Blog from the field - Bristol Zoo to Ankarafa forest

Bristol Zoo to Ankarafa forest.

Dr Michelle Barrows, Head Vet at Bristol Zoological Society, Dr Grainne McCabe, Head of Conservation Science, and myself, Alan Toyne, Senior Keeper are off to Ankarafa forest in Madagascar, to assist in a doctoral dissertation project examining the social organization and ranging behaviour of the Sahamalaza sportive lemur (Lepilemur sahamalensis) and carry out a biomedical evaluation of this critically endangered species.  The forest is situated on the Sahamalaza peninsula in northwest Madagascar. Our goal is to catch and radio collar four sportive lemurs to enable University of Bristol/Bristol Zoological Society PhD student, Isabella Mandl, to follow these individuals each night and record their behaviour. Studying nocturnal species is very challenging, particularly when they are small, rapidly moving animals like sportive lemurs. Only by having the animals radio-collared can Isabella keep track of them as they move throughout their range during the night. By having several individuals in one forest fragment collared at the same time, she can also determine how they interact with one another and share their habitat. This information is important as well informed conservation management plans for threatened species are only possible when we have accurate and detailed data on all aspects of the lives of the animals. Ankarafa forest is also home to another species studied by the Bristol Zoological Society, the blue-eyed black lemur (Eulemur flavifrons).

It takes four days to get to Ankarafa forest. Along with tents and backpacks we have a portable freezer, a cool-box, a blow pipe and a dart projector, the last two disguised as a set of plastic golf clubs to bamboozle customs.

Antananarivo or Tana is dark and humid when we arrive. We pick up brick sized bundles of cash at the airport and take a slow three-hour ride to our hotel, roads choked with zebu carts and mopeds, the city flooded, with houses marooned in lakes fed by torrential rain. I learn my first lesson about Madagascar: use the bathroom before getting on any mode of transport.
The roads from Tana to the research camp are washed out, so very early the next day we fly north to the island of Nosy Be, take a short boat ride to the mainland port of Ankify and book our first taxi-brousse. My bargaining technique obviously needs refining; my first counter offer is accepted with glee and the freezer and cool-box are jammed through the window of a mini-van with no bumper and a windscreen held together with packing tape. We buy oil and stop for petrol. Wait for the driver to change his shirt and go via the bakery to pick up three loaves of bread. At last we bounce through potholes out of town, cross a bridge and stop to add oil, which requires the front seats to be removed.  Bread is handed out loaf by loaf in various villages and after a bone jarring four hours we arrive in Antsohihy.
The following two days take us downriver through mangrove swamps in the AEECL boat. We avoid offending the river spirits by taking off our hats and pound up the Mozambique Channel to eventually wade ashore in the tiny village of Marovato for the final leg – a hot and sunny two-hour hike to the field camp. The freezer, cool-box and our bags are consigned to a zebu cart and we trek over red eroded hills, through humid valleys of tangled forest where the excited cries of ‘Welcome!’ lead us into camp.

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