Vazah in a Village

By Julia Zeikowitz

Well it has all come down to this week. Research, what a scary and intimidating word that is, especially if you have no idea what you want to research. Coming to Madagascar I had no idea what the course called “independent research” entailed. Once we learned what was expected of us for the independent research project, I still had no idea what I wanted to research. Some people choose to study lemurs, others planned on studying plants, medicine and other animals. I went more of a cultural anthropology route. I initially wanted to research how many students from the “My Rainforest My World” program are currently in conservation clubs. With help from the education department at CVB, I was able to come up with a survey to ask about: what factors influenced membership of the conservation club in a remote village.

When the time finally came, my guide/ translator and I set out for our hour and a half hike to the village we were gonna stay in for two nights. The hike was fairly easy, muddy, but not too bad. The most interesting part was right across from the village. A river that you had to walk through. Luckily enough I was warned about this river so I wore the proper clothes for it. I unzipped the bottom part of my field pants and took off my boots and headed into the river with my guide. Luckily it wasn’t too deep that day, and it went up to just above my knees. When we were on the other side we were greeted by all the villagers staring at the vazah, or foreigner (me). After a few introductions we went to the mud house where we would be staying the next two days. Later once we were all settled in, we started the interviews. They were done pretty quickly.

One of the highlights from staying in the village was going to sleep in the mud house with no chickens and then waking up with a whole family of chickens in my room. Another highlight from staying in the village was hanging out with the children. They were very fascinated by me and followed me wherever I went. Although we could not understand each other, we still enjoyed each other’s company and had fun. The full day we were there, it rained. So when we were leaving we had to cross the river again, that had risen. I had to roll my shorts all the way up! Little did I know that was the least of my worries for the hike back. The rain made the trail very VERY muddy. I was slipping and sliding all over the place and sinking into ankle deep mud. Overall it was a very fun experience and even though I did not need to stay an extra night, I’m so happy I did.

Golden in the Rain

By Ashley Beggs

Of the entire itinerary of the trip, I was probably most nervous about my week of independent research. Before arriving in Madagascar, I did not know what my topic would be, if I would collect significant data, how difficult it would be, etc., and that uncertainty followed me until the moment I finished my first day of research. In terms of my topic, I had no idea what exactly I wanted to do but I did know I wanted to focus on lemurs. Dr. Wright and Dr. Bergey, our resident coordinator, were extremely helpful when it came to sculpting my project, making it one that I was not only excited to begin but one that was possible in the short time allotted for research. The topic I decided on was Lunar Luminescence on the Diurnal Activity of Hapalemur aureus (Golden Bamboo Lemur). It sounds so professional and sophisticated, I know.

My project’s data collection guidelines were fairly simple: follow Hapalemur aureus (Golden Bamboo Lemur) throughout the day and record the durations of activity/rest, record the luminescence of the moon, and see if there was any change in activity levels as the week progressed and the lux of the moon decreased. The biggest obstacle I faced with my research was finding the lemurs. Of the six days of attempted data collection, I was only fortunate enough to find my lemurs for three of those. It was difficult for me to come back to Centre ValBio, the research center, and hear everyone talk about how successful their days were; while I was happy for them, mine felt like the opposite! Despite the frustration I felt, I am thankful for my guide, as he spent all day traveling around Ranomafana National Park with me, through rain, mud, and steep slopes, in attempts to find the Golden Bamboo Lemurs. While my data collection was not what I originally intended, I was still be able to make a fair number of conclusions from it and present my work at Fianarantsoa.

Conducting research in the rainforests of Madagascar has been one of the most unique and favorite experiences of my life so far. I think there is no bigger thrill than following lemurs, climbing through trees and sliding through mud to do so, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to do something most people dream of while still being a college student. One of my most special moments from this week, and probably my entire trip, was on my second day of research. We found a group of three female Golden Bamboo Lemurs: one adult, one subadult, and one juvenile. The baby, estimated to be around 10 months old, saw me and decided to climb down to the branch in front of me. Just an arms length away, she began to eat some bamboo stalks and I was able to capture some amazing pictures and videos. It was an experience I don’t think I will ever forget and it would not have been possible if I did not study abroad in Madagascar.

Trek to Mangevo (Primary Rainforest)

By Camille Seliquini

My guide whistled as we hiked the narrow, muddy, and rocky trail towards Mangevo. To our right were the rice paddies. Every so often, Emile would call out to the villagers working in the fields, and there would be a brief but friendly exchange. Despite being in Madagascar for a month, and my desperate attempts to improve my conversational Malagasy, I was pretty much limited to “hello/goodbye,” “thank you/you’re welcome,” and “please, may I have the rice/tea/bread/water?” so I typically stuck to smiling and waving at the people who passed us on the path, and those who were working the rice paddies.

At this point, we were about halfway to our destination- the primary rainforest. It was independent research week, and I had chosen to examine the composition of insects and host plants on an altitude gradient. Given that Mangevo has the steepest altitude gradient in Ranomafana National Park, we were headed to the camp a little more than halfway up the mountain. The hike was certainly grueling (around 25 km). Upon cresting one massive hill, there was another one directly in front of you. My 62 year old guide Emile was insistent upon sprinting down the hills for the first part of the hike. When he caught on to the fact that Grace (our TA, who accompanied me) and I were struggling, he slowed down. “Mora mora,” is what he kept repeating to us (which translates to slowly slowly), and “don’t worry, be happy!”

I was certainly happy to reach the camp. We were offered hot coffee, and dried our feet and boots by the fire. We toured the camp, including the bathroom (or as close as you can get to a bathroom in the woods), waterfall/shower, and our tent. The next morning, we set off to collect my data (insects). Not only did we find insects, but also a black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata). In the afternoon we hiked up the mountain for more insects, and found a stump-tailed chameleon and a pelican spider. Emile said it was fun to see us get excited about everything new we saw, even though it was all fairly commonplace, especially somewhere as rich with biodiversity as Madagascar.

Two days later and we were walking the path back to Centre ValBio, leaping over streams and swamps (Mangevo translates to “deep swamp”), and scooting our feet sideways across the slippery logs that crossed the wider rivers. I enjoyed the hike back, I was excited to recognize the landmarks that I’d memorized on the way to the primary forest, and I had been given crackers for lunch that I kept in my pocket and fed myself every half-hour. The hot shower that awaited me at CVB upon my return was likely the most enjoyable shower I have ever had.

Mangevo was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. For the rest of my life, I will remember the beauty of the primary forest, the feeling of accomplishment that I had upon reaching camp, and the wildlife that I found along the way.

Milne-Edwards Sifaka in Valo

By Malia McGadden

This past week, I had the opportunity to go to Valo, to observe and collect data on Milne-Edwards sifakas for my independent research study. My journey began with hiking for about 4 hours to the camp. I honestly wasn’t too worried about the hike because I have been on countless hikes in the past all over America, but this hike was a workout. Especially because we were hiking in mud and rain and going through quick changes from steep inclines, to steep declines. But the scenery was beautiful, especially the trees and the fog. About 3 hours in, we passed one camp where one of our classmates was researching the Southern black-and-white ruffed lemur. Her camp was really nice, it had benches, wooden structures with roofs everywhere, a tent, a river right next to the camp, a kitchen area with a flat ground and solid sitting area with a table, and a fire pit! We were all hopeful. We ate lunch there and were eager to see our camp. About an hour later, we finally got to our camp, which was very muddy, and on a steep incline!

The next day we began our research and the Milne-Edwards sifakas were not even 5 minutes away from the camp. We followed them from 8am-4pm. We climbed on vines and trees, digging through bushes chasing the lemurs throughout the day. It was exciting trying to catch up to them, and it seemed to be a game to the lemurs; once we caught up, they would quickly jump away, as if trying to make our journey harder! We ended up getting good data and were able to head back to camp at around 4:30. Me, and the three other girls with me, sat by the river (we ended up doing this every day after getting back to camp) and talked about the day, washing off our clothes and boots, and filling up our water bottles. Each night at dinner, we would all have our headlamps on, occasionally blinding each other, and staying late after dinner, drinking tea, and laughing about things that weren’t important, which was what made them funny. We saw two fossa, two mongoose, and a mouse lemur all after dinner. All in the two nights I was there. Sitting at the unstable table in the mud was like being in a different world. I was so happy and content and we all couldn’t stop laughing because we were so tired.

Seeing the lemurs was incredible, chasing after them was such an experience, and we even got to see a baby! The social construct of each group was fascinating, and aided our research. For this first experience of camping, it was definitely worth all the mud.

A Malagasy Man in New York (From the United States to the Discovery of Southern Madagascar)

By Ginot KAVA

I am a Betsimisaraka (one of the 18 Malagasy tribes). I come from the Northeast of Madagascar and for 23 years I have only traveled from my region to Tananarivo. Then one day my supervisor called me and told me that he was going to send me to the field and I said, “okay, I’m ready.” He warned me that I have to leave the day after his call, and I said okay again, that it’s not a problem for me. So I got ready and the next day I was told to come to a hotel where I met Dr. Patricia Wright. I was amazed, because me and my roommate are big fans of her! We talked and she said welcome to the Study Abroad. I thought, “what?” She also told me that there were 15 American students, and I was speechless. Suddenly Thomas Kelly arrived, and I was reassured because there were going to be young guys like me. A few minutes later all the others arrived and I was surprised that they were all with girls (and some with red hair)! I started to imagine the actors that I saw in American movies and I imagined them all in New York. The thing that amazed me the most was the way they talked, it was so fast that I was stuck listening to them talk as if I was watching a movie. I had a lot of questions and the most important one was how I could talk to them, it was the first time I was surrounded by so many girls who were American …then a family was born. I was surprised that it was much easier than I thought. Thomas was cool, we got along very well and I thought we were the princes of the family. The girls were all charming and very friendly.

A lot of things happened after that. When we were in Andasibe, we saw the Indri indri (the biggest lemur in the world) and other lemur species. Then we went to Ranomafana to join the Valbio center, one of the cities reputed to be rich in terms of biodiversity. It was the beginning of the discovery of the South of Madagascar. It was my first time in Ranomafana, and I was not at the end of my surprises because after a few days spent in the Valbio center, Dede announced that we were going to leave on a cross-country trip from Ranomafana to Ifaty. In the evening I could not sleep, I was so looking forward to discovering what there is in the South of my country for the first time in my life. I was dazzled by the beauty of the landscape composed of rice fields, mountain ranges, vast plains, and the transition from dense forest to wet forest to dry forest and then to spiny forest.

But what marked me more was the discovery of the Isalo; a mountain range made up of sandy rocks, canyon, and a natural swimming pool, all full of history and Malagasy culture, some of which is still unknown to me. Climbing the mountains, and watching the sunset from the top was wonderful. The discovery of a lizard that reminds me of the movie Jurassic Park was an unforgettable moment, especially sharing it with my American family will mark me all my life. I love you guys, one day we’ll meet in the United States.

I would like to thank the people and organization that gave me the opportunity to be part of this program, my supervisors Dr. Zafimahery and Dr. Fanomezana, Dr. Christina Bergey, Frank Rabenahy, Dr. Patricia Wright, all the staff at CVB, and Stony Brook University.
Misaotra betsaka, Veloma!

First of Many Magical Moments

By Thomas Kelly

Our trip to Madagascar was a great experience from the beginning, we almost immediately got to see stunning vistas and the country’s unique animals. Our first major stop of the trip was Andasibe National Park on our second day in Madagascar. After getting up at dawn to hear the indris calling (I heard them but everyone else got their chance much later) we headed out into the park to find our first lemurs after breakfast. It didn’t take our guides long to find a group of diademed sifakas, a species in contention for most beautiful lemur in Madagascar. Unlike other experiences I’ve had like this, our guides took us off the trail to get a better look and we were able to get within 20 ft of the animals, who ignored us and continued with their foraging and leaping. Eventually we got back onto the trail to continue searching and were treated to a group of diademed sifakas who chose to come closer to the ground. This group was so close that we could have reached out and touched them.

As great as the sifakas were, the true treat of the day was yet to come as our guides found a pair of indri. Like the sifakas, the indri were completely unconcerned by our presence and stayed within 10 ft of us for most of our time together. Then something truly magical happened: the indri began their famous song (if you’ve never heard their call before look it up right now, I’ll wait). For a little over a minute everything was silent save for the indri’s duet answered by groups elsewhere in the forest. After they had finished it really dawned on us what had just happened, we had just seen and heard an animal we had only ever read about and only seen photos and videos of. It was a truly special moment that will be with me forever and it was just the start of what we would see in the weeks ahead.

My Journeying Through the Trees

By Moira Contino

Last week I completed my independent research project on female dominance and feeding priority in Milne-Edwards’s sifakas. I went to the campsite Valo in Ranaofamana National Park which was around a three and a half hour hike from Central ValBio. Overall I had an amazing time and I learned a lot about field work and camping while doing research that one could only learn at a campsite like Valo in Madagascar. Our days started around 7 with breakfast and then around 8 we would hike to where the sifaka were with our amazing guides Toussiant, Laurent, and George. We spent most of our time running after the lemurs as they jumped through the trees, climbing over dead fallen trees and crawling up and down the steep slopes of the mountains where the lemurs had their territory. The days would end around 4 when the sifakas went to sleep and dinner was at 7. Between this time I would clean off all the mud and dirt I acquired on my pants and boots from the day’s travel, took a nap, and watched a bit of netflix that I had downloaded on my phone.

One thing I was nervous about was the food while camping, but to my surprise, all the food was really good and there was tea for breakfast and dinner! The bathroom situation was also very “unique” since the campsite of Valo is all on one big hill, but you get used to it after a day or two!

Though I had a great time and I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to go on this camp expedition for my research project, there were definitely some hard parts about it. The hike there was quite intense and was mainly uphill, but don’t worry, that means when you walk back it’s mainly downhill! The daily hikes were also quite hard once we strayed off of the trail to follow the sifakas as they went further down the mountains. The slopes were very steep so every step you had to look for a new tree or rock to hold on to so that you wouldn’t lose your footing!

Overall, I had an amazing time camping at Valo and loved watching the lemurs throughout the day and this whole experience has definitely made me more interested in doing field research in the future!

Leeches and Lemurs: A Week of Field Research in Ranomafana National Park

By Kayla Ruff

Ever since we first arrived in Madagascar, I think I was most looking forward to getting to do lemur field research in Ranomafana National Park. I was immensely excited to see the baobab trees, ring-tailed lemurs, and go snorkeling in the Tulear Reef, but, being someone who grew up with a passion for wildlife biology and the outdoors, getting to spend hours in the field with sifaka lemurs was a dream come true.

I left CVB with three other study abroad students, and after a long and very muddy hike, we finally arrived at Valo- our campsite for the next five days. After setting up my tent and making ethograms for the next day in my Rite in the Rain notebook, all I wanted to do was sleep. Throughout the week, it was often difficult to sleep because of the cold. Even though I thought I came prepared in terms of warm clothes and gear, I definitely would have been much more comfortable with an extra hoodie and socks. I should have anticipated that most of my clothes would get wet from the rain (since it is the rainforest), but it was just one of many lessons I learned during my week at Valo.

The first day of data collection was difficult, but it was also extremely rewarding. One of the lemurs fed on leaves about 2 or 3 meters away from me, and getting to be so close to them in their natural habitat is something I will never forget. Following the lemurs was difficult work. I was practically falling down the sides of rainforest slopes with only vines and trees to hold onto, but I felt lucky that it wasn’t raining. This luck only lasted for the first two days of fieldwork, however, as it started to rain torrentially during the last two days of data collection. The heavy rain that occurred during the dry season made me realize how hard it must be to do fieldwork during the wet season. Spending 8 or so hours a day in the pouring rain while climbing up and down rainforest slopes is tough work, but the reward of being able to be with lemurs in their natural habitat is definitely worth any discomfort I faced.

I was also lucky that of the two groups of Milne-Edwards Sifakas at Valo, two mothers gave birth during the week I was there. Although I didn’t see them give birth, getting to see a glimpse of a tiny newborn sifaka cling to its mother is truly remarkable. Besides seeing lemurs, we also had some visitors at our campsite kitchen. A pair of mongooses would come to eat scraps each morning and night, and we also saw a Malagasy civet (Fossa fossana) one night which was awesome!

Overall, between having my hands covered in leech bites, spending my days watching sifaka lemurs (and two newborns), and trekking through the lush Ranomafana rainforest, my time doing field research was something I will never forget- just like the entirety of my time spent in Madagascar.

The Best Job I Ever Had

By Grace Reamy

Study Abroad students, Dr. Christina Bergey, Dr. Patricia Wright, myself, and our guides in Mantadia National Park

When I first studied abroad in Madagascar in 2020, I knew I had to come back to the most beautiful diverse place I had been on Earth. I last visited in the winter program in 2020, and shortly after, the world was devastated by COVID. Every semester after the borders opened up, I send an email to the study abroad office optimistically asking, “will we have study abroad soon?”. Many “not yet”s later, we finally got a date for the trips to begin again, Summer 2022. I was thrilled, and having been hired for the TA position by Dr. Patricia Wright, I was excited to not only help students with their first journey to the country, but to experience new parts of the island myself, since the summer program is longer and has a cross-country trip across the landscapes.

Before I knew it, we were off, 14 students, Dr. Christina Bergey, Dr. Patricia Wright, and myself. The grueling 18 hours of flights “flew” by and I was delighted to land in TNR airport and see my old friend TA Franck Rabenahy from my study abroad. We went to our hotel in Tana, and met up with our two Malagasy students, Sidonie and Ginot, who would soon become friends of all the students. The students instantly become close friends, and it was a treat that one of our students, Isabella, spoke French and became close with Sidonie. So much happened on our long journey from that day, it’s almost a blur. We visited places all across the country. We went to Andasibe to see the diademed sifaka and the indri, and were fortunate to hear them call from less than 3 meters away! We went to Peyrieras Reserve to see huge and tiny chameleons and snakes.

Me with a giant earthworm in Mongevo

After a long bus ride and some COVID mishaps, we all finally we made it to CVB. There we stayed for a few days and had interesting and educational lectures by the experts who work at CVB. Students made valuable connections and were able to learn all about diversity of Ranomafana and programs run by CVB, which helped them narrow down their own independent research to come. I was also lucky enough to meet up with one of my friends, Faramamy, a Malagasy student from my study abroad who I hadn’t seen in two years. The next week, we left for our cross country trip, and we saw all of the magnificent sights the various Malagasy landscapes had to offer. From the massive rock formations in Parc National d’Isalo to the colorful sunsets over the warm water of the Mozambique Channel, each place we went was a spectacular sight to behold. I feel so lucky have been able to see more of this country than I have before, like the Baobabs or the Indian Ocean, and experience it the greatest people I could have asked to be TA for.

Study Abroad students, Dr. Bergey, guide George, myself, and driver Andry in front of Baobab trees

We were all sad to leave the beautiful beaches of Ifaty, but excited to begin research in the rainforests back on the East side of Madagascar. I was lucky to go camping in Mongevo and push myself to hike longer and in more difficult terrain than I thought I ever could. The primary forest there was awe-inspiring and well worth all the blisters, leeches, and muddy feet along the way. Before we knew it, the trip began to come to a close. I unfortunately caught COVID towards the end of the trip, but I was given the opportunity to stay longer and help with data collection for a researcher. My journey is Madagascar is far from over, and I know when I leave in a few months, I will definitely be back again. Madagascar has a way of bringing you back, and I’m sure I will see many of these students again back at home, and in Madagascar.

The Highs and Lows of Research Week

By Celia Bertlesman

My tent in Valo

This trip has been an eventful one, that’s for sure. We have seen so many amazing things, and each week was different than the last. Research week was no different. This past week has tested me both physically and mentally, and has overall been one of the best weeks of the study abroad program. Leading up to the start of this week, I found myself concerned about the whether or not I would actually succeed. I’ve never done research of this scale before, and it was a bit daunting. It didn’t really help that a lot of the details of my data collection was not cemented until shortly before the first day. That has kind of been the theme of this trip overall: you have to learn to roll with the punches. I’m the kind of person that likes to have things planned out ahead of time for my own peace of mind, but here I’ve had to learn to go with the flow a lot more, which isn’t a bad thing.

Data collection in Valo

The first part of my data collection involved camping in Valo, at the main sifaka campsite about 8 miles from CVB. It took almost four hours to hike there, and the path was pretty rough at times. Camping in the middle of the rainforest is an experience I’ll never forget. It is so quiet up there, and at night it is so dark the stars are spectacular (if you have a clear night, which is rare). The one thing I will say is, if you come during the summer session (which is winter here) expect it to be cold. We woke up everyday at dawn and were in the forest watching the lemurs by eight. I honestly was having the time of my life during those two days, spending 8 hours a day chasing lemurs through the forest. Oftentimes we’d have to nearly throw ourselves down the side of the mountain to keep up with them, using vines and trees to aid our descent. At dusk, we’d make the trek back to camp covered in dirt and leeches, excited to eat dinner by the campfire. While at Valo, I saw two fossa at night, which I’m told is insanely rare, so I feel pretty lucky in that regard.

A male sifaka feeding in Valo

I ended up having to leave after only three days in order to gather data on the groups closer to CVB, which had the individuals I needed for my project. One day, my guides and I walked for hours looking for the lemurs to no avail. We did end up finding them the next day, much to my relief. The mother of the group closer to CVB had actually given birth a few days before, allowing me to see a week-old baby lemur. That group also participated in geophagy about 20 feet away from me, which was also rare to see. Overall, I feel so lucky for what I was able to witness while collecting my data. This week has made me realize I have a passion for field research, and despite some uncomfortable moments, absolutely love the opportunity to spend days immersed in the forest.