Friday, March 26, 2010

Final Installment of Duke Lemur Center's recent visit to Madagascar

by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Coordinator

Friday 2/12 – Fly out of Tana early this morning for Tamatave, with a quick stop in Ile St. Marie, a small island off the east coast of Madagascar. St. Marie was a major Indian Ocean pirate hangout back in the early 1700s, but that is another story. I am surprised that the flight is full out of Tana, and many seem to be affiliated with recently arrived mining interests in Madagascar, in particular a developing nickel/cobalt mine at Ambatovy, near Moramanga. The mined material will be sent as a slurry from the east central mining site, via a 200 km pipeline which will end in the port city of Tamatave. Tamatave is where many of the mine personnel are based. There the slurry will be processed and shipped out by boat. About a dozen of those on the flight are Filipinos, who are skilled labor brought in to work in the mine.
Coming back to Tamatave is always a pleasure, as it was our home for more than 15 years while we worked at Parc Ivoloina on behalf of MFG and DLC. It still feels like home. I am coming to Tamatave to participate in the inauguration of the newly finished dining facility and kitchen at the Ivoloina Training Center (ITC), and to meet with MFG Project Manager An Bollen on particular issues. The dining facility/kitchen facility is the last piece of the ITC puzzle, complimenting the meeting building, laboratory, and dormitory which are already completed and functioning. In fact, a training of school district officials at the ITC, in environmental education was just finishing up.
After checking in to the hotel, a quick visit to the in town office of the MFG makes it clear that the MFG’s work in Madagascar is continuing to evolve. For example, the natural history library there is now the largest in the Tamatave region, and is quite a resource for students of all ages. The office is capably managed by Nicole Vally, and the library by Romina Raharimampionana. French national Charlotte Gressin who is living in Tamatave is helping out with a variety of education and graphics projects. Impressive to see all the changes and capable new personnel since my last visit here, almost 2 years ago!
Met some with An, and MFG vice chair Ingrid Porton who is presently in town.
Saturday 2/13 – The day of the inauguration of the ITC dining area/kitchen building. Inaugurations are a big deal in Madagascar, and this particular one is no exception. We arrive at the ITC around 8:00 in the morning as preparations are underway. Many local villagers and elders are present for the inauguration – such events are opportunities to strengthen relations with local people, which is always important for conservation projects.
Low level government officials trickle in through the early hours, and when everyone expected is present the speeches begin on the temporary stage constructed for the occasion, and decorated with eucalyptus branches, and yellow alamanda flowers. The speeches are mostly in Malagasy, with a smattering of French. An gives her speech in Malagasy which is met with cheers and applause. My speech has to be in French with only a bit of Malagasy thrown in here and there. Master of ceremonies, Bernard Iambana is kind enough to translate my speech into Malagasy. The speeches thankfully wind down as shady spots become increasingly more difficult to find for those in the audience. The sun is blaring relentlessly in the 95% humidity, but better that than rain. Many of us vazaha are more than a little bit pink by the end of the day.
After the speeches is the main event of any inauguration in Madagascar, the killing of a bull and dividing up the meat between attendees. This whole process is interwoven with “kibary” by the village elders – traditional speeches to the ancestors, in a back and forth fashion, from one group of elders to another. Eventually the portions of divided meat are distributed to families, and a small platform table is constructed to hold the rice and meat offering to the ancestors. A pre-prepared post, sharpened at the tip, the “fisokana” is sunk into the ground near the building, and eventually the horns of the bull are mounted on the sharp tip of the fisokana. I should also mention that to promote the general good mood, rum and betsa-betsa (sugar cane beer) are distributed liberally throughout the day.
Finally, the ceremony ends with an enormous feast of more rice than can possibly be imagined, and of course fresh beef. All is spread out on newly cut travelers palm leaves, and little by little disappears into hungry mouths. Proud moment concerning the rice served at the ceremony is that it was entirely rice grown by SRI intensive rice paddy production on the Ivoloina Station property – no “tavy” or slash and burn rice (which is traditionally used).
After 7 hours the inauguration is complete.
Sun. 2/14 – A day off! Today is a time to spend with old friends in Tamatave. An Bollen has a BBQ at her house in the evening with friends and MFG staff. A lovely evening of good food, (including brochettes from inauguration beef), and very good company. The MFG staff made a nice presentation of flowers and a thank you speech for Ingrid, for her constant and tireless efforts on behalf of the MFG. And the same for An in honor of her dedication and hard work for MFG. Bernard gave a very moving speech.
Monday 2/15 – What a pleasant surprise this morning when as I am waiting for the MFG truck to leave the office for Parc Ivoloina, our old colleague and friend Chef Razokiny appears at the door. Chef Razokiny was the Eaux et Foret Chef de Station Forestier Ivoloina when Andrea and I first arrived in Tamatave in 1987. It was in large part due to our confidence and trust in Chef Razokiny that we felt that a Conservation Center at Ivoloina had potential, and was worth pursuing. He was a Chef of the old school sort who believed in hard work, and village relations, and just in general was quite strict (in later years he was known by the workers as “the colonel”!). When we first arrived at Ivoloinain ‘87 the entire staff was only Chef Razokiny and one animal keeper, Noel. Now between Ivoloina, Betampona, and the in town office, MFG has 35 Malagasy employees. Ivoloina and Betampona have come a long way since those early years, and the in- town office did not even exist until years later!
At any rate, it is wonderful to see Chef Razokiny, and chat for a while. He had eventually been transferred by Eaux et Foret at his own request to Parc National Marojejy, near Andapa, in the northeast. He is originally from that area, and wanted to return there for his last years of service. Chef Razokiny is retired now, and the reason for his being in Tamatave was to visit family.
Finally the MFG truck leaves for Ivoloina. It has been almost 2 years since I have visited the Station and the Parc and I am anxious to see all. Saturday was spent entirely at the Training Center, so today is reserved for the Station’s other aspects. First stop is the Model Station where improved farming techniques are demonstrated, including the SRI intensive rice cultivation in paddies. Also in the Model Station are vegetable plots (techniques for growing on slopes), a wide variety of fruiting trees and vines, and commercial products such as vanilla, cloves, pepper, and coffee. Any and all alternatives to slash and burn are grown on the plot. Also at the Model Station is the expansive tree nursery, containing both native trees and useful introduced species.
Next stop is some of the Station trails which have been put in place for visitors. As I walk the trails I also get a chance to inspect many of the plantations of native trees that we had made over the years. Exciting to see those trees doing well and getting ever larger. A returning natural forest ….
Next visit is to the Environmental Education Center, which for Andrea and I was the first addition outside of the Zoo itself – that was our first priority. The Center is in wonderful shape, and jam packed with fascinating exhibits with items from extinct elephant bird eggs, to whale bones. The Center now also includes a covered open air classroom, where the successful Saturday Class is held each week. Long time MFG employee Rostand showed me around the Education complex.
Finally I make it to the Zoo itself. Is good to see old friends, both human and animal. Noel still works there and is joined by long timer Georges among others. The Zoo looks well kept, and the animals (mostly lemurs of course!) look good as well. All very rewarding to see. Keeping a project going in a positive direction in Madagascar is not easy, but those that came after Andrea and I, first Karen and Gareth, and now An Bollen, along with the Malagasy staff, have done an amazing job. Ivoloina has evolved into a multi-faceted conservation center which is impacting lives and conservation on many fronts.
An is at the Parc this day as well, along with Charlotte carrying out a training with the staff on project evaluation technique. Always at work on something! She does also find time at the end of the day to meet and discuss some pressing issues.
Another good day.
Tuesday 2/16 – My last day in Tamatave. An and Ingrid are busy most of the day interviewing replacement candidates for Ainga, the capable Ivoloina Education Coordinator. Ainga has done a great job in his position at Ivoloina, but is moving on to other opportunities.
I squeeze in some souvenir shopping, then later meet with Yves Ravalison to try and help An find a solution to the stalled project of an electricity generating waterwheel at Ivoloina. The wheel structure is partially finished, but is at risk from floods at times of cyclonic rains (which generally occur several times a year). Not a straight forward dilemma, as is often the case in Mada.
Say my goodbyes to all, and fly out on evening flight for Tana. More familiar faces along the way.
Wednesday 2/17 My last day in Madagascar, but flight out is at night, so I have all day for meetings, etc. First met with Missouri Botanical Garden staff Chris, Jeannie, and Christian to review my site visits. Visits to both Makirovana, and to Montagne des Francais were very well coordinated and facilitated by MBG, and I am very grateful to them for their help. I got a very good exposure to both the natural and human aspects of the areas. Both sites are certainly worthy of additional protection. Many thanks MBG.
Another meeting was with Benjamin Andriamihaja of MICET. We discussed other priority conservation areas around the country in need of help, and the logistical requirements of becoming involved in on-the-ground conservation in Madagascar. It can be a very complicated and lengthy process, as I am already quite aware.
Had an early dinner with our veterinary trainees, Haja and Hery. Nice to see them a last time, and especially pleasing to hear that Hery has just received an offer of a part time position as an assistant to the primary veterinarian at Parc Tsimbazaza, in Tana. This is a great opportunity for Hery, and will hopefully be helpful to Tsimbazaza, which is Madagascar’s “national” zoo.
Finally head out to Ivato airport for my flight back to the US, via Marseilles and Paris. Is always with mixed feelings about leaving Madagascar – nice to think of being reunited with Andrea and Alena, but a bit like leaving home again. Seems strange even to be traveling alone, at the airport after passing through so many times “en famille”.
My time in Madagascar has gone very well, no cancelled flights and no cyclones! Lots to think about now and to consider in terms of DLC involvement in an on-the-ground conservation sense. I can’t help but think about how very long, and how much hard work it took to transform Ivoloina and Betampona into viable conservation projects. And the continual effort that it takes on behalf of the dedicated MFG staff to keep those projects hitting on all cylinders. But maybe now is the time to expand DLC’s conservation ambitions beyond our participation in the MFG (which we will always continue to support). One thing is certain, the need for effective conservation action in Madagascar has never been so urgent.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Duke Lemur Center Report from Madagascar

by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Coordinator
Wed. 2/10 – This morning I flew out of Sambava, to Diego Suarez (also known as Antsiranana). That is only a 45 minute flight but takes you from the eastern wet forest to the much drier climate at the northern tip of Madagascar. Diego is an interesting city with more Arab and Muslim influence. There is a large Comorian community as Diego is the closest Madagascar city to the Comore islands.
Diego also has an enormous bay with only a small outlet into the surrounding Indian Ocean. Because of that strategic fact, the area has an interesting military history, including British forces attacking French Vichy forces here in WWII.
I am in Diego to investigate another potential natural area for DLC to become involved in - Montagne des Francais. It is another area that MBG has studied and found to be a priority area for conservation in particular for its unique flora. I am met in Diego by MBG rep. Jimmy. After a quick change into field clothes, and picking up a Conservation International rep., Monica, as well as 4 local university students, we are off to nearby Montagne des Francais. The students have various interests in natural areas, and are along to take advantage of the outing opportunity. It is nice being out in the forest again with enthusiastic students (some in flip flops only for footwear over the rugged terrain!)
We begin our walk through degraded areas, and the forest improves as we climb gently upward. It is a very different type of forest than at Makirovana – much lower canopy, with a different mix of species which include the widely used tropical ornamental flamboyant tree, in its native habitat. Also in this forest are various species of baobabs, some of which are quite endangered. MdF is a calcareous mountain area, and so not surprisingly our guide takes us to a large cave. It is easy to climb down into, and walk about in, but not very deep, nor with impressive rock formations. Easy to imagine it offering shelter from storms to many over the years. After the cave, we continue into the forest, through a valley with limestone cliffs rising on either side. Large baobabs are growing out of the rock fall at the foot of the cliffs. It is a very beautiful and striking area. Nearer to the cliffs we are shown implanted anchors for the ropes of climbers, put there by a local French tourist operator who brings climbers from time to time. After winding our way through the forest, often off trails through tight, blood-letting shrub stands, we make it back to the trucks by mid-afternoon. We were a bit disappointed to neither see nor hear any signs of lemurs. Crowned lemurs are the only diurnal species in MdF forests.
A meeting has been arranged with local villagers, so after the usual delay we all sit down together on benches outside, arranged in a U shape. The conservation problems in this area are different from Makirovana. The forest is under pressure from local villagers making charcoal to sell in nearby Diego. Any and almost all wood can be cut and made into charcoal by burning stacks of the wood slowly in an oxygen poor situation. The particular village that we meet with is one of the few fokontany to make a real effort to reduce charcoal making. The other approximately 20 fokontany in the MdF area continue to cut trees and make charcoal. Many in the area are said to be immigrants from other regions of Madagascar who are accustomed to making their livelihood directly off the forest. Their practices will not change easily. The villagers that we spoke to seemed a bit frustrated at being one of the few cooperating villages, and did not seem to be completely pleased with what they were getting in return.
Thurs. 2/11 – This morning I participated in a meeting in Diego, with all the conservation and government players in the area. There were reps. from MBG, Conservation International, WWF, Water and Forest Department, tourism, university, and local government officials. Though I was the only non-Malagasy person at the meeting, they were kind enough to conduct most of the meeting in French (rather than in the Malagasy language). I gave a presentation explaining the DLC, and our conservation objectives in Madagascar, and potentially in the area. I fielded many questions afterward. There was much interest in the conservation work that Andrea and I had been involved in at the Ivoloina Conservation Center, where we worked until 2004.
Montagne des Francais is a very interesting area, which is loaded with potential as an ecotourism site, and as an environmental education and training site. Its relative nearness to Diego is what causes the charcoal problems, but the proximity to Diego also makes it a relatively easy trip for school groups and university students. It would be an easy additional half-day option for tourists in the area, different from the other outdoor, natural experiences presently available. In theory local people could benefit from a constant stream of visitors. Too bad that the area does not have more lemur species!
This afternoon I flew to Tana, via Nosi Be (which involved an aborted landing in a thunderstorm and 20 minute fly-about as the storm cleared). Will have to stay in Tana tonight before catching the next flight to Tamatave in the morning.