Friday, October 30, 2009

Everyone has been busy doing their independent research projects, but it’s nice to get together during breakfast and dinner to talk about our days. About half of the students are doing their projects on lemurs, others are doing birds, insects, medicinal plants, food, music and education. I am researching the agricultural practices in the villages surrounding Ranomafana and looking at how farming affects the economy, the nutrition of villagers and the environment. I’ve visited 4 villages so far and interviewed 38 farmers. I have been able to go inside the small houses made of mud with straw roofs, which has been very interesting.
Last Saturday night we went to a little benefit to raise money for the children’s library in town. Our chef’s band played Malagasy music and appetizers were served. We didn’t know about this library before then. The building was made out of flattened bamboo shoots and filled with storybooks. French and English classes are taught there for any child who would like to go. It was a great night and I’ll be visiting the library more often now.
On Sunday we were invited to watch traditional music and dance performed by the villagers in Ambatalahay. Everyone in the village came out to watch and it was an exciting afternoon. Afterwards we went into a smaller building so that Dali Lera, a 103-year old man, could play his guitar-like instrument that only he knows how to play. He sang and played a few songs for us and was very happy that we came to see him.
Two lemurs that people were keeping illegally are being held here at Centre ValBio while they are being rehabilitated and then released back into the wild. One is the Golden Bamboo Lemur and the other is a Dwarf Lemur. They are very scared so we’re not really allowed to go look at them, but one girl has been observing their behavior as her project, and she has been keeping us updated on how they are doing.
We are all looking forward to the huge party in town on Saturday that Centre ValBio puts together every year. It will be a party to raise money for ValBio’s staff association that does many good things for the surrounding villages including buying Christmas presents for all the children every year. So we’ll be celebrating Halloween during the day, but changing into our party clothes at night. Everyone in the village is invited to this popular event, as long as they buy a ticket, so it will be a very interesting experience!
I hope everyone has a Happy Halloween and don’t forget to vote on Election Day!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

5th and 6th week in Madagascar.

The cross country trip across Madagascar was more than I had ever hoped. Everyday we did something adventurous and fun. Even looking out the window during our long drive at the change from rainforest and mountains to flat rice fields to the dry, spiny desert were entertaining. We started the trip at the Anja Reserve in Ambalavao, South of Ranomafana. There were huge granite boulders and caves where ring-tailed lemurs lived. There were 400 lemurs living here and most of them had month-old babies on their backs. We climbed up to a high cliff to see a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and rice paddies. It was so beautiful up there we never wanted to leave.

That night we visited the Ambalavao Paper Factory that was behind our hotel. The women working there were making paper out of Avoha tree bark and pressing fresh flowers into it. They made all sorts of beautiful books, cards and decorations and we all spent a fortune at their gift shop.

The next day we drove 10 hours to Ifaty on the West Coast of Madagascar to swim in the Mozambique Channel. We stayed at a beautiful beach resort called the Bamboo Club, which was right on the sandy beach and clear blue water. The stars that night were amazing and we stayed 3 nights in little beach bungalows. We were able to go snorkeling at the coral reefs, which was amazing because I’ve never done anything like it before. The water was so warm and clear and we saw all sorts of tropical fish.

The next day we took a trip on traditional fisherman’s sailboats to another beach where they made lunch for us. It was an amazing ride there, but on the way back it look 4 times as long because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. It was a rough ride and we all got sunburned but it was a very funny experience that I’ll never forget. My group ended up getting out of the boats and walking back for some of the way because the winds were so strong. The next day we visited the spiny desert to see huge Baobob trees (the one pictures was 1,300 years old!) and other endemic plants. It was sad saying goodbye to the beautiful, warm water, mangrove forests and coral reefs, but we drove to the city of Toliary for a day full of shopping at the market. It was fun to look at all the homemade crafts and bargain for our souvenirs.

The second half of our trip was spent in Isalo National Park. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my life. It is considered the ‘Grand Canyon of Madagascar.’ There are sandstone rock formations jutting out of the Earth and deep canyons filled with natural pools. The rocks were all different colors because of all the different minerals and eroded by wind and water. The surrounding land was mostly savanna with odd fire-resistant plants. The first day we hiked across huge rocks to the Canyon of Rats (pictured; a lot prettier than its name) where we ate lunch and went swimming. The natural pool there was very cold but worth the plunge because we swam to a huge rock that we climbed and took turns jumping off of into the water. The drop was probably only 10-15 feet and scary at first but a lot of fun.

We continued hiking to another pool that was shallower but had beautiful waterfalls. We saw a group of white Verrauxi Sifakas in the trees. The next day was our last day so we started out earlier in order to fit in as much as we could. We hiked through the grassy savanna and saw ring-tailed lemurs hopping around. We hiked up the rock formations to get a beautiful view of the canyons surrounding us. (You can see how large they were by looking at how tiny Collette is in the picture.) It was so gorgeous and you could see forever. Next we went to another pool that was a tropical paradise in the middle of a hot, dry savanna. (pictured) We hiked for while longer before having lunch at a campsite. Sifakas and Ring-Tailed Lemurs have learned that this area always has food, so they were hanging out in the trees above us.

Next we went to the Canyon of Nymphs which was a beautiful hike with waterfalls along the walls and a stream running through. We went swimming in the blue pool and the black pool. They were both very clear and had waterfalls running into them, but the black pool was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom. We had run diving off the rocks and sitting in the caves (pictured). We had to leave this beautiful place so we were able to make the sunset at the ‘window’. The window is a place where all the tourists go because the sun sets right in a hole in the rock and over the canyons and the rocks turn a beautiful orange (pictured).

The next day was filled with more driving North but we stopped in the city of Fianar to go to a pizza place that had real mozzarella cheese and olive oil; it was very delicious. We also went to an ice cream shop that had the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s good to be back home at Centre ValBio but we all miss the hot, dry weather. We took our exam for the comparative ecosystems course today, which was easy, since we all had just lived it. 9 credits down! We start our independent projects tomorrow.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fourth Week in Madagascar

I have been in Madagascar for exactly one month so far! This past week we went on a hiking trip to Vatoharanana (Vato for short), a pristine forest within Ranomafana Park. Many researchers go there to study the different species of lemurs, including the Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs and Sifakas. It was a nice 3-hour hike there because we went slow while Dr. Wright told us about many of the plants along the way and the history of the park. It was interesting to see the transition from secondary to primary forest; the trees were getting larger and vines were growing wild on every tree.

I have included a picture of Cait holding the gigantic earthworm we found 3 of during our walk, pretty wierd huh? After we got up ‘fingernail hill’ we got to an overhang to eat lunch just as it began to downpour, it seemed that we had entered the real “rain forest”. But when it rains in the rain forest, the trails become very muddy and the leeches come out in droves. Some of us have experienced a leech or two back at Centre ValBio, but Vato is leech-ville, and others, like me, where not ready for it. I can count at least 20 leech bites (which itch) on me, it was not the highlight of my trip. When we got to the campsite and set up out tents and my group was fortunate enough to get a site under a shelter, which came in handy later on. Since it was raining all-day the lemurs didn’t come out because I was told they hate the rain just as much as we do, so there wasn’t much to do for the rest of the day except huddle under the shelters and wait for mealtime.

That night a big storm came with lightning crashes too close to be sleeping in a tent (Kara, the camping expert, was doing the flash-to-crash math). The 5 girls in my tent were all freaking out and kept finding leeches and cockroaches in our tent, but having a great time talking about the crazy situation we were in. During the storm many tents collapsed and flooded, so we had to squeeze more people into our 4-person tent so everyone could be semi-dry.

The next morning it was beautiful and sunny out and we were able to enjoy the rain forest once again. We hiked to the next research camp site, Valohoaka (Valo), where there was a beautiful lookout point and waterfall (see pictures) where we spent most of the day. It was getting around lunchtime when the thunder started up again, so we started to head back to camp. Not even halfway there the storm of the century dropped on us. We were all drenched within a minute, the trails turned into mudslides and getting a leech was the last thing on our minds. The lightning and thunder was right above us and at one point it began to hail (in Madagascar!! That hardly happens!). Although it was a horrifying experience (don’t forget we were surrounded by huge trees), we all couldn’t stop laughing because there was nothing we could do about it except keep walking towards Vato. This is one of the experiences I will never forget and also a great story to tell in the future.

Some people hiked back to Centre ValBio after that but I stayed one more night and got to be woken up by the calls of the black-and-white ruffed lemurs. These lemurs are constantly calling to each other, but no one is sure why. All I know is that they are loud and sound like nothing I could try to imitate. The hike back to Centre ValBio the next morning was enjoyable because it was sunny again and has been so for the past few days.

For the rest of the week it has been the students’ job to figure out what we will be doing for our independent research projects and write up our proposals. About half of the students will be doing behavioural studies with lemurs, some students are researching birds, insects, ecology studies or cultural studies. I will be looking into how the people of Ranomafana town can benefit from practising sustainable agricultural techniques. I’m excited to start my project, but first we have our cross country trip that I am so excited for!

Tomorrow we depart for our 10-day trip at 7:30am to go to a city south of us, Ambalavao. Here we will be visiting the Anja Reserve where Ring-Tailed Lemurs live. Here the lemurs have thicker coats compared to the ones that live further south and can be seen bounding around on huge granite boulders. I am excited to see them because they aren’t found in the rain forest where we are. The hotel we are staying in is also a famous paper factory where we can watch the workers make handmade paper. After that we are off to Ifaty on the West Coast to swim in the Mozambique Channel (the waterway between Africa and Madagascar) and snorkel at the coral reefs. We will also be visiting Isalo National Park that is famous for it’s canyons, rock formations, natural pools and the thinner-coated Ring Tailed Lemurs. I don’t have too many details yet; all I know is that this will definitely be my favourite course I’ve ever taken. I’ll be sure to update with plenty of fun experiences when I return.

I’ve also included a group of us walking back from a fun day in town with our Malagasy T.A. Franck. (Cristina, Franck, Collette, Kara and me)

And since my mom has been asking, I will also put up a picture of my humble abode.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Third Week in Madagascar

I took my final exam for the Primate Behavior and Ecology course, and it was easy. So now I know everything about primates and especially lemurs. That is the end of our formal classes, for our next course, comparative ecosystems, we will go cross country to the West Coast to see the coral reefs. We will stop in the spiny desert where the ring-tailed lemurs live. First we are hiking up to a different part of Ranomafana Park where there is primary forest, Vato, which has never been logged. We have only been to secondary forests so far, so it was be interesting to see how different it is. There will also be different species of lemur there including the White-Ruffed Lemurs (Varecia variegata), which we will be able to hear them more than see because they make very loud calls to communicate which each other throughout the day.

Last week we went into the forest a lot to look for lemurs. One day my group went to observe the most endangered primate in the world, the Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus), the type that Pat Wright found when she first came here and why this park is here. There is a group of 4, female, male, juvenile and infant and they are habituated, so they don’t really care when humans are around and we got to go so close to them. They are soo cute and they eat bamboo all day long and pretty much lounge in the same area, so they are easy to watch. We did focal sampling, continuous scan sampling and instantaneous scan sampling, so pretty much we were there for about two hours writing down all their behaviors.

The next day my group went to observe the Milne-Edwards’ Sifakas (Propithecus edwardsi). There are a monogamous pair who are always together. These guys couldn’t be more different than the bamboo lemurs, they don’t stay in one place for longer than 1 minute. So we had to write down their activities and behaviors they were doing while running after them in the jungle. And of course they do not follow the trails, I wish I had a video of us trying to follow them. Getting stuck on branches and sliding up and down muddy mountainsides. But the Sifakas were really cool, they were pretty big and they leap from tree to tree so easily and then they get together and groom each other. They are all black with white backs. So that was a lot of fun. There has also been a chameleon hanging out in the trees near our back porch. And it has blue legs and a brown back most of the time, so it isn’t too camouflaged but when it turns brown it is so hard to see it. In the campsite one morning I was a cute little Ring-Tailed Mongoose running towards me, it didn’t seem to care that I was there at all. It looked like on long, red ferret with a striped tail.

One of the Malagasy students wrote a list of American foods that we were talking about and he gave it to the kitchen, so they tried making some American dishes, which was very cute. One night we had pizza, but it was nothing like pizza we know, the dough was really thin and flaky, similar to a filo dough. And then for the veggie one they put onions and mushrooms and peppers and cheese on it. It was really good though! And the next night they made zebu-hamburgers. So for the vegetarians it was this huge bun that they baked and lettuce and carrots and tomato and cheese, haha. But I put ketchup on it and it was good. They make french fries once in a while here too, which are good. And for desert they make flan like once a week, which is sorta normal for them, but one night we had peanut butter and jelly flavored flan, it was funny. Last night they made us mango ice cream, which was good, but it tasted a little weird because I guess it was made from zebu milk.

Dr. Patricia Wright, the founder of Ranomafana National Park, arrived here this week. This is pretty much her home since she lives here half of the year. She knows everything about this place and it’s great talking with her. She tells long stories about her life at dinner, I got to listen to her story of how she became a primatologist. The night she got here she brought a Malagasy band (the singer is actually our chef!) and she also brought along a group of Spanish tourists that she met on the plane who also played music for us. So it became a very fun dance party. Plus she’ll be giving us all the advice we need for our independent projects, since she knows what has already been done, what needs to be researched and what is possible to do. I’m considering doing something with sustainable agriculture, reforestation…or something to do with plants, but I haven’t decided yet.

That’s all for now! Happy October! :)
p.s. thanks for all the comments!

Second Week in Madagascar

I wrote this blog on 9/27, but the Internet wasn’t working when I went down to the internet cafe, so my mom has been nice enough to update my blog..unfortunately i didn't take that picture of the mouse lemur, but I have seen them. Also we didn't hike across the desert, that story in full is in this week's blog....enjoy!!!

Wow, two weeks, we’ve been so busy it feels like 2 months have passed so far. Since the last time I wrote we’ve been on a hiking trip, took our final exam in the biodiversity course and began our primate behavior and ecology course. There’s been a lot of studying and reading going on here but also a lot of just sitting around outside and hanging out together. Everyone gets along so well and is having a good time.

Last Monday we took this sleepover backpacking trip. It turned out to be more like 10-hours of hiking up and down a mountain and at times it wasn’t even a trail, more like dredging through bushes with sharp leaves and sinking into muddy rice paddies. But then we got up to this gigantic waterfall, the tallest waterfall I’ve ever scene and probably ever will see. We were at the top of it and you could see forever! And you could also so easily fall off, it was soo cool. It sounded like a jet plane, it was so loud. I took pictures and videos of it, but they won’t do it justice. It was looking over a valley where we were gunna be staying that night and you could see so many rice paddies (did I mention that all Malagasy people eat is rice??). So then we started to hike (more like slide) down the mountain into the valley and got to see the waterfall from the bottom. The hiking was hard and it was pitch dark for the last hour, but the waterfall and the scenery made it so worth it, even the hiking experience was fun, because it was like nothing I had ever done before. And that night we stayed in this small secluded village (the closest road was 3 hours away) where they don’t really even use the currency. They made us dinner (huge bowl of rice with some veggies on the side for vegetarians) and hot tea and coffee and burnt rice water (they boil water in the pot they used to make rice in………I wouldn’t suggest it…it tastes like slash-and-burn agriculture) which was wonderful because I would have eaten a whole Zebu (their form of cattle here. There are more zebu that people in Madagascar, but they don’t eat them, only on very rare and special occasions and for white people, because they are more of a form of wealth than food…not the smartest idea for a country filled with starving people) and drank all of it’s blood after that hike (not really though J). And then the whole village came out because they wanted to welcome us and they did a series of traditional song and dances for us, which was reallllly cool. Young men and young women danced and sang songs to go along. This was also one of the reasons that made the whole trip worth it. It was something that I’ll never get to do or see again. So after that we passed out only to be woken up by all the rosters that roamed around this village at 5:00 am. (in every village there are so many chickens and their chicks and ducks and stray dogs walking around everywhere) There were also baby pigs walking around our campsite which was very cute. So then we had breakfast (huge bowl of rice, cassava and honey. And burnt rice water) and walked around the village to see how they used compost and grew coffee beans and so much rice and had many latrines. It was considered one of the more ‘sustainable villages’…but I though differently because the burnt down all the rainforest around them in every direction for rice paddies. And then we had lunch (huge bowl of rice and some veggies on the side for vegetarians and burnt rice water) and decided to start hiking through this desert of a valley at 12 noon. But the hike back wasn’t bad, it was just really hot and we had to climb one hill to get out of the valley that was so huge and steep and took 15 minutes to climb. But I made it!!!! And this was the day before the final exam and the reason why I didn’t feel like studying too much J.

I try to do my laundry every other day here instead of letting it pile up in my tent. I use a bucket of water and a bar of soap, so I only want to do a small load at a time anyway. Also, sometimes it rains on the clothes (like today), so you have to leave them on the line for a few days till they dry.

The primate behavior course has been interesting so far. We have already learned so much, which takes me back to my physical anthropology course. Now we are getting into more lemurs and some of the researchers at Centre ValBio have been giving lectures on the work they do here. Sarah Zohdy is one researcher that studies wild brown mouse lemurs (Mircocebus rufus) here in Ranomafana. These cute little lemurs are the smallest primates and are nocturnal. Everynight they set box traps with bananas in them so catch the mouse lemurs. They take regular measurements of them and dental molds to check for dental senescence and release them that same night. In captivity experiments, these mouse lemurs have been known to get Alzheimer’s Disease, cataracts, anosmia (loss of smell), hearing loss and live up to 15-18 years old. By using the dental molds there are able to determine how old the lemurs are. So far the oldest mouse lemur they have caught is 9 years old. They haven’t seen any signs of the alignments that were found in the lab. It sounded like very interesting work. Then that night I spotted the tapetum lucidum (the glowing eyes / the reflection of my light shining back towards me) of a mouse lemur on my way up to my tent. I followed it for a few minutes, it was soo cute!!

Gotta go study and read now! Hope everyone is enjoying fall!

p.s. I am trying to put pictures up of gorgeous Ranomafana, but it is next to impossible. They will come with time :)