JULY 2000 (Part II): Sweat Bees and Sand Fleas
Ruth Tingay— 14 July 2000 — in Madagascar Project ShareCamp was practically deserted when I arrived, except for one technician named Bonhomme. Bonhomme’s trademark was his use of the word Oui (yes). He was the newest recruit and the other techs used to take advantage of his willingness to please. It was a common feature in camp last year to hear the technicians yelling for Bonhomme from one end of the site to the other, to be followed shortly afterwards by the sound of Bonhomme’s running footsteps and him shouting “Oui?”
I set up my tent in the forest clearing where Martin’s had been pitched last year (we’d called his tent the Millennium Dome as it was the enormously sized eight-person one that Rick and all his family had used in previous years). It was strange to be in camp without Martin. Even though he’d only been around for a month or so last year, that period was the most enjoyable of my field season. I half expected to see him appear at the door of my tent at any moment, grinning insanely and chattering in his barely comprehensible accent, pulling his latest skull acquisition from his rucksack. He was fascinated with skulls of all kinds and would spend many hours searching fishermen’s camps, looking through the remains of their cooking fires and sifting over the bones left in the ashes. He would stash these skulls and skeletons inside his tent by day, and then by night (when he thought everyone was in bed), he would carry them down to the kitchen area and carefully boil off the remaining flesh, using the very same pots we used for cooking our food!! Once cleaned he would spend his time carefully arranging the bones and trying to identify the reconstructed corpses (and he wondered why he was single!!).
That night I started to make tentative plans for the next phase of my fieldwork. This was tricky to do as Loukman wasn’t in camp and I’d need to agree my research schedule with him. Nobody seemed to know where he was and when I asked when he would return I was told in typically non-committal style, “Peut-être demain” (maybe tomorrow). I guessed that his absence had a lot to do with the state of camp. As field manager, Loukman was responsible for the smooth running of the wetland project, including all the fish eagle monitoring work, organizing the GELOSE work, and keeping the camp in good working order.
My general work plan was to spend the next month visiting all known fish eagle sites in the Antsalova region (27 sites had been found), in order to assess the extent of co-operative breeding in the area. We knew that cooperatively breeding groups occurred around the three lakes complex but we didn’t have any idea how widespread this behaviour was. I now knew from our recent survey work on the northwest coast that the fish eagles in that region appeared to be breeding in pairs rather than groups, so now I wanted to know whether this unusual behaviour was restricted to the densely populated three lakes or whether it occurred at other, less populated sites.
I knew I would be pushed for time as I had planned to travel up the Manambolo River with Lily later in July, to look for potential fish eagle sites, and I had also planned to travel along the Tsirihibina River with Rivo in August, to look for breeding groups in that smaller sub-population. In addition, I wanted to re-visit the breeding groups I’d studied last year on the three lakes, to look for changes in group membership (e.g. had any fish eagles left the group or had any new fish eagles joined?), changes in the dominance hierarchy (e.g. had a previously subordinate male now become dominant?), and to document who was making the highest paternal investments at the nest this year, and did it differ from last year? I climbed inside my sleeping bag, squashed a few mosquitos with my shoe, picked off a flea I found lurking on my arm and settled down to listen to the old familiar squeaks and squabbles of the nocturnal lemur family residing in the branch above my head.
The following 10 days were spent out in the canoe visiting each of the 10 fish eagle territories. I would paddle out at dawn and spend the whole day at each site, quietly observing the comings and goings at the nest (most eagles were incubating at this time), recording coloured leg bands and noting the behaviour of each individual fish eagle. Alex, the American student, hiked over to stay for a few days, as he’d never seen a crocodile. He’d also never seen a fish eagle but unbelievably that didn’t seem to bother him! He was useful to have around as it always helped having another to share the paddling, although I don’t think he’d bargained for what fish eagle fieldwork was really like!
Up before dawn, a lot of it could be seen as repetitious, even boring (although once you knew these eagles as individuals you could never say they were boring!), sitting still in front of a nest for hours on end without talking, waiting for a perching eagle to actually do something other than perch, trying to keep the thousands of tiny sweat bees out of our mouths as they swarmed and covered our skin in seconds, searching out the salts in our perspiration. I’d been told that if you killed one of these bees, it would release a pheromone in its death throes that would incite the rest of the swarm to attack; I never did test that one out. And then there were the sand fleas—tiny creatures that lurked in damp sand, waiting for an unsuspecting host to walk by. The females would burrow their way through the skin of your toes, feeding off your blood as she laid her eggs under the skin. The first thing you would know about it was an itching sensation about a week later, and then under closer inspection a suspicious-looking dark spot (her body) actually moving about under the surface. It helped to have a small knife and a strong stomach at times like those. We did find Alex his crocodile, though, so his discomfort and effort was rewarded and he left in reasonably good spirits.
Each night I would return to camp and ask when Loukman was expected. Each night I got the same reply, “Peut-être demain.” I realized after three days that nobody had a clue when he’d return but they didn’t like to admit not knowing.
Two of the lakes (Soamalipo and Befotaka) were surprisingly quiet during this period, without the usual fleet of fishermen singing and splashing their way through the mornings. It transpired that the official fishing season had not been formally opened this year (usually it began in June) as the Tompondrano (the traditional ‘Keeper of the Lakes’) was throwing a tantrum about some family feud and he refused to perform the official opening ceremony (a traditional rite, involving the slaughter of a zebu, a big all night party, the feeding of zebu meat to the crocodiles, and the seeking of the ancestors’ approval for a profitable fishing season).
The position of Tompondrano is normally inherited by the eldest male of the current Tompondrano’s family, but this particular Tompondrano had gained his position by deception. When his father, a great friend and supporter of The Peregrine Fund, had died a few years ago, he left an enormous family of offspring, including several males. After the funeral, the eldest son went to Tana for a few months as he wanted to leave a period of respect before taking over the mantle of his father. However, whilst he was away, the second eldest son had decided he wanted to be Tompondrano and he tricked the rest of the community into believing his elder brother had ‘abandoned’ them and so claimed the title was rightly his. An inauguration ceremony was held and that was that, the new Tompondrano was in position. Unfortunately for him, the fish yield had been poor that year and the community blamed him, believing his behaviour had upset the ancestors so much that they’d ‘withheld’ the fish from the people. (What was more probable was that they were seeing the cumulative effects of a few years of over-fishing by immigrant fishermen.) Nevertheless, the Tompondrano wouldn’t step down and insisted on asserting his authority in ways such as delaying the opening of the fishing season.
Rather selfishly, I was pleased about the lack of fishermen on the two lakes. It meant I could paddle about and watch eagles without being followed, stared at or generally interrupted. The downside meant that we couldn’t catch fish with nets, only line fishing was allowed, so our fish and rice rations dropped to meager portions. The bigger picture was, of course, much worse and much more important then my little whims.
The third lake in the complex, Lac Ankerika, was governed by a different Tompondrano, who had opened his lake for fishing as usual, in June. When I went over to work in the four fish eagle territories known on that lake, I was met by a scene of complete mayhem. All the fishermen who normally fished on the other two lakes had turned their attentions to Lac Ankerika instead, which now looked like a general free-for-all with boats and nets covering practically the whole surface of the 4 km2 lake, and shore-side camps erected in every inch of free space. This could be disastrous, not only for the fish population but for the fish eagles too, who were either incubating eggs or already had nestlings and therefore had an increased demand for food. The high number of people and boats could force the eagles to move elsewhere, abandoning their nests and their so-important offspring. Somebody needed to have words with the disgruntled Tompondrano of Lacs Befotaka and Soamalipo, and quickly.
Loukman and I discussed our work schedules and decided that, as I had to visit each of the 27 known nest sites in the Antsalova region without any proper transport, we would have to leave on foot within the next 48 hours in order to walk the 250 km round-trip and be back in time for traveling down the Tsirihibihina River with Rivo in August. Loukman and a couple of his technicians would accompany me, mainly because I didn’t know the location of the sites, but also because Loukman was worried about the recent spate of bandit attacks and he thought there would be safety in numbers. He thought wrong, as we would find out in a few weeks’ time.
The day before we were due to leave on our trip, I heard the sound of a car engine coming through the forest towards camp. It was a distinctive sound because the only vehicle we ever heard from camp was The Peregrine Fund truck! We all raced to the edge of the forest waiting for the truck to emerge, and cheered wildly when we saw Yves, Lily, and a brand new red canoe tied to the roof. (The technicians were cheering because their wages would be on board the truck. I was cheering because my mail would be on the truck.) A party atmosphere descended upon camp and whilst Lily and Yves caught up on the gossip amongst the techs, I found a quiet corner and caught up on the gossip from home.
When Lily and I finally got a chance to talk, it turned out he had come over to canoe up the Manambolo River in search of fish eagles. I had originally planned on joining him but as I was now beginning to appreciate, plans and fieldwork are two words that don’t go together in Madagascar. I had to decide that visiting the Antsalova nest sites was more important than exploring up the Manambolo for a few weeks, so reluctantly I had to withdraw from that trip. However, the good news was that Yves and the truck would be sitting idle in camp for the following two weeks and so Loukman suggested we use it to get around to some of our more distant sites. I could tell by Yves’ face that he was pretty unimpressed with this idea, as I think he had other plans for how to spend his two weeks at camp!
After a long discussion (in Malagasy so I couldn’t understand but with enough body language for me to pick out the main points), it was agreed that our mini expedition would begin the following day. I packed up my gear and lay inside my tent that night, blissfully unaware that the following fortnight would bring events of high drama, light comedy and a discovery that would change the way I viewed these fish eagles forever.
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