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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
JULY 2000: Back Out West
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    Share

Antananarivo (Tana) is a capital you either love or hate. The downside includes abject squalor and poverty in many areas, with families of desperately ragged street kids running after any white-skinned pedestrian to tug at their clothes and heartstrings for spare change. Some of them are ingenious, selling toy cars cleverly crafted from discarded drink cans; others are less enterprising but have learned to tap into the Westerner’s social conscience by begging outside the most expensive supermarkets as tourists emerge with trolleys full of over-priced imported goods. For the most part tourists are shepherded away from the most bleak areas by their tour guides so they don’t have to see the ghetto streets a few blocks away, where real people live under filthy strips of cardboard, literally sleeping next to the open sewer gutters. I walked past a dead rat in the road one time and noticed that everyone else just stepped over it, barely giving it a second glance. Prostitution is also rife and incredibly blatant; half an hour spent in the seemingly innocuous café at L’Hotel Glacier on Independence Avenue is quite an education.

Tana can also be a dangerous city if you don’t have your wits about you. Tourist muggings are frequent and there are rich pickings for bag-snatchers and pickpockets. I was in the market one time and suddenly found myself surrounded by a pack of youths, a couple of them trying to distract me whilst the others’ hands were in my pockets in an instant. I’d deliberately dressed-down (very easy to do in dirty field clothes!) and had left my bags back at the office so as not to draw attention to myself but they still caught me off-guard as they were so quick. My instinct was to shout and lash out at them and then get away as soon as possible. I saw the flash of a blade and that was enough; I ran and ran and ran until my lungs ached but I was safe.

Despite the downside, I am one of those who love Tana. It might be the twisting narrow cobbled streets. It might be the rickety colourful houses with shutters and balconies that overlook those streets. It might be the beaten and battered old Renault and Citroen taxis that are the legacy of French colonial days and which now clatter and rattle through the streets, looking like their bodywork is held together with elastic bands and string and sounding like they are running on crude oil. It might be the ritualistic bargaining with the taxi driver, who without exception will quadruple the cost of the fare for a vazaha passenger. It might be the hawkers gathered on the main steps that separate the upper and lower town, selling everything from scorpions inside old margarine tubs to plastic watches and odd socks, who swiftly pack up their wares and run en masse if a policeman is spotted. It might be the entrepreneurs who stand outside the post office who know that Westerners will pay extortionate rates for a month-old Newsweek or Time Magazine even though it’s a well-thumbed copy taken from the Air France flights. The most likely reason for loving the place though is probably because being there means I am either on my way out to my field site and therefore excited about the season ahead, or I am on my way home after several long months in the field and looking forward to being reacquainted with the luxuries of the Western lifestyle.

The second day back in Tana I went to find the Peace Corps doctor again. Peter didn’t have to see or treat me but he was as welcoming as ever and invited me into his house like a long lost friend. It was an enormous relief to be able to discuss symptoms in the same language and know that he had access to the best drugs in the country. He couldn’t decide if I had malaria; like many tropical diseases it manifests itself in a variety of ways. In the end it was a toss-up between malaria and glandular fever and he prescribed broad-spectrum antibiotics and told me to monitor the situation closely. Armed with a box of pills and the knowledge that I wasn’t yet at death’s door, I headed back across town to The Peregrine Fund house/office and started to make plans for getting back out west to Camp Handkerchief.

This wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped (yes, I was still naïve enough to think that you could make forward plans in Madagascar). There were two Peregrine Fund four-wheel drive vehicles based at the house, one of which was usually available for taking people/equipment back and forth to the wetlands site whilst the other was used by Aristide, the local National Director, for attending meetings in Tana. My timing was bad though, as the monthly funds from the head office in Boise had not yet arrived and weren’t due for another fortnight. Without this money there was no way of buying fuel for the trip and so I either had to hang around in Tana for another two weeks or find an alternative mode of transport. Two weeks is a long time to waste when you have a busy field season ahead so I looked at the other options.

One was to fly out west to Antsalova, a remote airstrip located 80 km north of Camp Handkerchief. From Antsalova, the options were either to walk for two days to reach camp or hire an ox-cart. This plan was thwarted on two fronts. Firstly we didn’t have the funds to pay for the flight and secondly I didn’t know the way from Antsalova to camp on foot. There were no roads, let alone road signs, and no way of contacting the technicians at camp to arrange to be met. The satellite phone had been taken from camp last year, to be replaced by a cheaper BLU radio that was being shipped from the US. The last we’d heard was that the container had been diverted to India by mistake and Customs officials there wouldn’t release it until we’d paid an import tax! In the meantime, there was zero communication between the office in Tana and the technicians in camp, who would have to spend weeks if not months not knowing when The Peregrine Fund truck would next arrive.

The other route was to take a taxi-brousse from Tana to Morondava, then look for another one to get north up to the Manambolo River. This trip would take about four to five days and would involve being squeezed into a cattle truck with about 25 other people and all their bags, chickens, and pigs. The taxi-brousses didn’t go further than the Manambolo River and so I would need to either walk or hire an ox-cart to make the final 40km journey to camp, facing the same difficulty as if walking from Antsalova--not knowing where I was going! There was the added threat of being accosted by bandits (known as ‘Dahalo’) in that region, who used to specialise in zebu-rustling but had recently changed tactics to include spates of armed robbery and assault. However, even though it was the most uncomfortable and dangerous way, it was infinitely the cheapest.

My mind was made up that night at The Peregrine Fund house. In an attempt to avoid the usual flea onslaught, I had deliberately not slept in the bed (with the flea-infested mattress) but rather had rolled out my mat on the floor and cocooned myself inside my sleeping bag. Word had obviously got out within the flea community that a fresh piece of meat had arrived though, as I was woken at 4 a.m. by the incessant biting and itching caused by those insipid little creatures and I could actually feel them running over my skin. I leapt out of my bag in a rage, picked up every piece of clothing, and sleeping bag, marched into the bathroom, ran the bath and unceremoniously dumped everything in it, watching with huge satisfaction as the fleas tried in vain to jump to safety from the rising scalding water. At that moment I decided I would go into Tana later that morning and book my ticket on a taxi-brousse. Uncomfortable ride it may be but not nearly as uncomfortable as playing host to a hundred fleas.

However, the fieldwork gods were smiling on me. A few hours later I took a call from Richard Lewis, the Englishman who used to work with the fish eagles and now worked for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT). He was heading out to Masoarivo (‘The Place of a Thousand Crocodile Eyes’) the next day and wondered whether I could use a lift? Perfect!

At 5 a.m. the next morning I was packed and waiting outside the house as he pulled up in his Landrover, which was full to the roof with plastic watering cans that he was dropping off to one of their community projects enroute. After some careful rearranging I managed to squeeze in with my bags and we were off up to the highlands before the sun rose. It was a real treat to get to talk to Richard; after living and working in Madagascar since 1991 he had built up a mass of knowledge about conservation and the issues facing those trying to stem the tide of habitat and species destruction in that country. The backdrop to these discussions was provided by the stark and bleak landscape of the central highlands and made the conversation all the more pressing. In addition to picking his brains about Malagasy conservation policy, there was the added bonus of traveling with an Englishman who appreciated the Western diet and showed me all the best places along the way to find bread, cheese, chocolate and fried egg sandwiches instead of the usual bowl of greasy rice topped with a scrap of unidentifiable meat.

In the west coast town of Morondava the next morning he took me to one of the good hotels along the seafront where we were given a table overlooking the Mozambique Channel and dined on a full continental breakfast that was as good as any I’ve had in Paris. I made a mental note not to ever believe Yves (The Peregrine Fund driver) again – he had told me last year that rice was the only breakfast available in Morondava! Later that morning we dropped off the watering cans, picked up two Malagasy students who were working with DWCT on the Giant Jumping Rat Project just north of Morondava, and headed off towards the Baobab Avenue, one of my favourite places in this part of the world.

The two-day trip north was fairly uneventful in Malagasy terms. The tape deck broke, the ferry was six hours late, Richard was still called ‘Vazaha’ by the villagers rather than Richard, even though he’d worked in this particular region for nine years, boiled fruit bat was still on the menu, children screamed and waved and chased after our vehicle as we passed through each village, and new areas of forest had been cut and burnt since I saw it last year.

We pulled into the village of Masoarivo at dusk two days later to be met by the DWCT technicians, who had somehow got word that we were arriving and had produced a fantastic meal to welcome us into the compound. We staked out tents, had bucket showers behind their state-of-the-art bamboo cubicle, found clean-ish clothes and sat down on mats for the feast. We were joined by a young American undergraduate student named Alex who was volunteering for DWCT for the summer. Standing 6’2” and dressed from head to toe in Nike sportswear, it would be fair to say he was quite conspicuous in that village. I watched the young local lads eyeing up his trademarked shoes with envy whilst Alex babbled on about how they could buy a pair on the internet if they really wanted some, oblivious to the fact that most of those lads would probably earn the equivalent of 250 USD a year and would never see a computer in their lifetime, let alone comprehend the technology of the internet. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this was Alex’s first trip outside the US.

The following morning the village elders assembled inside the one-roomed school building for a day of important talks about sustainable living in and around the Three Lakes complex. Known as the ‘GELOSE’ process (Gestion Locale Securisée), this was a community-based conservation project designed to protect the wetlands and natural resources shared by local Sakalava tribes and the fish eagles. Rick Watson and colleagues from The Peregrine Fund had first proposed this idea back in 1993, in response to the increasing threat to the fish eagles from over-harvesting of the natural resources around the lakes, leading to loss of fish eagle nesting habitat, nest site disturbance, and reduced prey availability. The threat wasn’t from the local Sakalava tribe, who had their own traditions and taboos that ensured enough fish and trees for both them and the fish eagles to survive. The threat had come from an influx of immigrant fishermen from other areas and tribes of Madagascar, who had flocked to the Three Lakes in increasing numbers to take advantage of the economic incentive from fishing in this region. The immigrants took no notice of local laws such as the start and end of the fishing season, the restrictions on fishing net mesh size, cutting of large trees for pirogues, and the siting of temporary camps close to fish eagle nests. With the help of The Peregrine Fund, and later DWCT, the community members and local leaders of the Sakalava tribe had been encouraged to enforce traditional resource use rules, and now seven years later the process was finally beginning to take effect.

I sat in on the meeting for part of the day, not understanding the spoken language but infinitely aware of the body language in that room, full of passion and determination to protect their livelihoods. I noticed that the only other woman in the room was a sociologist employed by DWCT. Sakalava women are traditionally the bearers of children and preparers of food and took no active role in the politics of village life. I mused to myself whether the GELOSE process would have taken seven years if women had been involved in the negotiations. I guessed equal rights in this part of Madagascar were a long way off. When I read some of the traditional rules drawn up by the elders I realised that women were a long way down the list of priorities in this community: “Those that commit an infraction of the traditional edicts must pay a fine of a very fat [healthy] cow and 20 litres of rum.”

A party was organised in the evening to celebrate the day’s meeting. The school benches and tables were pushed back and someone rigged up a single light bulb and a ghetto blaster, both attached to the battery on the DWCT Landrover. All the villagers had gorged themselves on a sacrificial zebu, donned their finest lambas and shawls, and had congregated outside the schoolhouse. No one was allowed inside until the Mayor of Masoarivo had arrived to formally declare the party open. We all huddled together outside, some young boys trying to get a sneak preview through the window holes and being ushered away by the Mayor’s sidekicks. An hour passed and still no sign of the Mayor. At 10 p.m., a young runner arrived with a message from the Mayor. He was refusing to come out of his hut unless he was chauffer-driven by the DWCT vehicle to the schoolhouse. Bear in mind his hut was situated only 200 yards away from the school house, but vehicle equals prestige in Masoarivo and so the light bulb was dismantled and the driver despatched to the Mayor’s place. A few minutes later he drew up with all the pomp and ceremony of a royal visit. The passenger door was opened for him and the crowd cheered. His exit from the Landrover was far from regal though; it seemed the Mayor had been imbibing the local firewater and was a little worse for wear. After practically falling out of the vehicle, he pronounced the party open and everyone poured into the darkened room. Warm bottles of Fanta and a Kylie Minogue tape made for a very long evening indeed.

The following day I met up with some of the local Peregrine Fund technicians from Camp Handkerchief and we made plans to get my gear and me over to camp. A few hours later, technicians Gilbert and Gaston were leading me through the forest on the 11 km hike to reach Lac Befotaka. It was so good to be back! We left the noise of the village behind us, soon to be replaced by the sounds of the forest--lemurs ‘clicking’ their warning calls, sickle-billed vangas wailing like babies and high pitched common jerys twittering in the understory. A rather tame Frances’s Sparrowhawk followed us along the track for a while; the two Accipiter species at home in England are notoriously secretive but I’d learned that in this part of the world at least, the sparrowhawks were just as curious of me as I of them.

As we emerged from the darkened forest to the shore of the lake, the sounds had changed again. This time I could hear the mews of the circling Yellow-billed Kite overhead, a beautiful raptor that looked like it had dipped its belly in a dust bath of cocoa powder. Kites are relatively common in some parts of the world but again, where I came from, I was only used to occasional sightings of the Red Kite, a species which had been persecuted to almost complete extirpation in the British Isles and was now the subject of an intensive reintroduction programme to parts of England and Scotland over the last 10 years. There were hundreds of Yellow-billed Kites living around the Three Lakes and I knew that by the end of the season I would have become blasé about seeing them, but at that moment I just looked up and enjoyed the fly-over display I was being treated to.

We pulled out the canoe that Gaston had left in the reeds earlier that morning, loaded up the gear and started to paddle out across Lac Befotaka towards Lac Soamalipo and home for the next few months. I was scanning the tree line closely as we paddled out as I knew we were in my old friend Cut Off’s territory and I was anxious to see if he was still around. I could hear a fish eagle call from across the lake, but it was too far away to be from his territory. Twenty minutes later we were about to leave Cut Off’s territory and enter the next pair’s patch but I still hadn’t seen or heard Cut Off. Turning to Gaston, I asked whether we could make a quick detour and go towards the nest site. A ‘quick detour’ meant an extra 40 minutes of paddling out of our way but to Gaston this was nothing; with thighs and arms the size of cedar redwoods, 40 minutes of extra paddling to him was as inconsequential as swatting a mosquito, so the canoe was turned 90° and we headed off towards the nest. Our efforts were rewarded when we found Cut Off perching in the very same tree I’d last seem him in at the end of the field season in 1999. He was preening again and barely gave us a glance as we paddled by. Thrilled that he was still alive, we headed off towards Lac Soamalipo where I was looking forward to a more animated reunion with the local Peregrine Fund technicians.

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