It won’t be long before my watch beeps and I’ll start this routine all over again.


Bring out yer dead!

27 Nov

Out first week at Beza had been going really well. We set up our tents, started purifying water to drink, and I began training my team in the data collection methods we would be using. I had shown Joach and Vola the forest and we were fortunate enough to see many groups of both maki (ring-tailed lemurs) and sifaka (the other lemur species I am studying). Even on our first day in camp, there was a large troop of lemurs that came through, emerging from the trees just beyond our tents and looking for water and food scraps.


One of the first things I had to do was to choose which lemurs we would study. The lemurs are dense in the forest here and I am only looking at ten animals of each species for my research project.


With the help of some of the local forest guides, Enafa and Elahavelu, I planned to survey the different groups around the reserve over the next few days. At lunch, I was informed that this would not be possible as the entire staff of Beza Mahafaly would be going to a nearby village the following day for a funeral. Unable to hire my guides and begin the pivotal first step of choosing focal groups, I decided it would be hard to get much work done and that we should go along with the staff and enjoy the cultural experience of a Malagasy funeral.


The local ethnic population has a very interesting ritual concerning death. When someone dies, they quietly inter the body in the ground without too much of a fuss. Months or years later, after the family has saved up enough money and the deceased has been reduced to little more than fleshless bones, the real funeral begins.


The bones are dug up from the earth and placed in a specially built annex adjacent to the family’s hut. They believe that it is best not to have any bad blood or leave any arguments unresolved with the dead and so people who knew the deceased in life can go clear the air by talking to the bones.


Outside of this bone shack, the rest of the funeral is not so solemn and contemplative. Outside, there is a party raging, with a live band, an impromptu market, freshly slaughtered goat meat, and enough beer and togogash to keep the guests well hydrated.


We walked over to the funeral in the nearby town of Mahazoarivo (pronounced Ma-ha-zo-reev) with a couple of the Beza guys, Mianditsoa and Fanameza. After about 30 minutes of walking north through the forest, we emerged through the thick canopy cover and the noise from the funeral blossomed. Cutting through the warm air were the sounds of a base drum beating rhythmically, the electric guitar and its high-pitched melody, and an occasional series of loud pops.


We crossed the river, met up with the rest of our Beza contingent, and entered the heart of the party with Munja (pronounced Moon-za) at our lead. The obligatory first step was to greet our hosts, in this case a large gathering of the men from this village. Arrayed in a semicircle under the shade of a huge tamarind tree, we sat down facing the men and Munja spoke with one of the village elders. He gave our condolences for their loss and handed over a large wad of cash, collected from all of us in the Beza group, worth over $50 USD. This money would help cover the costs of our food and the entertainment we were about to enjoy.


Having paid our entry fee and been warmly welcomed, a pair of large woven straw mats were rolled out nearby and we all sat down to enjoy the entertainment. For us, the entertainment consisted of a band, with a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a female singer. The music they played was nothing you’ve heard before unless you’ve been to this region of Madagascar, but it evokes flavors of the tropics and reminds me a bit of the music of the Caribbean (minus the steel drums). The bass and drums are just there to give a good foundation with their beat, but the real star of the band is the guitarist. Watching him play is amazing as he just flicks his fingers up and down the steel strings, unlike the familiar chord strumming or single-string picking. The music coming out of the ancient metal loudspeaker horns, mounted on wooden poles around the drummer’s awning, is certainly lo-fi, but not gritty. There’s an indescribable energy to this music and it just gets under your skin and makes you want to dance. I couldn’t resist and had to sway and bop back and forth to the beat as we sat huddled on our mats.


Accompanying the band was a single male dancer. He performed traditional local dances, one of which involved a lot of rather explicit pelvis thrusting. Another local dance has you just lift one or both of your shoulders up and down as you shuffle around to the music. You come across looking a little like a chicken, but it’s a fun dance nonetheless. With all of the young children dancing around in front of the band, it looked a bit like a hen house, but they were very serious about their dancing (and damned good too). At one point the dancer came out with a bunch of horns around his neck, dangling from leather straps, symbolizing vitality and virility.


So the entertainment we enjoyed was the music and the dancing. For the throngs of local children at the funeral, WE were the entertainment. There was a ring all around us, three-children deep, with their eyes watching our every move in rapt fascination. They seemed to especially like my head swaying and toe tapping to the music. Once I took out my camera, the kids would pose endlessly for photos. If I pointed my lens to the right to take a picture of some oblivious child, four others would see where I was looking and photobomb my shot as fast as they could.


Several people from the local village came by with food gifts for us. Some brought large baskets overflowing with rice, some brought THB beer and lemon fanta soda, and others still brought us giant hunks of bloody meat, recently harvested from it’s livestock donor. Someone brought over an entire haunch of meat, which must have been goat judging by the size and shape of the limb. Lastly, we were given a goat, a live goat. Munja pointed over to a nearby tree and told me that the goat tied up tightly by the neck was for us. We all shared the beverages, with some of the Malagasy men preferring instead to seek out Togogash (sometimes called Malagasy rum, this locally made spirit from fermented sugarcane is much more akin to moonshine and tastes and smells not unsurprisingly like gasoline). Some of the rice and the smallest chunk of lamb flesh disappeared along with Lala, our camp cook, as she began preparing lunch.


We had arrived and taken up our central position on our straw mats by late morning, relatively early in the party, and had a prime view to see many more groups of people arrive and meet with the village elders throughout the day. The greeting for most of these groups was similar to ours, but with one very noisy addition. As the group of visitors approached, a few of their men stepped to the side, pivoted their rifles from the hip and took aim at the ground in front of them. BANG! The shots rang out and clouds of dust and gunpowder mingled as the next shots went off. BANG BANG! As quickly as they could, the shooters reloaded their single barrel weapons, shoving a stick as a ramrod down the barrel of the gun to expel the empty bullet casing, fitting another slug into the chamber, closing the barrel, and immediately pulling the trigger without the slightest glance upwards. BANG!


Across from them, flanking the men of the village, three local shooters performed the same actions: firing and reloading, firing and reloading. The mounds of spent shell casings piled up in front of both groups of gunmen, in case anyone wanted to keep count. It was a wonder no one was hit, but my suspicions were later confirmed that they were all firing blanks. I was told that the purpose of this ritual was to show the power of the groups. Whoever had more ammunition and was able to keep firing longer was said to be more powerful.


This explosive welcome tradition as seen from our front row seats was interesting the first few times we saw it, but after hours of group after group arriving it became quite annoying. Every time a new group entered, we would plug our ears with our fingers and look away to avoid the large clouds of gunpowder that rolled our way.


Eventually, we were saved from the dust and noise when our lunch was ready. It was mid-afternoon by now and we were all very eager to chow down. Our posse got off of our mats and sauntered a little ways out towards the periphery of the party to a small stand of huts where another mat and a huge pot of rice awaited. Along with our rice was a bowl of assorted goat meat chunks, with a little bit of juice to soak into the rice. The butchery here in Madagascar is quite different from the cuts that you would find in your local supermarket, and every chunk of meat held its own surprise. Some had a hunk of bone inside, some thick ribbons of fat and connective tissue, but the most disturbing ones had thick blubbery layers of skin along one side, the charred remains of the goat’s burned hair adding an ashy bristling of stubble (after slaughtering the goat, they put the entire carcass on a fire to burn off the hair, before dividing up the animal).


With our bellies full of rice and the occasional morsel of meat, we went back to the center of the party, collected our remaining rice and meat, took our goat by it’s lead, and began the hot walk back to Beza Mahafaly. Rest in peace.

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