When I stepped onto the plane to Madagascar, I had no idea what to expect. Expanding Horizons has sent students on a wide variety of experiences, but never to this location. It is sometimes said that the only constant when working with wildlife is uncertainty; for me, that was an understatement.
I arrived in the capital city of Antananarivo with a definitive plan, developed along with Dr. Patricia Wright, primatologist and anthropologist from Stony Brook University. I would spend the first week at Centre ValBio, the research station founded by Dr. Wright in the continuous rainforest, observing and taking behavioral data on the lemurs that reside in Ranomafana National Park. Then, a team of Centre ValBio research technicians and I would travel to a remote area of forest fragments, dart and capture a group of greater bamboo lemurs, take biological samples for research purposes, and translocate the group of lemurs into the protected pristine rainforest of Ranomafana National Park. This project had three different goals. The first was a rescue mission for the threatened lemurs in the fragmented forest. The second was to collect data on this critically endangered and relatively unstudied species. The last goal was to increase genetic diversity in greater bamboo lemurs by introducing a new population to the two lemurs already in Ranomafana National Park. The rest of my summer would be spent processing samples and monitoring the group of lemurs as they adapted to their new environment, or so I thought.
Unfortunately, the trip to the fragmented forest was severely delayed, but I made the most of that time by working closely with my team in the design and management of the project and looking for ways to improve it. I met with the regional head of Malagasy National Parks, park rangers, and environmental administrators where we discussed the future of the national park in lemur conservation. At the research station I worked with researchers, veterinarians, and even botanists, both local and international, to assimilate their expertise into this lemur conservation project.
In the process of researching and networking, the scope of the project began to grow. We found funding for a humanitarian team to build a dam for the local villages near our target population and the botanists joined our team to examine the possibility of reconnecting the forest fragments with the continuous forest. We consulted the experts around us to figure out how to take full advantage of a single capture event by collecting a wide array of samples from each lemur. Together we set up a plan to establish long-term preliminary data prior to the translocation.
The overall goals of the project remained the same, but the timeline was elongated and incorporated more disciplines. Instead of doing the capture with sample collection and translocation all in one trip, an initial team would capture, sample, radio collar, and release the lemurs back into the fragmented forest. Then a team of technicians from the research station would remain at the site for at least five months to gather behavioral, nutritional, and hormonal data. In the future, once sufficient data is collected and it is deemed safe to transport the lemurs, another expedition will embark to capture the lemurs for translocation to the safety of Ranomafana National Park.
While I waited for the initial team to embark, I was lucky enough to join a different project where I operated small mammal traps to gather morphometric data on mouse lemurs and chased ring-tailed lemurs through the forests to collect fecal samples. This expedition took me to the undisturbed and utterly breathtaking Lost Rainforest of Crystal Mountain, which is even more Indiana Jones-esque than the name implies, but that is a story for another time.
After returning from the Lost Rainforest, I had a quick turnaround before embarking on my own team’s expedition to capture a group of greater bamboo lemurs. The journey was wrought with obstacles, both literal and metaphorical. These included driving three days over one of the worst roads in the world where the winches on our vehicles were exercised often, being stuck for five days in a hotel while we waited for a government official to send a single email that would allow us to progress, and almost being turned away by the villagers upon arrival to the fragmented forests. However, once we finally established our camp around the clay church in the village, we wasted no time in jumping into action. From the daily river crossings that required full pants removal to the herds of cattle that stumbled through our processing setup, nothing could stop us once we found our momentum. Our blowdart experts were bringing us lemurs faster than we could process them and we had a queue of lemurs patiently waiting their turn. Our processing team consisted of three vets (two from Germany and one from Madagascar), one parasitologist from the US, and myself and it only took us a couple of lemurs to become a well-oiled machine. Not only did we monitor anesthesia and conduct physical exams, but we also took a wide variety of samples including blood, hair, feces, swabs from every orifice, parasites, morphometrics, and even breath. In just two and a half days, we darted and processed 12 greater bamboo lemurs and it was glorious.
It was extremely fun and rewarding to work with the lemurs and to safely release them back into the forest, but what made the experience truly special was that we were actively championing the conservation of a critically endangered species. I hope that I am able to return to Madagascar next year to continue my work on the translocation of the lemurs, but even if I am unable to return, this past summer in Madagascar has been an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. As the Malagasy say, olombelona tsi akoho!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bekah Weatherington, class of 2021, is a Cornell DVM student from San Diego, CA. She has received her B.S. in biology and M.S. in biomedical sciences from Colorado State University. Bekah is interested in how veterinary medicine can be used as a tool in wildlife conservation. Her special interests include rehabilitation, aquatic species, and international field work.