Madagascar: An Island filled with Biodiversity and Wonder

Posted on July 14th, 2015 by bguzzetta

Most people think of lemurs when they think about Madagascar. After all, who doesn’t love those cute little furry primates? It is true that lemurs are a huge part of Madagascar’s past and present, and hopefully they will remain around to be part of its future as well. However, lemurs are only a small part of the amazing flora and fauna that is endemic to Madagascar and in danger of becoming extinct without intervention.

When I first met Professor Patricia Wright while presenting at the 2014 National Science Teacher’s Association National Conference in Boston, I became more intrigued by Madagascar’s culture and history. We spoke about the struggles that the Malagasy people have to provide for themselves with their limited resources and how this impacts the many animals and plants that share this marvelous country with them. Pat’s work has been key in preserving the rainforests, educating the people about conservation and hygiene, providing them with medical support, and helping them financially by providing them with jobs. She brings college students to her facility in Ranomafana National Park during exchange programs each year, but not younger students. Being globally-minded educators, our heads started to spin with possibilities and my plans for a visit took shape.

On June 8th, I departed Toronto for a journey halfway across the globe to a world that one usually only dreams about. My plane landed in the dark the evening of June 9th at Ivato International Airport, which is just outside the capital city of Antananarivo. I was instantly reminded of the slash and burn technique that is all too common in Madagascar as the smell of smoke was stronger than the lights on the runway. The crowd of people present at the only counter inside the international airport also reinforced the fact that I was in a third world country. The drive to the hotel was filled with new sites: narrow winding roads running up and down the city’s mountainous terrain being shared with carts piled high with goods and being pulled and/or pushed by either the owners or cattle. There were buildings upon buildings but few lights, except those lighting up the large USA Embassy building. When we reached the door to the hotel, I was a bit intrigued as it looked nothing like the photographs on their website. However, once you pass by the security guard and through the door, it is apparent that this is a hidden oasis filled with modern amenities and safety.

As I rode through town and up to the Queen’s Palace the following morning, I noticed an abundance of national flags hung on the buildings and being sold throughout the city. Madagascar’s Independence Day was quickly approaching so everyone was decorating with flags to show their support. The Queen’s Palace sat at the highest point in Antananarivo, so the view was amazing. The palace holds so much history: political struggles, death and imprisonment, and cultural transitions. It was here that I truly began to understand the complex history of this island country.

A bright and early start to the day was essential as I began the drive south from Antananarivo to Ranomafana. As I reached the outskirts of the capital, I noticed rice paddies popping up all over. Rice is an important staple to the people of Madagascar and is served with every meal. The densely populated city gave way to narrow roads between small roadside villages and larger towns interspersed with rice paddies, carts, brick structures, children, chicken, zebu, roadside stands, and an occasional market filled with goods and people from nearby towns. It was amazing to see the difference in towns and houses. Some villages consisted of small one or two room houses while others contained multistory houses and buildings. Occasionally a fire could be seen in the distant forest, usually a burning eucalyptus tree being turned into coal to fuel the stoves so meals could be prepared. Rivers were often filled with people washing their clothes that they would then spread along the banks to dry. The children were abundant: smiling and waving to the foreigners as we drove by.

As the clay banks gave way to more greenery, the rainforest appeared. It was beautiful! The mountains were once again filled with many species of huge trees along with plants and animals that are only seen in Madagascar. On the edge of Ranomafana National Park stands the research facility named Centre ValBio (CVB). It is a huge state of the art facility whose mission is to protect the unique biodiversity in Madagascar through projects and education of the local people. The facility is constantly teaming with researchers from around the world working alongside Malagasy people who know about their land but are also learning about the importance that it holds in the world. Centre ValBio employs many local people who act as educators, liaisons, cooks, administrators, and in other roles to make the facility a destination for scientists and students from around the globe. CVB contains labs, dorm rooms, research areas, conference rooms, work areas, a dining hall, and modern facilities with clean filtered and purified water, hot showers, and three warm meals a day.

Centre ValBio Dorm

Centre ValBio Dorm

While at CVB, I met many scientists conducting research. Herman Nambinintsoa Parfait Rafalinirina, a researcher from the University of Antananarivo, has been studying mouse lemurs in Ranomafana. One night I was able to watch as he took measurements and data from a newly trapped juvenile male mouse lemur that I named Michael before inserting a microchip and releasing him. Peter Houlihan, an assistant professor from the University of Florida in Gainesville, had a very large lab station on the roof where he was collecting moths to research the important role moth pollination has to the survival of wild orchids in Madagascar. Katie Guzzetta, a researcher from Hamilton College, is in Ranomafana studying Milne Edward’s Sifaka Lemur social interactions between males and females as well as colleting RNA samples to look at genetics between groups. Many other student researchers were using CVB as a home base while they went out and gathered data and samples with topics ranging from infectious diseases to the production of children’s conservation movies by a leading Madagascar movie producer and illustrator. Needless to say, there was a lot going on and everyone was eager to share their research with me.

I spent many days in the rainforest with various Malagasy guides. Dina was always with me along with either Theo or Stefan. It was great learning from the local guides as they could speak about the history of the park and the changes that have occurred in their lifetimes. They spoke about the beliefs of the Tanala people and taught me some of the useful phrases, which differ between the eighteen tribes in Madagascar. I was always amazed at how they could find the smallest or most camouflaged animals hiding in the forest. There are about 100 species of lemurs in Madagascar, and I saw six of the twelve species of lemurs that exist in Ranomafana including Milne-Edward’s Sifaka, Greater Bamboo, Golden Bamboo, Mouse, Dwarf, and Brown Bellied lemurs. In addition to these unique primates, I saw some amazing geckos, chameleons, moths, insects, frogs, eucalyptus trees, giant fern, and other flora and fauna. I was able to follow some of the researchers and learn about the ways that they collect data during their observation times and about the research that they are conducting. One of the fun facts that I learned from Professor John Cradle during one of my education lectures is that there are around 300 reptile species in Madagascar with 90% endemic to Madagascar.

Ranomafana was teeming with so many different animals with all different behavior patterns. One night I was able to take a night hike with a couple of my guides. We found tiny chameleons hanging in the trees, stick insects walking along a plant, moth larvae eating leaves, really large chameleons hanging out, and mouse lemurs enjoying bananas. One day I woke up as the sun was rising to go on an early morning bird hike with Dr. Jean Claude Razafimahaimodison, a professor from Fainarantsoa who received his doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and some of his colleagues. We saw many species of birds unique to Madagascar as well as the brown bellied lemur.

CVB is on the top of a long winding road that leads downwards past a few small villages, a school, and enters the village of Ranomafana. The village has a couple of hotels, local goods produced by women in the village, an educational center sponsored by CVB, shops and houses, a small hospital, a soccer field, and a thermal spa. Like many of the villages, one day a week is set aside for the market. People travel from many surrounding villages to set up their stands or purchase goods being sold. You can buy a wide array of goods: clothing, handmade crafts, produce, live animals, and much more. It is a great place to mingle with the locals and buy some great souvenirs. Dr. Jean Claude Razafimahaimodison was kind enough to bring me to the market to explore the excitement of the day’s activities.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Primary Ambat Olahy School, which is just down the road from CVB, with Florant, a CVB education liaison who teaches hygiene and conservation, and Laza, another CVB school liaison with a degree in marine biology. This five-room school educates about 180 students from two local villages. The rooms are very basic with wooden floors, tables, openings for windows, a chalkboard, and a dirt courtyard for recess. Some students travel up or down the hills by foot for over an hour each day to get to school. The students are very proud of the garden that they planted and maintain behind their school. This is part of their reforestation project, which teaches the students about conservation and preservation. Every student was curious about America and wanted to know what it was like. I wish I had pictures to share with them as they were very inquisitive. Later in the week I was able to visit the children’s seedling area in the village of Ambatolahy, just up the road from the school. The excitement of the children was overwhelming as they teamed up to receive their saplings. Together about 100 children and I walked up to the edge of the rainforest, climbed the hill, and planted 38 trees.

In the middle of my visit, I took a road trip west to Anja Reserve to see the ring tailed lemurs. My journey reminded me of the diversity of the villages as we once again traveled through a large town and passed many small villages. The children were everywhere, and they were very happy as they waved to me when I went by. We passed the grape vineyards and finally reached Anja. The ring tailed lemurs were a fun bunch, bouncing from tree to tree. There were so many of them that you did not have to venture far before they found you. The landscape of this area was so different from Ranomafana. There were huge rock boulders and mountains cropping up all over. The vegetation was more desert like with cactus style plants all around. Many types of chameleons were out on the branches, making them easily accessible to curious handlers.

After leaving Anja, we headed east towards Ranomafana. We could not resist stopping for lunch at the paper factory. The food was delicious, but the tour of the factory was the best part of the stop. At the small factory, the workers grow everything they need to make beautiful paper by hand. They use primitive tools to grind the wood to pulp, strain it, and inlay petals and bark to make amazing paper and other products, which were sold in their gift shop.

Paper Factory

Paper Factory

Ambodiaviavy was a remote village and I had to walk through rice paddies, over primitive little bridge constructions, and up a very long clay road to reach it. Laza and Santatra, who is the CVB village liaison with a law degree, came with me on this journey. I could tell that we were getting close to the village when I began hearing children yelling from the woods to their friends in the village. Upon entering the village we had to go straight to the king’s house to ask for permission to interact with the village people. We entered the two-room house of the king and sat on small wooden stools as he and the village chief spoke with Santatra. We asked permission and had to drink moonshine to toast the spirits of the ancestors in order to gain access. Once accepted we were made cassava roots and coffee to feast on, which was an interesting experience. They boil sugarcane then use that water to make the sweet coffee. We then had a special show by the local musicians and performers who played songs on their homemade instruments, sang, and danced traditional dances. Everyone in the village came to see us, and every child wanted to have their picture taken. There were a lot of children. It was quite the party! On our way out we met with the village natural healer to learn about his methods of treating the people with the plants that they grow in the garden.

During my final days, I traveled back to Antananarivo then east to Andisabe. It was amazing to see the larger houses and nice countryside. My driver, Dave, explained that it is due to the road being the major way that imports and exports travel to the main port of Toamasina on the east coast. The drive brought us through beautiful parks along meandering creeks to Feon Ny Ala, a small hotel consisting of cute bungalows. Our driver quickly found a guide and arranged for us to go on a night hike after dinner. During the hike we saw many types of chameleons, Wooly Lemurs, Mouse Lemurs, and Brown Lemurs. We woke to the songs of the largest lemur: the Indri. It was an interesting sound that carries for about two kilometers. This is the reason that our hotel is named Feon Ny Ala, as it means songs of the forest in Malagasy. We spent some time getting into the forest to see these amazing animals. We walked for a while in search of the Indri and they were well worth the hike. They sat very close to us and started to call to each other. The forest quickly filled with the songs of the Indri. It was amazing! Once we had heard enough, we made our way to another area of the forest and found the Golden Sifaka Lemurs. They were a beautiful golden color and very curious. They jumped from tree to tree next to us as we watched in awe. We walked back towards the entrance and saw Brown Lemurs, Eastern Bamboo Lemurs, and many other unique animals and plants. On the way back to Antananarivo to catch the flight back, I stopped at the Reserve Peyrieras Madagascar Exotica in Marozevo. This was a great stop as the park contained many species of reptiles, amphibians, insects, lemurs, and plants. The animals were all very friendly and seemed to enjoy being held, which made for nice photo opportunities.

From the unique culture and tribal customs to the many endemic species of plants and animals to the amazing geography, this country has what it takes to attract people of all interests. The people are very friendly and love to share their stories and learn about different countries. The many researchers at CVB are eager to share their research with visitors. My two weeks in Madagascar were amazing, and I can’t wait to share this wonderful country with others.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in: Highlights