A day in the life of a researcher in Madagascar
Samuel David Merson
DPhil Candidate at The University of Oxford
Sunday 9th August 2015
I wake up just before the sun rises at around 5:50 AM, having grown accustomed to early beginnings in Madagascar. Yawning I rustle out of my sleeping bag, and begin to dress for the day ahead, all the while wondering whether this could be the day that we capture a fosa.
I’m currently residing at the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership’s (MBP) camp, which is situated in southeast Madagascar, about an hours drive east of the famous Ranomafana National Park. It is here I am collaborating with Dr Edward Louis to capture and place GPS collars on three fosa. The landscape here is mountainous, frequented by small villages, rice fields, grassy hillsides, and secondary forests of bamboo and palm. Fortunately several small fragments of primary forest remain, surrounding the large village of Kianjavato. It is here in a fragment of forest called Sanga Sanga we have being conducting daily checks of 16 baited hav-a-hart traps, in hopes of catching an elusive fosa. Given the landscape here is severely degraded, annual tracking of the fosa’s movements will provide novel insight into their movements through, and use of, anthropogenic landscapes. This is something of critical importance in Madagascar, whereby less than 9% of its original forests remain, with much of it extremely fragmented and affected by human use.
Having dressed I walk down the steep hillside from my tent, gazing east I can see the sun rise behind the striking Vatovavy, a mountain several kilometres east of camp. Further down the hill I can see our dining hall, an open, tin roofed structure with two long tables and a kitchen at its end. Today, as with each day we will be eating a bowl of rice, with some type of accompaniment, perhaps scrambled eggs or leftovers from the previous evening. I finish breakfast quickly and with a cup of black coffee stride over to jump into the back of the truck for our daily drop-off in Kianjavato.
The truck rumbles into Kianjavato at around 6:40, grinning I can see Hery and Cadre, my two assistants waiting by the roadside. Exchanging pleasantries we cross the road and begin walking towards Sanga Sanga, which occupies the southern side of a mountainous ridge running west to east. This fragment of rainforest has principally been the focus of Edward Louis’ study of lemurs, Black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegeta), Greater Bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) and the enigmatic Aye-Aye (Daubentia madagascariensis). It has 8 lemurs in total, along with the usual array of Madagascar fauna, chameleons, tenrecs, and several other carnivores, the ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans), and Malagasy civet (Fossa fossana) among them. Around 50 meters from the village we begin our accent up a green trail that bisects FOFIFA, an agricultural station which grows a variety of coffee and other agricultural crops. After a ten-minute walk we leave the sparsely vegetated FOFIFA station and arrive at the edge of the forest, a small opening indicating the continuance of the trail up into the densely forested mountainside.
We have placed our traps on small trails that wind alongside the steep slope of Sanga Sanga. Fosa as with many large carnivores often prefer trails as they provide an unobstructed path through the forest. Our sixteen traps lead us haphazardly through the forest as the trail twists and turns alongside the mountain. My assistants are quick, having grown accustomed to the terrain and their daily ritual of trap checks. I can feel my legs burn as I try to keep up with Hery and it doesn’t take long before we’ve arrived at trap one… empty. We note down the time, and state of the trap (cage door open, and bait intact) and continue following the trail. Traps two, three, and four are also empty and have led us high up onto the ridge of Sanga Sanga and then back down into a gully. We arrive at trap five which is behind a thick tree, impressively towering high into the canopy. Hery, walking over to the cage, notices the door is shut and peers down inside. Success! Sort of, it’s a Ring-tailed mongoose, another member of Madagascar’s endemic carnivorous Family Eupleridae. I walk over to join Hery, and peer into the cage. It’s my first time observing a G. elegans up close, I’d previously seen one dashing across a campsite in Montagne d’Ambre National Park in Madagascar’s north. I’m reluctant to move, as I’d happily watch it for hours. However after my moment of indulgence, I half-heartedly walk to the back of the cage, and reaching forward lift the cage’s door. Without hesitation, the mongoose dashes forward and up the mountainside into the brush. Buoyed by the excitement of our most recent capture we continue onto trap six. Hery is once again in front and following the winding trail when we finally arrive at trap six. As he walks nearer to the trap he turns back to me smiling, fosa! Almost in disbelief I walk over and gaze inside. A young adult inquisitively returns my stare. Thrilled, I instruct Hery to return to Kianjavato and call camp. Cadre will check the remaining traps whilst I wait for the team to collect us, and our new fosa.
Having brought the fosa back to camp, we have since placed it in a dark, quiet corner within the camp’s storage building. Ed, the lead researcher of the camp is also a veterinarian, and is returning from the nearby village of Ranomafana to assist. In the interim, we’ve begun preparing equipment for processing our newly caught fosa. This typically involves the collection of several biological samples (blood, tissue, faecal), and recording of various morphometric measurements (i.e. body length, canine length, body weight). Cynthia, a colleague of Ed’s from Omaha Zoo has joined to help me prepare, and we’ve chosen a large wooden table on the second level of the storage facility. Various collection tubes, measuring tapes, callipers, and other tools are placed on the table in anticipation for Ed’s arrival. The time is now around 11:30 and with everything ready we decide to have a quick lunch.
Ed arrives just after lunch, and I’m very pleased to see him. Everyone exchanges niceties as we walk up to the second floor of the storage facility to begin. A number of the camp’s volunteers and researchers have gathered, eager to see an elusive fosa up close. As Ed and Cynthia don surgical gloves and prepare notebooks, I bring the fosa up to the second floor. It’s still within its cage so we’ll be able to inject the anaesthetising agents directly. Kneeling down beside the cage I’m able gain its attention whilst Ed is able to effortlessly sedate it from behind, it’s soon asleep, allowing us to finally begin.
Once we have the fosa close enough for examination, we discover it’s sex - male. This leads the team to begin thinking of names (a common researcher exercise) and it’s not long before a Jungle Book theme has been chosen, with Baloo the frontrunner. With naming requirements concluded we then begin taking a variety of measurements; weight, 5.015 kg; body length, 61.4 cm; right canine length, 16.2 mm and so on. In addition, blood, faecal and tissue samples were taken and stored to allow their use in future studies. With the data and biological sample collection completed we begin fitting and attaching our new ATS W500 GPS Collar, the tool underpinning our study. The collar itself is small, lightweight (just over 100g) and powered by two AA batteries. It has been programmed to record Baloo’s GPS location (a fix) every three hours, for a total of eight fixes per day and is estimated to last over one year! Given Ed’s previous lemur capturing experience he quickly gauges the suitable circumference of the collar and it’s soon secured around Baloo’s neck.
The whole procedure had taken about one hour, and the team was thrilled to have finally captured a fosa. Following the fitting of his collar, Baloo was given a drug to reverse the effects of the anaesthetising agent. He was then placed back inside his cage, and given time to recover in isolation. Several hours have since passed, and with Baloo now recovered, we’re returning to Sanga Sanga for his release.
It’s now 17:00 and as we walk up into the forest I watch Baloo vigilantly gaze at me through the small opening of the cage. As we follow the trail up the steep slope, the sun is beginning to set, and I’m eager to release him back into the wild. Within fifteen minutes we’ve arrived back at Baloo’s site of capture, and with the sun nearly set we place the cage down with its door facing the opposite direction. Without delay, we open the door, and he’s gone.
It’d been a long and exciting day. It was only my second time holding a fosa, and the first of hopefully three to be captured in Kianjavato. Tomorrow, we will return to the daily routine of trap checks, however it will also mark the beginning of our VHF tracking of Baloo. There are exciting times ahead, and fortunately, we’ve only just begun.