Monday, February 15, 2010

More 1st hand news from Madagascar

Travel Notes from Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Manager
Tues. 2/2 – Leaving for Sambava tomorrow. Today I met with University of Antananarivo Veterinary School Director, Dr. Jhon Rasambainarivo and some of his staff, at the Vet School. Dr. Jhon is the father of Fidy, Ivoloina’s very capable staff veterinarian. Had a very nice meeting with them, and tour of the School. The School is simple and certainly has needs, but I was very impressed at what they had been able to accomplish with the funds that they do have available. Especially remarkable were the 3 new labs of different types. We are hoping to be able to collaborate with the Vet School in some way that will further their teaching capacity. A first step is the donation of the veterinary medicine books that we are sending from DLC.
Wed. 2/3 – Chris Birkinshaw of Missouri Botanical Garden and I fly to Sambava this morning. Sambava is on the northeast coast of Madagascar, in the heart of the vanilla producing region. It is a region where there is more remaining forest than in other parts of the eastern wet forest. As we flew in I was struck by the number of villages in the area, which makes it difficult to imagine that the remaining forest can hold on for much longer.
This afternoon Chris and I, and the MBG representative in the area, Dorien, visited some NGOs and agri-businesses working in the region. One such agri-business was a company which is promoting and buying jatropha. Jatropha is a small very adaptable tree that grows in a variety of situations. The seeds produce useful oil, and are bought by this particular company. It is one of a variety of alternatives to slash and burn. We also met today with the regional director of the Water and Forests Department. He was kind enough to see us, although his mind is now heavily on the critical matter of illegal exploitation of rosewood in the region.
Thurs. 2/4 – Today we met with village elders from 3 different fokontany (villages) in the Makirovana – Tsihomanaomby (M-T) area, a site we’re investigating as a potential DLC conservation site. One of my interests is to see what their attitudes are towards forest protection. A bit to my surprise, they were all anxious to see the forests near them protected, in large part because they are feeling the impact of the slash and burn cutting on the slopes. The resulting erosion is ruining their rice paddies in the low areas. Also, they are seeing a decrease in water flow from important water sources. The local people are all interested in help with irrigation projects to improve their rice output – conservation tradeoffs. At any rate, I was very encouraged by all 3 meetings. The third of the 3 villages, Antanandava is off the main road, so required a scenic but long walk (20 kms roundtrip). The village sits on the banks of the large Bemarivo River, and you could tell that they don’t see vazaha (white foreigners) so often. Throughout the meeting, the doorways were crammed with 20+ children’s heads watching our every peculiar move!
Fri. 2/5 – Today we finally strike off into the forest for a tour of the M – T area, however not before getting corralled into a meeting with hundreds of middle school students, by one of the enthusiastic local mayors. We were of course once again the center of attention, and we each spoke about the importance of forest protection, and congratulated them on their reforestation efforts. Schedules have to remain fluid in Madagascar …
To get to the M-T area we had to cross areas of agricultural land, including my least favorite walking in the world, through rice paddies. Not actually through the paddies, but in the drainage canals. Wet feet starting off a long walk, and in not so clean water. Complaining aside, or almost aside, the walk into the forest was relatively short, but the heat and the uphill grade made it a bit challenging to hold pace. Not the walker that I was 10 years ago.
Once we were into the forest we began to immediately come across places where rosewood had been illegally cut. And not just cut, but dug around and removed at far below ground level! I suppose that the good news was that there was no evidence of recent cutting, nor did we hear any cutting while we were in the forest. The not so good news is that the reason is probably that there is no more rosewood of appropriate size left in this particular forest. But at least the forest intrusion has ceased there for the time being. The forest was generally healthy looking, though lacked a normal percentage of larger trees. Some other less valuable tree species had been removed as well.
The guides and porters led us to an area in the forest where we set up camp. Even managed to get tents set up, and dinner cooked and eaten before the sky opened up and rained buckets non-stop for hours.
Sat. 2/6 – Lemurs finally! Just as we were getting up this morning a group of about 5 crowned lemurs moved very quickly through the camp area. They were very shy, and we could only manage glimpses. People do eat lemurs in this area, and I am told not only is hunting by snare traps, but also with guns. Unfortunately lemurs are eaten in the larger towns as well – lots of “sensibilization” to be done in this area about the ecological damage from choosing to eat wild game meat. In any case, the hunting makes for very flighty lemurs that are difficult to get very close to.
We struck camp early, leaving the porters to finish and meet us eventually back at the main road. We spent the morning doing a slow walking tour around the forest. Today I was more encouraged about the bird life that we came across. We saw blue coua, crested ibis, and other species which are indicators of relatively good forest. One spot that we stopped and rested was just jumping with continuous bird activity. Unfortunately we saw no more lemurs.
By afternoon our walk had taken us out of the good forest into a mix of degraded and agricultural land. Mostly there were rice paddies and “tavy” (slash and burn) rice on the hillsides. With the price of vanilla at a tenth of what it reached several years back, many locals throughout the northeast have converted their vanilla plots into tavy rice production. At least with the vanilla some plant cover is left, and there is no burning. Tavy simply has no positive up side. Eventually we crossed rice paddies again, and came out to the road at the village of Ambodisambalahy. As we walked along the road, someone was kind enough to give us a ride to our rendezvous point of Ambavala. From there it was back to Sambava.
Sun. 2/7 – Today Chris B. flew back to Tana. There are only 3 flights a week between Tana and Sambava, so our choices are limited. Having Chris not only helping to coordinate my time here, but also come along himself was invaluable. And Dorien’s help and guiding was indispensible. Very impressive what Dorien has been able to get done in this area as the only MBG representative on the ground here. His relations with the local people are excellent, and he has had success in making people aware of the importance of protecting the M-T forest (which does actually now have a low level of protected status) and getting people to cease cutting and cultivating in the “strictly protected” zones. Not an easy task.
As Chris leaves, silky sifaka researcher Erik Patel arrives in Sambava. Erik has agreed via email to spend some time with me in the area. With Erik is his research assistant Kristen, who will be settling in for a 3-month stay at Erik’s research site. The site is in Marojejy National Park which is about 2 or 3 hours drive from here, on the road to Andapa. We will make a visit to that area tomorrow and Tuesday, but unfortunately will not have the time to get into the forest to see the silkies.
Mon. 2/8 – We leave at mid-morning for Andapa. After leaving the road that continues northward along the coast, we slowly began gaining elevation, and the air becomes just a bit cooler. Mountains surround us, and as we approach the steeply sloped area of Marojejy NP, the Park’s distinctive peaks remain shrouded in clouds. A very impressive and scenic sight. Marojejy is not one of Madagascar’s most visited parks as it is somewhat off the usual tourist routes, and it’s also quite difficult to walk the steep trails. I do believe though that it is one of the most scenic areas that I have seen in Madagascar. We stop at the park office and visitor center, where I am shown the exhibits, which include a giant aye-aye photo by DLC’s David Haring. Erik works very closely with the Park guides here, and there are some very capable ones. After some quick programming with those that work for him, Erik and I continue up the road, continually upward, until we arrive in Andapa. As beautiful a natural area as Marojejy Park is, the Andapa area is equally as appealing from a human on-the-land standpoint. The town lies in a natural basin that is surrounded by mountains on all sides. The flat basin floor is covered from one side to the other with rich and productive emerald green rice paddy fields. Really quite a sight to behold. Erik and I walked to a nearby hill where we could get a good view of the basin.
We met with the regional Madagascar National Parks Director who oversees Marojejy and Anjanaharibe Sud protected areas. As often happens in this small country, he was a familiar face from years earlier, and seemed pleased to meet again. A friend of Erik’s in Andapa kindly invited us to dinner with his family. The friend and his wife work sometimes in tourism in the area as guides for groups. Because of the political situation, and because of the rosewood cutting publicity, very few visitors have been coming to the area, making life difficult for those who depend on tourism.
Tues. 2/9 – Spoke with the hotel owner about the difficulties of drawing tourists when rosewood is still being illegally cut. We spoke with many who are very frustrated with the situation, for a variety of reasons.
Later, drove back to Sambava.


  1. very cool update. reading with interest in NC, keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for sharing and pulling it together.

  3. Please start a DLC conservation project in Madagascar. This is a dream I've wanted to see happen for many years. Keep up the good work!