By Dr. Tim Eppley

It’s been a busy month here in Madagascar! It started by signing a formal MOU to work at La Mananara, a privately-owned forest inside of the Anjozorobe-Angavo protected area, a very exciting development for Wildlife Madagascar. We also hired Delaïd Claudin Rasamisoa as Conservation Program Manager for our first site, Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve. Now the real work begins, creating comprehensive conservation programs.

Overview of the La Mananara field site.

Earlier in February, I traveled to La Mananara with Dr. Jacques Rakotondranary, Matt McGee, and Caren Rasoarimanana. I have known Dr. Jacques for over 15 years, and he will soon become our Conservation Program Manager at La Mananara. Matt is a PhD student of Dr. Onja Razafindratsima in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. This is his first trip to Madagascar, and he is checking out potential sites for his future PhD fieldwork, including two of Wildlife Madagascar’s sites. Accompanying Matt is Caren, a Malagasy student who was assigned as his counterpart under his current research permit.

Dr. Jacques Rakotondranary (left) with forest guide William.

While our trip to La Mananara was short, it was very helpful to get into the forest and explore additional areas of the site that I had not previously seen. This included a beautiful area of primary forest further south, where we observed diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), arguably one of the most beautiful and unique primates in the world. Being unhabituated, the group quickly fled, while an adult male remained in the branches and watched us. After a few minutes, the male sifaka sprung from his perch and easily “ping-ponged” his way through the forest, stopping only briefly to scent-mark a tree before disappearing over the ridge in search of the rest of his group.

Diademed sifaka

In addition to the sifaka, we also saw a large group of brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus), perhaps 15 individuals. On our night hike, we observed a pair of weasel sportive lemurs (Lepilemur mustelinus) and many Goodman’s mouse lemurs (Microcebus lehilahytsara). Unfortunately, we did not see any of the approximately six groups of indri (Indri indri) known to call La Mananara home, though the weather had been cool and rainy, so they were likely not as active.

Goodman’s mouse lemur

Our lemur sightings bring us to one of our first steps: habituating groups of various lemur species, so they will be familiar with humans and go about their business without fleeing. Once the diademed sifaka, indri, and brown lemurs are habituated, we will be able to more easily follow them for entire days, collecting important data on their behavioral and feeding ecology, as well as mapping each group’s home range. This information will help inform future tour guides where lemur groups may be each day, as well as provide more personal stories about specific lemur individuals.

Looking for lemurs in the forest.

From a monitoring standpoint, collecting daily data allows us to evaluate seasonal and annual changes in group ranging, behavior, and feeding. Furthermore, this provides a baseline at the initiation of our entire program, allowing us to measure the efficacy of our monitoring. We aim to use the data we gather to see the La Mananara lemur species populations grow.

On the research side, having habituated lemurs allows us to host both international and Malagasy students, who will be able to collect the data they need more easily for answering their research questions. Beyond lemurs, students would also be more than welcome to conduct research projects on small mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, etc., as all of this will help us to expand our understanding of this site and its ecological importance.

Other elements that will need to be quickly implemented are botanical and habitat assessments, which can be compared annually, as well as monthly phenology transects, from which we can monitor resource productivity (for example, young leaves, flowers, and fruits). To do this, we will need to expand the current trail system to include two parallel transects from the northern to the southern property boundaries, as well as multiple perpendicular transects to create a large grid system. This will help our team move more easily throughout the forest and create the perfect setup for monthly wildlife surveys. The grid will also be useful for setting up camera traps for “capturing” photos of our more elusive wildlife, such as fosa and civets.

On top of these initial actions, Dr. Jacques had many great ideas for additional projects that could be implemented, including partnerships with various researchers. It won’t be easy—much of this work will depend on building relationships with local residents living nearby, and training individuals on various jobs from forest protection, wildlife monitoring, etc. A large portion of the local population hasn’t received schooling past the 4th grade, and many are illiterate. Dr. Jacques is no stranger to this; in his prior work in Andohahela National Park, he spent months teaching his local team how to read and write. We may need to create a similar program for Wildlife Madagascar.

Every area has its different challenges. But with our combined many decades of experience, we’re up to the task!