The Last Expedition: Vatoharanana

At times, this last expedition felt like a much-needed vacation. Again, we were graced with good weather and had sunshine every day. On average, we were seeing 15-20 lemurs a day. Even after having studied them for nearly three months now, it still makes my heart race when we spot them. Nothing about day-to-day research here has ever been boring.

A Madagascar tree frog next to my tent.

Vatoharanana is Malagasy for “quartz,” as the entire landscape is peppered with quartz boulders the size of your car. It amazes me that Vatoharanana is only two hours from Talakataly, and only one hour from Valohoaka, but so vastly different from them. This was the first site where I really found signs of anthropogenic activity. Talakataly is always full of tourists and thus well-guarded by the many tour guides. Valohoaka is rather far away and typically only visited by research groups. But in Vatoharanana, we started to see huge trees that were cut for honey exploitation. A group of bees will create a hive in the trunk of a large tree. People will cut down the entire tree to extract the honey, since there was no other way to access the hive. A huge, 22-inch diameter tree would maybe produce only 1-3 liters of honey for people to sell. It’s a sad reality that incidents like this still occur in a well-guarded park. Part of my research project included recording the tree species, size and GPS location. I then provide this information to Madagascar National Parks in hopes that it will help them prevent harvesting like this in the future.

With my foot for size reference, you can see how people extract honey from the trees.
The inside of the excavated tree shows remnants of a bee’s nest

Every day we went over the river, up the first mountain to site #304, down the valley to site #303, across the river twice, up the second mountain to sites #301 and #302, down the valley, across the river, up a third mountain to site number to site #305, and finally down the valley to camp. The three different mountain ridges had the same river meandering throughout the valleys. We would hike the same loop in reverse order so we were visiting the vegetation plots and looking for lemurs at different times each day.

On the fourth day, my guide George stopped me, pointed across the valley to the second mountain ridge, and said “that’s where we walked this morning.” I truly couldn’t believe it. The space between was incredibly vast and heavily forested. It looked miles away. Honestly, it probably was miles away. This was my “aha” moment. I had been so caught up in the health issues, research issues, equipment issues, trip planning – tackling every challenge that came in my way – that I hardly realized how far I had come, let alone where I was standing.

The view across the valley between mountain ridges on a foggy day

I have been climbing from mountain to mountain, through hanging bamboo vines that leave splinters on my skin, through spiny thickets of vegetation that cut up my hands, pulling leaches off my legs and spider webs off my face as I went – all as if it is just a normal day’s work. And the thing is, it was normal. It was the new normal for me. I had grown so used to the extraordinary that I found myself beginning to dread my days off more than looking forward to them. Understandably, I greatly preferred bush-whacking through the forest and looking for lemurs as opposed to resting at camp.

Though, I had a few favorite critters at camp that visited us regularly. The first was a 3-inch calumma chameleon. Every night he started making his way onto a tree branch near our kitchen area. He appeared at 4 p.m. sharp and settled in for the night. By 6 a.m., he started his departure back to the tree trunk. People often talk about chameleons for their ability to change colors, but I was much more amazed at their consistency, and punctuality. In a way, our chameleon friend was our very own “nature clock” who silently signaled the beginning and end of our work day.

Our chameleon friend starting to make his way onto the branch at 4 pm
Our chameleon leaving the branch first thing in the morning

A little way down the trail was home to the first large chameleon I have ever seen. His large horns indicated that he was a male. Without the flash of a camera, his coloration helped him blend in just like a leaf. However, with camera flash, his true colors shone. His chin was speckled with dots of bright turquoise, and his nails looked like they had been painted in neon-green nail polish. I would visit him each night, knowing this is probably one of the few times in my life that I’ll get to have this close of an encounter with an incredible Parson’s chameleon. I enjoyed watching his eyes follow me as I studied him.

A large, Parson’s chameleon

In addition to better understanding the night life, I also found myself getting to know the lemurs better too. The sifakas always hissed and bobbed their heads back and forth in an attempt to scare us off. Yet, the red-bellied lemurs were quite the opposite. They are a curious species and often came within arm’s length of us. Even when they had an infant, which usually would instill more caution in lemur parents, they would still come incredibly close to humans. The lesser bamboo lemur always swung their tails wildly back and forth. Sometimes from afar all I could see was the tip of a tail moving, or all I could hear was a low grunt or hiss, but I knew exactly what species it was before I could even see the lemur. My identification skills improved dramatically since I first entered the forest in May, thanks to the help of my guides.

It’s impossible for me to talk about an expedition without boasting about my incredible team. Donne and Pela August were with me of course, and I had hired George while Mirana was getting physical therapy on her twisted ankle injury. Then we also had Desy (short for Desire) as our cook. George proved to be an incredible asset to the team. When it was time to work, he worked hard. And when it was meal time, he was a great entertainer with many stories. He also was a great help with expanding my Malagasy vocabulary.

After watching Donne and Desy take turns at chopping the deadwood for firewood, I wanted to take a crack at it. There’s nothing quite like wood-chopping to release tension. I was clumsy at it at first and Donne thought it was hilarious. It seemed that my performance was releasing everyone else’s tensions as well. I drew the crowd of my team as Donne took a video, George coached me on proper chopping techniques, Pela August clapped when I successfully cut a piece and Desy just smiled and shook his head. These people have become my family and I hope they have enjoyed working with me as much as I’ve enjoyed getting to know them. I’m constantly amazed at their work ethic and dedication to forest research. I’m lucky to have learned so much about the environment, park management and culture through their perspectives.

From left to right: Donne, Desy, George, Pela August and me on the last day of our Vatoharanana expedition.