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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
May 2000 - Best Laid Plans
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    Share‘The best laid plans of mice and men
Oft go wrong and leave us nothing
But grief and pain’.

Robert Burns supposedly penned this famous ode after accidentally ploughing up the nest of a field mouse. It seems to me it was written about the trials of fieldwork in Madagascar.

My best laid plans began in earnest a few weeks prior to departure, as I eagerly drew up exhaustive equipment lists for the months ahead. Whilst my friends were busy packing bikinis and trashy novels for their summer holidays, the contents of my rucksack looked somewhat different. Along with the essential tent, sleeping bag, telescope, binoculars, camera, GPS, anti-malarials, first aid kit, notebooks, clothes, and protective sun gear, I managed to squeeze in a few luxury items which included four bottles of soy sauce, two bottles of lemon juice, 300 decent tea bags, seven tubes of insect bite cream, two spare bulbs for my torch, one spare torch for when the first one broke, 24 batteries, and several waterproof and rat proof stash bags to keep my gear safe. I’d even managed to leave enough room for some much needed reading material and, the height of decadence, a solar shower unit! No more trying to wash in a bucket for me.

But it wasn’t to be. The Malagasy crew emailed me 36 hours before I was due to leave England: “We need two new engine propellers for the boat survey work; please can you buy them and bring them over?” I reluctantly removed the precious books and shower unit from my rucksack to make room for the 10 kg propellers. That was the first plan thwarted and I hadn’t even left home yet!

This year’s fieldwork was to be very different from last year’s. Rather than basing myself solely at one site, I wanted to take a broader look at the distribution and abundance of the fish eagles throughout their whole range. My main objective was to find out whether they bred in groups throughout the range or whether this behaviour was restricted to a particular habitat or sub-population in the west.

The Madagascar Fish Eagle population comprises three main areas of concentration: two sub-populations in the mid-west (inland rivers and lakes in the Antsalova and Tsiribihina regions) and one sub-population along the northwest coast and offshore rocky islets. As well as looking for breeding trios, I was also interested in working out whether eagles from each sub-population were mixing with other sub-populations (and therefore mixing their genes), or whether the behaviour of breeding in groups with close relatives was actually restricting the eagles’ overall abundance and reproductive potential.

In addition to surveying the three sub-populations, I also wanted to return to the nests I’d monitored last year to collect more data on the social organization of the trios I’d studied. I wanted to find out if the same individuals were still collaborating at the same nest sites, and if so, whether the dominance hierarchy remained the same or whether previously dominant males had been ousted by subordinates or even by new group members.

A timetable was drawn up for the season’s work, which was to begin with the offshore boat survey along the northwest coast. Peregrine Fund biologists had already planned to conduct an offshore survey this year as part of an on-going population monitoring scheme, so it made financial and logistical sense for me to join them. June was chosen as having the most favourable sea conditions, just after the seasonal monsoon rains and just before the strong trade winds arrive. After the boat survey I planned to head down to the west to conduct nest surveys along the Tsiribihina River, and then in August/September I’d walk a 200 km round-trip to reach all 27 nests in the Antsalova region. Rather optimistically, I’d devised this timetable to a tight schedule without factoring in something very important: there’s no such thing as a tight schedule in Madagascar. It was a lesson I was to learn the hard way.

I arrived in Tana in mid-May and met up with the rest of the boat crew at The Peregrine Fund house. I knew Rivo Rabarisoa from last year as he’d spent a couple of days at Camp Handkerchief. Rivo had conducted the last boat survey in 1995 so his knowledge of the northwest coast would be important to the success of our trip. Lily Arison Rene de Roland was the other team member. He’d just received his doctorate after studying rainforest raptors in the northeast of the island and had been promoted to Research Director for The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar Project. This trip was to be his introduction to the wonderful world of the fish eagle.

We discussed logistics and decided we would leave Tana on 22 May (in two days time). We needed to drive up to Mahajanga on the NW coast where The Peregrine Fund boat was in storage. The plan was to spend a couple of days preparing the boat and then head out to sea as quickly as possible to get a head start in front of the imminent trade winds. We began to stockpile our equipment and I pulled out the new boat propellers to add to the list. I was somewhat non-plussed to see them being put away in the storeroom rather than joining the heap of equipment in the office. “ Why aren’t we taking those?” I asked. “They are spares. If we need them they will be shipped up to us,” was the reply. Warning bells should have started ringing but they didn’t. This was my first taste of something I came to know as “Malagasy logic.”

The next few days were spent racing around town trying to buy last minute food and equipment, as well as trying to avoid the voracious rat fleas that were already having a feeding frenzy on my flesh. Despite being smothered in insect repellent I counted 108 bites, and these didn’t include the ones on my lower back that I could feel but couldn’t see. It’s said that if you are continually exposed to fleabites, eventually your body develops some tolerance for the flea saliva allergy and then the bites become less annoying. It seemed I still had some time to go as I itched and scratched my way around town. Michèle Clarke, my supervisor at Nottingham University, emailed and suggested I try to get hold of citronella essential oil as a deterrent. Not much chance of finding any of that so I decided to use the next best thing. I sacrificed a bottle of lemon juice that I’d bought to season the fish and rice and carefully poured it all over my skin. The following day I did another bite count….216! It seemed my only chance of respite was to die…apparently fleas desert a dead body within minutes.

Meanwhile, Rivo had been busy trying to organise a permit to allow us to use a VHF radio on the boat. Unfortunately, Madagascar Telecom (‘appropriately shortened to ‘Madcom’) was trying to rip us off by charging four million FMG (approx. £400) for permission, having previously charged 80,000 FMG (approx. £8) in earlier years. This was way over our budget, but the radio was essential in case we ran into difficulties offshore. It became even more significant after I’d inspected our “lifeboat” in the storeroom. It was one of those two-person inflatable kayaks that had definitely seen better days. It had large strips of duct tape strategically stuck to the base to cover over puncture holes and looked more like an inflatable banana than a life-saving piece of equipment. Rivo resolved to go back to Madcom the following day to try and negotiate with ‘Le Directeur Generale,’ which meant we couldn’t leave for Mahajanga as planned.

Two days of negotiations later, Madcom wouldn’t budge and we simply couldn’t afford the extortionate fee so we finished packing up our gear, making certain we at least had some decent life jackets and flares as well as the inflatable banana. Another 3 am departure from Tana, this time serenaded by Yves’ latest cassette: The Best of Neil Diamond. Luckily I was tired and slept for much of the journey.

Mahajanga is Madagascar’s second largest port and sits at the mouth of the Betsiboka River on the Baie de Bombetoka on the northwest coast, 550 km from Tana. We drove into this very hot and very dusty town around 3 p.m. and booked ourselves into a dingy hotel next door to a mosque. I didn’t rate our chances of getting much sleep in this location what with the four-hourly calling to prayer over a loud tannoy. But Mahajanga is home to a large Muslim population and there were mosques on every other street so this hotel was as good as any other in this town.

Boat in storage shed.
Boat in storage shed.
We went straight down to the Direction des Eaux et Forêts (DEF) offices where our boat had been in storage for the last five years. We were taken to a shed at the back of the compound and the two large wooden doors were heaved open. As my eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior, all I could see was junk. There were six old French vehicles, all wheel-less and not a hint of paintwork to be seen underneath the rust. Old oil drums and mangled up pieces of machinery and old motorbikes cluttered the floor up to the roof and we carefully picked our way through the cobwebs towards the back of the shed. My heart sank. There she was. Our boat, hidden beneath a mountain of dust and grime, looking battered and decidedly un-seaworthy. We surely weren’t going to attempt to travel 425 km up the coast in that? There must be some mistake; our boat must be somewhere else. I looked at Rivo for confirmation but his face told me everything I needed to know. It seemed we had an awful lot of work to do before we could set sail in search of fish eagles.

The next hurdle was actually getting the boat out of the shed. We went back into the DEF office and “discussed” this for a couple of hours, before being told to come back the next morning at 7 am to see ‘Le Responsible.’ We duly returned at 6:45 am and waited for eight hours before deciding ‘Le Responsible’ probably wasn’t coming. All this sitting around waiting was becoming frustrating. I used the time to ponder the extent of Bubonic Plague in Madagascar (transmitted by rat fleas). I wasn’t happy to learn that Mahajanga was the location of recurring epidemics, with over 200 human deaths each year. We decided to head off into town in the late afternoon and pick up the boat permit from the Marine Police. More waiting and negotiating but this really wasn’t our day. Rivo emerged from the office to tell us the Marine Police wouldn’t accept the paperwork he’d arranged in Tana and that he’d have to fill in another application, which would then take a week to process. The new application would be identical to the one he’d already done. So much for our tight schedule.

Boat is removed from the shed for pre-trip work.
Boat is removed from the shed for pre-trip work.
The following morning saw us sitting outside the DEF office once more, waiting for ‘Le Responsible.’ I was busy counting up the latest flea bites (274) whilst the guys were talent spotting at the gate of the compound. Finally, at around 10 am, in walked the man we’d been waiting for. All his minions stood up to greet him and we quickly followed suit. As I shook his hand I couldn’t help but notice what he was wearing. From his head to his waist he certainly fitted the image I’d had of ‘Le Responsible:’ a beige beret with a red sparkling badge, along with a stiffly ironed formal beige shirt, complete with epaulettes and red stripes with gold tassles on his shoulders. Exuding authority I thought. Until I looked a bit lower…his regulation shirt was tucked into what appeared to be a child’s pair of bright pink shorts with a picture of Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the left leg and Donald Duck on the right! No one else seemed to appreciate the humour of this so I kept my thoughts to myself as we tried to negotiate getting the boat out of the shed.

Hierarchy is everything in Madagascar and with a click of his fingers, Le Responsible had his staff running over to the shed and lifting out the wheel-less cars to clear a path for the boat. After much heaving and sweating, she was eventually carried out into the yard where we could get a better look at her condition. With so much dust and dirt we didn’t know if it was just cosmetic or if there was any serious damage to the hull. The first thing we needed to do was to clean her up. There were no jet-powered hoses in this part of the world, just a couple of twigs tied together as a broomstick and a bucket of filthy gutter water. Yves and I set to work whilst Rivo and Lily went off to arrange the new paperwork for the boat permit.

Yves, Lily, and Rivo work on boat engines.
Yves, Lily, and Rivo work on boat engines.
Yves and I spent the following few days cleaning and inspecting the boat. She wasn’t as damaged as we’d initially thought, although there were a few cracks along the base of the hull that we pasted over with fibreglass strips, and added a few coats of paint to the deck. Structurally she looked o.k., but Yves was concerned about the steering wheel. We rigged up the two 40 hp outboard motors to test the rudder but there seemed to be a bad connection. Using his extensive mechanical skills, Yves stripped down the whole steering column and cleaned it out but it still wasn’t working properly.

Meanwhile, Rivo and Lily were still trying to get official bits of paper together for the permit. The application had been submitted but the Marine Police weren’t convinced about who we were and what we were doing. We’d all shown our research permits that were issued by DEF in Tana but apparently these weren’t good enough. They needed something to prove we were the legal owners of the boat. Unbelievably, the answer to our permit problems was a rubber stamp shaped like a Peregrine Falcon. You can tell how important a bureaucrat is in Madagascar by the number of rubber stamps his has on his desk. For example, Le Responsible had 17 different stamps lined up on his desk, all ready to endorse an otherwise worthless piece of paper. Rivo had phoned up the Peregrine Fund office in Tana and asked someone to type out an ‘official looking’ letter on headed paper, giving us permission to use the boat. It had been duly signed and then sealed with the all-important Peregrine stamp. The fact that anyone could have these stamps made up on any street corner in Tana seemed irrelevant to the authorities (there was that Malagasy logic again).…they took one look at it, nodded their approval and added their own stamp (a boat shape this time) and everyone was happy.

Whilst waiting for the messenger to deliver the letter from Tana (yet another 36 hr delay!), Rivo had fiddled with the steering wheel and pronounced it in good working order. Now all we had to do was get the boat from the DEF compound down to the docks and onto the water. We went to negotiate a crane which took another 48 hrs but finally, nine days after arriving in Mahajanga, it looked like we were ready to go. We were given an extra crewmember by DEF, I think to keep an eye on us and make sure we weren’t pirates. We were lucky with the man they chose: Thierry Ghun had worked as a technician at Camp Handkerchief a few years ago when The Peregrine Fund was just starting up the Fish Eagle Project. Consequently he knew all about fish eagles and he was delighted to have an opportunity to work with them once more and also to escape his desk job for a few weeks.

Rivo and Thierry on boat launch.
Rivo and Thierry on boat launch.
At 4 p.m. our boat (named ‘Ankoay’, the Malagasy name for fish eagle) was loaded with our field equipment and lowered into the sea. We bid our farewells to Yves and took up positions in the boat. The guys took the three seats at the stern and pointed for me to sit further upfront. I made myself comfortable perching on top of one of the 50-litre fuel cans. This was a good place for spotting eagles but a bad place for getting drenched from the spray (perhaps this had something to do with seat allocations!). I didn’t mind though, I was just pleased that we were finally getting out of Mahajanga and closer to seeing some fish eagles.

All went well for 20 minutes, until Rivo cut the engines mid-way across the Baie de Bombetoka. We all turned and looked at him, everyone thinking the same thing but nobody saying anything. We held our breaths whilst Rivo fiddled with the engines, praying that this was just a minor hitch. No such luck. The steering wheel had broken. I didn’t know whether to scream in frustration or to laugh at the ridiculous set of circumstances that had led us to this point. Rivo fiddled around a bit more but it was obvious we had to move, and quickly, as this area was a thoroughfare for large tankers coming in and out of the port. We pulled a broom handle from one of the on-board cupboards and tied it to one of the engines to act as a makeshift tiller. It wasn’t ideal but it would have to do until we could get to dry land and inspect the steering column. One engine was started and we slowly chugged our way towards shore. We decided we were closer to the opposite side of the Baie than to Mahajanga so we carried on in that direction, keeping a close eye out for oncoming tankers. Just as dusk approached about 6 p.m. we limped into the beach area of Katsepy, a small village at the mouth of the Baie.

Locals are bemused at our arrival.
Locals are bemused at our arrival.
Our arrival caused great curiosity amongst the villagers, who streamed out of their huts and onto the beach shouting “Vazaha! Vazaha!” Great. I was in no mood for the inevitable circus that would surround my arrival on shore but we had little choice but to land and set up camp for the night. It was too dark to be able to inspect the steering column so we’d have to stay put until morning. Thierry got out the gas stove and began to heat up some corned beef and rice whilst Lily and I rigged up the tents, much to the amusement of the gathering crowd. I was accosted by the village drunk and I did my best to ignore him without being rude but he was a persistent chap who didn’t recognise the international body language of ‘go away and leave me alone.’ Eventually I just crawled into my tent and padlocked myself in from the inside, hoping he would get bored and stumble off somewhere else. As I lay in my sleeping bag wondering whether we’d ever get this expedition off the ground, the gods added the day’s final insult to injury. Rivo had brought his cassette player with him and had evidently borrowed Yves’ cassette… I was treated to the vocal strains of Neil Diamond blaring out of the next-door tent! I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and prayed for better luck tomorrow.

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