By Delaïd Rasamisoa, ASSR Site Manager

March and April were busy months for the Wildlife Madagascar team in in the SAVA region! As the Conservation Program Manager for Wildlife Madagascar’s work in Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve (ASSR), my first task was to identify office space within the city of Andapa, the closest and largest city near ASSR. Because there are many other conservation organizations based here, as well as the offices for Madagascar National Parks (MNP), which oversees both ASSR and Marojejy National Park, this was a logistically ideal location. Despite being the largest city in the area, Andapa is still quite small, so options were limited. At first all I could find were three potential locations, however, visiting these offices was disappointing as they were all too small and did not fit our needs.

It was at this time that our colleagues at the local World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Madagascar office informed me that with their recent downsizing, they were looking to find a smaller office, which would allow us to move into their office. The office has a large meeting room, a separate office, two rooms that can be used as dormitories for team members, collaborators, and visiting researchers, and lots of storage space. Plus, it’s right down the street from MNP, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and WWF’s new office, so location-wise, it was perfect! We officially signed a lease and moved into the office a couple of weeks later.

Wildlife Madagascar Office in Andapa

With the office now set, Wildlife Madagascar was ready to get our boots on the ground in ASSR. Things had been running smoothly and I was ready to head to the forest, but then at the end of March, northern Madagascar was hit by Cyclone Gamane. With wind gusts of over 130 miles per hour, entire villages were destroyed, and sadly at least 18 people died. With the severe flooding that followed, roads, bridges, and even entire villages were washed away. The devastation, and now our isolation from the rest of the country, made it impossible to start our activities in ASSR, so we had to hold off on this first official expedition.

In the meantime, we worked on setting up our office. In late April, we began hosting our first official student, Joany Nambinina, from the Department of Biological Anthropology and Sustainable Development at the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s largest university. He has experience monitoring lemurs, and has spent time studying the behavioral ecology of diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) in Tsinjoarivo-Ambalaomby, a protected area in central Madagascar, south of Antananarivo.

Joany recording data

By early May, with the impacts of the cyclone now receding, and a Malagasy student ready to get into the field, we planned to officially set up our research camp in ASSR. We went to the market to purchase provisions, and since this was the beginning of our field work, we had to buy all our cooking supplies. After a long market day, we departed for ASSR the following day, with the help of our local partner, Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF), which has been helping us out with vehicle transportation.

Because the road conditions were so poor, the LCF vehicle could only get us as far as Andasibe Mahaverika, leaving us and the porters with a five-hour walk to ASSR and Camp Indri. We stopped about halfway in the village of Befingotra for a basic Malagasy lunch at a hotely, which is a small local restaurant. It was here that we met with our first two guides, Jocelyn and Fredoret, who we had previously recruited to work with us. Then we continued our hike for another 2.5 hours. We arrived at Camp Indri around 6 pm. Even though we had left Andapa in the early morning and had been hiking all day, we were ready to get to work the next day!

Porters on the trek to the site
Left to right: Fredoret, Jocelyn, Delaïd, Nestor, and Joany

Our first task at the site was cleaning up the existing trail network, which was largely overgrown. We cleared vegetation from 5 transects, each totaling more than 2,500 meters (> 1.5 miles), and marked every 25 meters with a flag indicating the trail name and distance. This is critical for projects starting in new sites, ensuring that team members can find their way back to camp, as well as for returning to easy-to-find locations where perhaps they last observed a certain lemur species.

Once the trail network was cleaned and clearly marked, we began searching for our target lemur species: the silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus) and indri (Indri indri), both of which are Critically Endangered. I spent time training Joany and the guides on our standard data collection methods, but our primary task was habituating these animals to our presence.

Lemurs typically take one to three months of consistent following before they become comfortable with us being present for days at a time. Since we aren’t at that stage yet, we are now taking GPS points each time we observe them, so that we can understand their home ranges and preferred feeding and resting trees. That will ultimately help us to more quickly locate them each morning.

It’s exhausting work. But spending an entire day with this incredible and rare wildlife, it’s absolutely worth it!