In October – November 2013, I was fortunate to return to Madagascar for a second mission to study the lemurs of Betampona Nature Reserve. Once again I was fortunate to work alongside the dedicated Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFFG) agents that care for this unique eastern forest remnant and all its inhabitants, from lemurs to frogs. Similar to my visit in 2012, the objectives of this trip were to safely immobilize lemurs to collect biomaterial samples to study their health status, disease threats, and genetic relatedness, while also placing radio-telemetry tags for the continuation of behavioral and ecological studies. Unlike last year’s trip, Malagasy wildlife veterinarian Fidy Rasambainarivo did not travel with the team since he was back in Saint Louis in his first semester of his PhD program at the University of Missouri – Saint Louis. This year traveling with me from the US was Dr. Amy Alexander, the Saint Louis Zoo clinical veterinary resident, and Ingrid Porton, co-chair of the MFG.
Our travels took us from Saint Louis, Missouri through Washington DC and then on to continental Africa with an overnight layover in Johannesburg, South Africa. Forty hours after leaving Missouri we arrived in Antanarivo (Tana; the capital of Madagascar) with all pieces of luggage in tow; no small feat! Driving along the roads of Tana from the airport to the hotel, the smells and sights of urban Madagascar, a land where African and Asian cultures collided long ago in the Indian Ocean, I was woken from my jet lag state to reflect on the different worlds in which we had just traveled. Leaving my suburban street in Saint Louis, flying over the political powerhouse (and hometown) of Washington DC, and then Johannesburg to Antanarivo, the material excesses melted away and were replaced by the day to day task of living. The question of how to perform meaningful conservation with buy-in that extends from the comfortable politicians in DC to the poor, densely crowded people of Tana was percolating in my tired mind.
We spent the first couple of days in Tana doing all those logistical chores that are necessary before one starts any field mission, no matter the country. Permits and travel details for the trip between Tana to Tamatave prior to the last long haul up to the Reserve were worked out. Purchase of liquid nitrogen for the dry shippers so vital to the mission for maintaining some of the biomaterials (e.g., blood, feces) frozen was also accomplished. This last task to charge our dry shippers with the liquid nitrogen, if not easily achieved, at least eventually managed after a few hours of traffic jams and bank visits. Since the trip was part of a MFFG mission, with their 26 years of experience performing conservation research in the country, it made working out logistics possible. A couple of days later Amy, Ingrid, and I were driving along the pot-holed roads with our driver expertly handling the rules of the Malagasy roadways. The 8 hours rapidly melted as city was transformed into the rural world that covers much of Madagascar.
Another 36 hours spent in Tamatave to finish the field trip preparations including the successful repair (thankfully!) of the Daninject Rifle for which I had carried a small critical rifle part that had broken on the last mission and that was essential for our work on this trip. Rifle practice with the head MFFG agent Jean Noel, the arrival of the Malagasy student Vololonoro Holiarimino (Mino) (who had worked with us on the 2012 trip), and shopping for food supplies (not to mention a short bout of food poisoning for me linked to a rather embarrassing translation mistake on my part), and we were ready to head to the field site at Betampona.
The last leg of the journey from Tamatave to the base camp of Reindry Reindry for work in the Betampona Nature Reserve is a trip through time. This year an extra hardship was met when we encountered a man dying of what we were informed was liver failure. His family was trying to return him to his village so he could die at home since the doctors had offered no hope of survival. In his 30s, he weighed less than 90 pounds. Completely unconscious and frothing at the mouth he joined us for one short vehicle leg of the trip. I felt an unease not only for the sadness of this man and his family’s lose, but also knowing far too much of emerging infectious (contagious) diseases. Beyond the worry for our team’s safety it also clearly demonstrated the “unfairness” of health care, or the lack thereof, for most people across the globe. I wondered if his condition (whatever it may have been) would have been treatable in another time and place.
The trip, even under the best of circumstances, requires both patience and stamina for mastering the roads—many of questionable quality, which this year were blocked for a time by a broken down logging truck, pirogue travel across a river at the “end of the line” in Anosibe, and then a taxi or two, most of which are pieced together with cable and duck tape, to travel the last few miles until you are dropped off in Fontsimavo. There you are greeted by curious children whom surround you to get a glimpse of the photos on your camera while they offer well-wishes for your travels into the forest.
Arriving at the base camp, on the edge of the Betampona Reserve, after walking across the agricultural lands with the fresh scars from Tavy (the slash and burn agriculture practiced throughout Madagascar) was a breath of fresh air in a land with many wounds. As evening settled over the forest and an Indri pair began their duet, a peaceful feeling descended in which I was in an ocean of green, surrounded by whale song. As I went to sleep that night following our 6 days of travel, I wondered how many Indri still remain in this postage stamp of protection?
In camp we were joined by Lana Kerker, a Washington University in Saint Louis PhD student studying the behaviors of lemurs. I was thrilled to finally meet Lana since our paths had almost crossed a number of times and it was “her Indri” on which Fidy and I placed radio collars in 2012 so she and her team could follow their movements within the forest. The stories she shared during this year’s field season were of lemur love and loss, and would keep the most faithful soap opera fan enthralled. Her dissertation will no doubt shed light on some previously unknown behaviors of these incredible creatures.
During the next two weeks we worked in the forest from right in Reindry Reindry, trying to sample the little albifrons that are so common in camp, to as far away as the Northern most reaches of the Reserve. Our days were spent with hours tracking to find the lemurs and then more hours to work out that perfect shot. Easier said than done! Getting health samples from lemurs that live within the canopy and that aren’t readily approachable without the use of a tranquilizer dart injected in the muscle of a thin, delicate limb of an animal that may be 30 feet in the trees is not a job for sissies. In fact I have worked on conservation medicine projects at field sites from Argentina to Zimbabwe and working with animals from elephants to passerines, and yet running up and down the vertical slopes of Betampona while aiming a dart gun at lemurs up in the forest canopy ranks in a league of its own. Ingrid calls it an extreme sport. One must be concerned for the safety of the lemurs who you are working so hard to protect, while also thinking of your own and the team’s safety as you all go running up and down the vertical hill sides looking skyward. Getting the dart where you want it to go is just a small part of the challenge. Once the dart is placed and the anesthetic takes effect, the need to safely catch the lemur as it falls from the canopy is an art of its own and one that the MFFG agents perform so well and with such loving care. Fidy put together a great video of this work from our trip to Betampona in 2012.
For a few days (and nights), we set up camp in the north of the Reserve, an area where the lemurs have been little studied due to the logistical challenges of working so far from base camp in Reindry Reindry. The moist and mossy forest had an enchanting quality, giving the sense that we were far from civilization and the people and domestic animals found there. Unfortunately, this was soon to be proven wrong since during our hikes along the ridges in search of lemurs we often heard dogs barking from villages on the forest edge, and most likely in some cases from dogs that had entered the park. This concern of domestic carnivores acting as both predators and reservoirs for disease transmission is of growing concern globally. Around Betampona with its amazing wildlife including lemurs and carnivores (such as my personal favorite—the fossa!) we currently know little of how significant this threat is for these populations. However, work now underway by Fidy, Zach Harris, and others should soon provide answers to whether this conservation concern so prevalent in other parts of the world may also threaten species in Betampona.
Our success rate for lemur collar placement and health sample collection was not as high as in 2012. However, we did safely anesthetize seven lemurs from and collected health samples from all of them while placing radiotelemetry tags on a few, including an Indri, Propithecus, and Varecia in the far north. In fact these are the first three lemurs to be studied long- term in this area of the Reserve. Most importantly, no lemurs or persons were injured during our mission.
I have been back from this mission for a few months now. As I type I think of my lemur friends in Betampona and of the people like Jean Noel and the other agents that work diligently to protect them. I also think of the children in Reindry Reindry and Fontsimavo, and frankly in all the villages and towns we traveled through. Children permeate the landscape. How are they doing; animals and people alike?
I know that the conservation challenges that threaten the long term survival of lemurs must be met with sound science and effective management efforts that ensure healthy habitats, such as Betampona Nature Reserve, to support the animals living in their boundaries. Human health concerns and livelihoods must also be approached with sound science and effective management plans. The work by the MFFG in this part of Madagascar focuses on wild lands and wildlife conservation, and improved public health. I feel fortunate that my veterinary skills can contribute to this work.
Dr. Sharon Deem
Director, Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine