A successful trip

The Ambatovy Project Biocamp agents with a group of common brown lemurs. This family group was captured together, allowing them to be relocated as a cohesive group.

The Ambatovy Project Biocamp agents with a group of common brown lemurs. This family group was captured together, allowing them to be relocated as a cohesive group.

Our January trip was very successful. We were able to remove 18 lemurs from an area that is slated for cutting next year. We were also able to capture an additional 22 animals in adjacent areas for health assessment and radiocollaring.

Ambatovy Project veterinary team, Drs. Mahefarisoa, Rakotondrainibe, Junge and Williams. With lemur friends!

Ambatovy Project veterinary team, Drs. Mahefarisoa, Rakotondrainibe, Junge and Williams. With lemur friends!

A Day in the Life

So what is a field veterinary project in Madagascar like?  Well, it varies quite a bit. But in most cases, PBSP vets are partnered with Malagasy and US field biologists and graduate students.  Projects generally last 2-3 weeks, and are at field sites around the island. We often camp in or near the reserves, or stay in local accommodations. Most days start early (6am) to get into the forest before the lemurs get active. Lemurs are located with the help of local guides who know the forest.   They are captured by darting with an anesthetic, which is done by experienced staff. The animals become anesthetized within 5 minutes (usually!). Since the lemurs don’t voluntarily come out of the trees for anesthesia, they are caught in a net as they fall. Once again, having an experienced field team is critical, and injuries from capture are very rare. Once in hand, lemurs are given complete physical exams and a series of samples are collected (blood, feces, parasites, measurements). These samples are analyzed to provide the health assessment.

How long it takes to find and capture lemurs is also variable. In areas where lemurs are hunted they are quite nervous. In areas with tourist activities, they may be accustomed to having humans around. Sometimes they sit quietly and watch curiously are we prepare to capture them. Sometimes we have ‘runners’ – animals that for whatever reason have declined to participate in our research project and do their best to elude us. Sometimes they win, sometimes we do. Perseverance is the key – usually if you stick with them long enough you get your opportunity for safe capture.

Days in the field can be long. Lemurs are often elusive, and are usually not very cooperative about being captured! Darting is done with extreme caution to prevent injuries. Capture sites are often far from basecamp, and travel can be challenging – usually long walks on trails of variable quality.  Someone once described walking in a rainforest as a ‘controlled fall’; however, the level of control is often minimal. Weather may  be a challenge, especially working in tropical environments. When you do fieldwork in a rainforest, you are likely to be wet a lot of the time (it IS a RAINforest!).  While ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, with fieldwork it is more likely next to impossible.

Animals are kept until completely recovered, and then released at the capture site or relocated. But the work isn’t over when the lemurs leave. Samples have to be prepared, inventoried, and properly stored. If electricity isn’t available (most of the time) generators, batteries, liquid nitrogen, and hand-operated devices may have to suffice.  Data is carefully collected and tabulated. Equipment is cleaned and prepared for the next day’s effort. For nocturnal species, capture is done at night, extending the field day. Meals are often ‘opportunistic’, and in Madagascar usually consist  of lots of rice and occasionally something with it.

Partners in Conservation

The old adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish  and you feed him for a lifetime” is a good rule of thumb. One of the main emphases of PBSP is training Malagasy veterinarians. The veterinary school at the University of Antananarivo (Madagascar’s capital) is about 10 years old. The majority of training (as in the US), is with domestic animals – pets and livestock. While doing field veterinary projects, we include Malagasy veterinary students and veterinarians, providing them training in field anesthesia, health assessments, and laboratory techniques that will equip them to work in conservation medicine.

Dr. Hajnirina Rakotondrainibe (Haja) with a female indri and her offspring. Since the field site is near an active mine staff wear projective clothing in the field.

Dr. Hajnirina Rakotondrainibe (Haja) with a female indri and her offspring. Since the field site is near an active mine staff wear projective clothing in the field. Haja worked with the PBSP team as a veterinary student and is now staff veterinarian for the project.

Dr. Mahefarisoa joined the team for the second time to advance her training in lemur health.

Dr. Mahefarisoa joined the team for the second time to advance her training in lemur health.

But what about partnering with a mining company? Or a lumber company? Aren’t they ‘the enemy?’  Yes and no. Anyone who thinks about conservation would agree that it would be better for the environment if mining, lumbering, agriculture, urban expansion, etc did not occur. The bottom line is that they do, so the best option is to partner with them to achieve the best possible outcome. Most industries are aware of environmental issues and are committed to establishing best practices for mitigating impact. So the opportunity exists to work with these companies rather than against them to minimize the negative impacts that occur.

Helping Out

Why Did(n’t) the Lemur Cross the Road? As areas are cleared for mining, the forest is cut in small sections in a pattern that allows animals access to corridors that lead to protected areas. AMSA has designated large areas (larger than the area affected by the mine process) for permanent protection. One barrier to migration is roads. As new roads are put in, care is taken to be sure animals are not isolated. One excellent method is ‘lemur bridges’. These overhead suspension bridges allow arboreal species to cross roads and move to projected areas. These bridges work very well for many species.

Suspension bridges over roads allow lemurs to move safely between forests.

Suspension bridges over roads allow lemurs to move safely between forests.

The Ambatovy Project

Ambatovy forest

Ambatovy forest

The Ambatovy Project

Posted by Randy Junge, MS, DVM, DACZM, Vice President for Animal Health, Columbus Zoo

Situated near Analamazoatra, this area is near the transition from east coast rain forest and the central plateau.  Large areas of intact mature forests remain here, but the threats to remaining habitat that are common worldwide are impacting this area as well – expanding human population, agriculture (here primarily rice cultivation), forestry and mining. This area holds large nickel and cobalt deposits, which are being extracted. While mining can be devastating to natural environments, conscientious companies address those issues as possible. Ambatovy Mining has taken significant steps to minimize the impact of the mining project, and that is where we come in.  Under the Ambatovy Project Lemur Management Plan, efforts are underway to minimize the impact on the 14 local lemur species.

Veterinarians working with the Prosimian biomedical Survey Project monitor lemur health in Madagascar

Veterinarians working with the Prosimian biomedical Survey Project monitor lemur health in Madagascar

The Prosimian Biomedical Survey Project (PBSP) has been involved in lemur health and conservation medicine research in Madagascar since 2000. Team members partner with researchers to assist in the field, and collect health and nutritional data on lemurs island – wide. The data is analyzed and put into a database (now with nearly 750 individuals of 35 species) and has published 15 scientific articles generated by this data. The information is shared with local conservation agencies to assist with the management of these sites.

Humid forest typical of EasternMadagascar

Humid forest typical of EasternMadagascar

AMSA has partnered with PBSP to assist with the management at this site. Our goal is to evaluate lemurs before, during, and after the mining project to scientifically assess the impact and the animals’ ability to adapt.  The project is just getting underway, and much of our focus now is capturing, performing health assessments, radiocollaring, and relocating lemurs. The company uses paced and directional clearing to allow animals of all species to move voluntarily from the site. However, some individuals just don’t get it, and have to be ‘helped’.