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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
August 2000 (Part 1): Blood, Sweat & Lariam Fears
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    ShareRuth Tingay joined The Peregrine Fund's project in Madagascar in 1999 to study and understand the unusual breeding behavior we found in Madagascar Fish Eagles. Through this research she completed her Master's degree and has gone on to her Ph.D., both through Nottingham University, United Kingdom. Ruth's focus and tenacity, and ability to turn adversity into "adventure," are great characteristics for any field biologist!

Unsurprisingly, our return visit to Bejijo was not as we had planned. This was becoming an all too familiar scenario. My old nemesis Malagasy unpredictability had arrived back on the scene in August to do its utmost to thwart my ideals of how a field season should be.

Captain Rivo had arrived unexpectedly at Camp from Tana at the beginning of August. He had sent a forward message for me to rendezvous with him 70 km south at the Tsirihibina River ready for the survey, but with no radio contact in Camp it would have taken a telepathic miracle for the message to get through to me. He only had two weeks to do the survey, rather than the four weeks we had previously allocated, as he had to attend a conference in Uganda in the middle of August. I knew that two weeks would not be enough time to complete the survey and he would have to return to the Tsirihibina in October/November to finish visiting all the sites. My problem was that my research visa expired in September and so I would not be able to complete the work. I had to choose between doing a half-survey with Rivo or returning to Bejijo to get full results from our recent discovery. I chose Bejijo.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story. Rivo had also brought the news that several ministers from the Environment Office in Tana would be visiting Camp Handkerchief in two weeks’ time to assess the viability of the GELOSE programme. This was good news for the Wetland Project as it meant the lengthy process of finalising the GELOSE work, and thus the long-term sustainability of the fish eagles’ habitat, was one step closer but it was bad news for my fish eagle research. The GELOSE work took top priority within the project, which meant that the technicians would be busy preparing for the ministerial visit and therefore unavailable to spend much time on my return expedition to Bejijo. Trapping fish eagles was definitely not a one-person job so I had to take whatever limited time I could to get Loukman back to Bejijo. We deduced we had five spare days to complete our task of trapping the four fish eagles at the site. In effect, this meant one day to walk there, three days trapping, and one day to walk back.

With no time to lose, Loukman, Ady and I repacked our field gear and prepared to leave the following day. Ady made a quick visit home to Masoarivo to see his family that night, which entailed a one-hour canoeing session across the lake and a two-hour march through the forest, then a repeat performance the following morning to get back to Camp ready for a 5 am departure. I felt very guilty because he’d been working his socks off for me and hadn’t had the usual two days off he was entitled to, but in typical Ady style he hadn’t spoken one word of complaint (or if he had he’d said it in Malagasy so I didn’t understand!). Loukman promised him an extra few days holiday at the end of the season and I promised him my waterproof canoe bag that I knew he’d been admiring from afar.

We walked out of Camp before sunrise to get a head start before the blistering mid-morning heat. By 11am we’d covered about 20 km but needed to find some food so we made a pit stop in the village of Tranghy.

There were many things that happened in Madagascar that I just could not comprehend. One of these things happened that lunchtime. We paid a local girl to cook us some lunch whilst we boiled up water to refill our drained bottles. After 30 minutes or so, we were led into a hut at the back of the village. The inside was cool and dark and it took a few seconds for my eyes to readjust. An enormous double wooden bed took up most of the hut, with a small area just inside the doorway where a raffia mat had been placed for us. We took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on the mat, greedily consuming a strange meal of rice that had been marinated in condensed milk (it wouldn’t have won any culinary awards).

Midway through the meal I was startled by a groaning sound coming from the bed. I hadn’t realised anyone was in there. I looked up from my bowl to see a naked man sprawled on the mattress and looking as though he was in some distress. I looked at Loukman and Ady for an indication of what was happening but they continued to shovel rice into their mouths without any outward signs of concern. The naked man groaned again and I asked Loukman if he was all right. “Yeah, he’s fine. He’s just got malaria.” My immediate reaction was to think of myself: How many mosquitoes had been feeding off the poor man’s blood and had then pierced my skin with an infected proboscis? I surreptitiously unwrapped a Lariam pill and quickly pushed it down my throat. It wasn’t ‘Lariam Day’ but what the hell! My second thought was for the sick man: How must it feel to not only be feverish with malaria, but to then have a group of strangers, including a Vazaha, waltz into your private hell to eat lunch right next to your bed? It was beyond me why firstly we were shown into the hut and secondly why nobody objected.

Later in the afternoon we reached the shores of the Manambolo River and once again we had to wade across. This time I was not only on the lookout for crocodiles but also for bandits lurking in the dark edges of the forest. As we hauled our dripping bodies out at the far bank we didn’t hang around to get dry, but quickly slung our rucksacks back on and headed for cover.

I’d noticed earlier that Loukman was carrying a long sheathed knife on this trip, strapped close to his hip. When I’d asked him what it was for he’d said it was, “To kill pigs.” I knew this was a lie because he’d told me last year that as a Muslim he didn’t eat pigs or lemurs. I knew he’d got it to defend himself from the growing threat of bandits in the area, but he was trying not to frighten me. When we began to walk/squelch along a different route to reach Bejijo I also knew that this was to avoid certain bandit blackspots and not, as Loukman told me, because it was a quicker route.

The new circuitous route gave me more problems than usual. I’d noticed over the last few weeks that I was having trouble keeping my balance (hence the fall into the slurried rice paddy at Besara a few weeks earlier). I’d also been having great difficulty sleeping at nights, only managing to snatch a few hours here and there despite being utterly exhausted from the physical slog of fieldwork. I hadn’t yet worked out what was happening to me and had just put it down to the typical PhD worries, like “would I be able to get enough data to satisfy my academic critics?” The new route we took involved wading through endless murky rice paddies with each step hindered by increasingly heavy muddied feet. I found it difficult to keep upright in those conditions and after my third or fourth stumbling fall Loukman took my hand to help me across. He was probably wondering just who had let me onto this project.

Just as darkness fell we reached the shores of Lake Bejijo and collapsed in a filthy smelly sodden heap to set up an overnight camp. That night I managed to find a few hours of sleep but had a horrendous dream: I was sitting in the middle of a fast flowing river, scratching the flea bites that covered my legs. As I scratched, the scabs fell off and out of the seeping wounds crawled a festering mass of maggots, woodlice and cockroaches. I should have known at that point what was going on but it took me a few more days before I put two and two together.

The invasive water hyacinth.
The invasive water hyacinth.

At sunrise we managed to flag down a passing fisherman in his pirogue and hitch a ride across the lake. We seriously underestimated the combined weight of us and our field equipment – all crammed into one hollowed out tree trunk, as we pushed away from the shoreline the water level rose so it was level with the sides of our pirogue, with a few splashes already slopping over the sides – one false move and the water would have sunk us in seconds. Not a good prospect in a lake filled with crocodiles. We had to sit like statues for the crossing, which was virtually impossible for me in my state of unbalance, but the alternative was unthinkable so I tried to focus on the horizon and ignore the overwhelming feeling that I was falling. Thirty-five minutes later we reached the other side, not as dry as when we’d started and all suffering from the leg cramps you get when you’ve been sitting rigidly still, but all in one piece and no loss of luggage over the side.

We decided to start trapping straight away and delay setting up the camp until the evening; every hour of daylight was precious work time that we couldn’t afford to waste. We found two fish eagles straight away – one sitting on the edge of the nest and another perching on a nearby tree. We set up the telescope to check what was happening on the nest; we didn’t really want to trap if the birds were still incubating as any kind of disturbance at that stage of their breeding cycle could lead them to abandon the site. From previous experience we knew that once the eggs had hatched, the eagles were less likely to desert and they’d also be more likely to come to our traps as the additional pressure was on them to find extra food for the young eaglets. We were in luck. A tiny white head could be seen bobbing around just above the nest rim so we set to work.

Loukman and Ruth setting a fish eagle trap.
Loukman and Ruth setting a fish eagle trap.

Loukman and I took the fish trap in one pirogue whilst Ady paddled out in the second boat to set up a position for getting to the eagle quickly, once it had come down on the water. We targeted the eagle furthest away from the nest, laid out the trap on the water, then backed away to wait amongst the reeds, hoping that the eagle was hungry. We didn’t have long to wait. It was just a matter of minutes before we could see that the eagle was looking directly at our floating fish trap. A few more tense minutes and it took off silently from its perch, glided down low over the water, pushed out its feet and Bingo! It was caught! If they were all as easy as that we would be finished well before our five-day deadline.

Ady reached the eagle first and skilfully picked it up from the water whilst Loukman and I came in from behind to pick up the trap. We paddled to the shore and carried the eagle to the safety of the bank where we could band it and draw a few drops of blood in safety rather than trying to manoeuvre inside the unsteady pirogues.

Ruth and Ady take a blood sample from a fish eagle.
Ruth and Ady take a blood sample from a fish eagle.

From the size and weight we knew that this was the male of the group, but I took the blood sample anyway because I wanted to verify this by molecular sexing in the lab. We banded him with a bright red ring so we could identify him from a distance and then released him back over the lake. He flew up to a tree close by and shook himself off, preening his chocolate feathers back into position before taking off again over to the opposite shore.

By then it was mid-afternoon and the wind had increased, bringing large waves across the lake which made paddling in our boats quite difficult. We decided to have another go though, buoyed on by our early success, and set off around the perimeter looking for other eagles. A couple of hours later we’d seen all four birds but none of them were in a position close enough for us to try and trap. We were encouraged by the calls we’d heard though – there were definitely at least two females in the group. It had been a long day and we were weary by then so decided to call it a day and headed back to shore to set up camp, clean ourselves up and cook some supper, then get an early night ready for a dawn start.

I fell asleep almost as soon as I had laid down in my sleeping bag, but, true to form, woke again around midnight and just could not get back to sleep. This was getting ridiculous. Normally I could sleep anywhere and anytime and I couldn’t understand why, even though I was so tired, that sleep was being so elusive. I could hear snoring from the next-door tent so knew that Loukman and Ady weren’t in the same predicament. I did all the usual things I did when trying to get back to sleep – played ‘I-Spy,’ listened to my Walkman until the batteries were dead, pretended I was in a luxurious bed, counted my flea bites, pretended I was in a western supermarket filling my trolley with the Mr Kipling cakes I’d been craving, counted the number of ants inside my tent, but all to no avail. I was still wide-awake and buzzing. Eventually I resorted to reading the packages in my medicine pack, just to pass away the time. I tried to decipher the chemical codes stamped on various boxes and when that lost its appeal I thought I’d count the number of Lariam tablets I had left. It wasn’t until I emptied out the box that I realised there was a folded piece of paper wedged inside at the bottom. Brilliant! A piece of writing that I hadn’t yet read!

I laid back in my bag to get comfortable for the five-minute read, adjusted my head torch and dwelt for a few moments on the sweet anticipation of a virgin read. Sadly it was all a bit dull and technical, until I got to the “side-effects” section, when suddenly everything slotted into place. There were 47 possible side effects listed (I know because I counted them) but two of them were of particular interest to me. ‘Lariam may cause acute vertigo’ and ‘Lariam may cause insomnia.’ There it was in black and white. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I knew Lariam was notorious for causing hallucinations and nightmares but I thought that it only applied to depressives and I also thought that those reported side effects had been greatly exaggerated by travellers wanting to elaborate on their otherwise uneventful adventures. Not so! It was a relief to understand what had been happening to me but it also presented a dilemma. Was the threat of contracting malaria greater than the discomfort of vertigo and insomnia? And why was it only affecting me that year when I’d taken it without any problems the previous year? At least this gave me something to think about until dawn.

A thick low mist shrouded the lake at sunrise, which gave us some time to cook up our rice and prepare the traps until it lifted. We set out in tandem again but by mid-morning all we’d managed to achieve were sore back muscles from all the paddling. The only fish eagle we’d seen was a single bird on the nest. We’d heard the others from further back in the forest, the same place we’d heard one call on our last trip, but we hadn’t actually seen them. By lunchtime we were becoming despondent, not able to work out why they weren’t hunting down on the lake.

Suddenly we heard the bird on the nest calling, a deep toned cry which told us this was a female. We turned our binoculars towards the nest just in time to see a second eagle fly in from behind the forest with a fish in its talons! The eagle delivered the fish to the nest and then took off straight away back behind the trees. There must have been a secret lake, out of our view, where the other eagles were hanging out. We quickly paddled over to the far shore but couldn’t see a direct route through. The water hyacinths and tall reeds had clustered along the shore, being moved along by the wind and waves. We poked around a bit longer before deciding we would have to try and force our way through the vegetation and hope it would lead us to their hideout. That was easier said than done!

Ady and Loukman trying to get to the "Secret Lake."
Ady and Loukman trying to get to the "Secret Lake."
We took a ‘run-up’ to the reeds, paddling hard and fast to push the nose of the boat as far into the reeds as possible. Loukman gingerly stepped from the pirogue onto a floating bed of reeds and hyacinths, immediately plunging his legs thigh-deep into the water as the vegetation couldn’t hold his weight. This was very dangerous territory; we knew that the lake held large crocodiles as we’d seen their heads emerging from the surface every so often, and we suspected that they would probably like to lurk underneath the floating vegetation during the hottest parts of the day to try and find some shade. Very carefully, Loukman began to walk backwards, tugging the pirogue further into the reeds with each step. Ady drew up alongside him and he also stepped out onto the hyacinths, again sinking to his thighs. With amazing fortitude, between them they managed to pull the boats right off the water and lodge them onto the reeds.

I was fairly reluctant to follow them but knew that this was our only route, so I strapped my bag to my back and stepped out of the boat. My first few steps were ok, supported by a spongy mass of hyacinths, but suddenly my feet went from underneath me and I found myself waist deep with nothing underneath my feet. Loukman leapt back and grabbed my arm to pull me up, steadying me as I found my footing again.

I was really worried that we were still in deep water and if one of us went under, we could be sucked below the vegetation, not able to resurface. I was even more worried that my current loss of balance would mean that I would be the first to go under. We decided to push forward but that we would go very slowly, making sure of our footing with each step. We used the oars as guide sticks, stabbing them down into the hyacinths to test the depth then gently placing our feet in the areas with most support. Ever the gentleman, Loukman insisted I walk behind him and put my feet exactly where his had been. I wobbled a few times and began to struggle against my lack of balance, trying to focus on staying upright. Once again Loukman grabbed my hand and didn’t let go until we’d reached the shore.

The endangered side-necked turtle <br />is a local delicacy.
The endangered side-necked turtle
is a local delicacy.
We made our way through the forest in the general direction of where we thought the eagle had come from and after about 15 minutes of walking, picking up a moulted fish eagle feather along the way, we stumbled across the secret lake. Not only a lake, but also a hut that was occupied by a fishing family of about eight people, all sitting on the ground repairing their nets. I think we were as surprised as they were! We had the customary handshakes and long introductions whilst I tried unsuccessfully to make myself invisible to avoid the stares. I saw a freshly killed turtle shell on the shore of the secret lake, the blood still bright red inside its exposed carapace. This was the endangered Madagascar Side-necked Turtle, endemic to the same habitat shared with the fish eagles but threatened by hunting pressures, amongst other things. I knew of its existence as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation team had been working on a management plan for the species, but it was the first one I’d actually seen, albeit dead.

Loukman and Ady explained that we were looking for fish eagles and the family confirmed that they had regularly seen them foraging on the secret lake. They agreed to hire us their pirogue for the afternoon and we slipped away from the shore and out of view. The secret lake was shaped more like a river, long and thin with some enormous shoreline trees in parts. They were a sign that not many people had fished in the area; all the tall trees around the edges of the three lakes at Camp Handkerchief had been cut down to make pirogues, with the tallest trees now only found further back in the forest. The secret lake was a bit like the fish eagle’s version of a fast food restaurant, with thick overhanging branches making ideal perches that they could simply drop from in lazy pursuit of a passing fish.

Ady on an early morning search for fish eagles.
Ady on an early morning search for fish eagles.
It wasn’t long until we found one of our eagles perching close to the water’s edge. Unfortunately for us, it was in the process of wiping its beak on the branch - a sure sign that it had just eaten. This probably meant that it wouldn’t be hungry enough to come down to our fish trap, but after all our effort to get there we thought we’d give it a go.

We set the trap in clear view of the eagle, but the bird just looked at it with indifference and continued to preen. We’d played this game with eagles before so decided to sit and wait for as long as it took. In the meantime, a hungry Yellow-billed Kite decided it would come and have a go for it – those kites were the bane of our trapping days, often dislodging the trap after we’d waited for hours for an eagle to move in on it. This particular kite made a few flyovers, checking out the fish and us, before it decided to come down and grab it. Unfortunately for us, the kite got the fish but the trap failed, meaning the fish was taken and the bird was not caught. The fish eagle sat and watched all this going on but didn’t make any moves itself; sometimes a kite circling overhead was useful to us as it would trigger an instinct in the eagle to try and get the fish first, but this eagle was probably still full up from its earlier meal.

Luckily we had a spare fish with us so decided to set another trap. At that point we realised that the kite had made off with our only piece of polystyrene (used to insert inside the fish to make it float on the surface). Without the polystyrene we would have to abandon work as the trap could only work if it floated on top of the water. But in an unusual flash of inspiration, I noticed how the water hyacinth plants had some kind of in-built buoyancy aid to keep them afloat to attract sunlight; my supervisor Michele had shown me the same principle with seaweed on a recent school fieldtrip to Wales. Brilliant! We could use the water hyacinth bulb in place of the polystyrene inside the fish.

Water hyacinth does have its uses!
Water hyacinth does have its uses!
The bulb worked a treat but we were out of luck with the eagle. She spent the rest of the afternoon calling with the other eagles who were all out of sight back on the main lake, and then flapping around in the tops of trees collecting bits of greenery. This was strange behaviour as we expected her to deliver the greenery to the active nest, but she didn’t. She held it in her talons for a while and then dropped it as if she’d forgotten what she’d collected it for. She repeated this behaviour several times and I couldn’t work out what she was doing. It wasn’t as though she was an inexperienced juvenile (she had full adult plumage) – maybe there was a second nest in the territory that we hadn’t seen? It was quite common in many polygynous birds for two breeding females to have different nests, with one male moving in between the two. We weren’t to find out that day as after four hours of waiting she decided she’d had enough of our company and took off over the trees towards the main lake. Exasperated with our luck, we trudged back to our campsite for the night, knowing that we only had one more day left to trap three eagles.

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