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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Developing a Population Viability Assessment of Fish Eagles and Other Life Changing Experiences
Laura Estep — in Madagascar Project    ShareFive a.m. on Lake Ankerika on the west coast of Madagascar. This lake is famous from local lore as home to the most ferocious Nile Crocodiles, purported to frequently snatch innocent bystanders from its shores. Of all three lakes in the surrounding three-lake complex, Lake Ankerika is more interesting to raptor ecologists because it supports five territories of the Madagascar Fish-Eagle, which is not only endangered, but also has a polyandrous breeding system. [A polyandrous system is when one female is mated to more than one male.]

Lake Ankerika
Lake Ankerika
On this morning, the crocodiles and eagles are far from my mind. It is still too dark to spot any eagles and I’ve become too calmed by the daybreak quiet that hovers over the lake like a dissipating mist to fear stirring up any crocs perhaps lingering beneath my canoe's paddles. I’m momentarily entranced by this surreal scenario. But there’s no need to pinch myself. I’m not dreaming. I know exactly the steps that have brought me to this moment in a far-flung longitude.

In the midst of graduate school application mania, one opportunity fell into my lap whose full significance I would not realize until much later. While eager to get started on my Ph.D. as soon as possible, I always felt a deeper calling to ground myself better in the field of ornithology before heading straight into the graduate program for which I had been accepted. I decided that my long-held desire to work in French-speaking Africa could be realized through the year-long research awards offered by the Fulbright Fellowship Foundation. After contacting various researchers working in French-speaking Africa, I came across the description of The Peregrine Fund’s conservation project in Madagascar. It was a perfect match with my interests. The project needed a researcher that could invest the time necessary to focus on a Population Viability Assessment (PVA for short) of the Madagascar Fish-Eagle, and I was looking for a project that would get me into the field in Africa and, at the same time, give me some more ornithological experience.

Madagascar Fish-Eagle
Madagascar Fish-Eagle
When I received the Fulbright letter informing me of my proposal acceptance and grant award, I was stunned that such an opportunity had so easily unfolded before me. But by the time I boarded the plane from Louisville, Kentucky to the other side of the world, anti-malarial meds, PVA research materials, background articles on Fish-Eagle behavior, and a year’s supply of deodorant in tow, my dream of a Malagasy adventure was as real as the seat assignment numbers printed on my boarding pass.

My first three months in Madagascar included my familiarization with the project and the Madagascar Fish-Eagles in the region of their heaviest concentration. Before plunging into the computer model analysis necessary for PVA, I first wanted to gain a larger understanding of the species behavior in the natural habitat. I tagged on as a data collector for another researcher who is working out the dilemma posed in understanding the Fish-Eagle’s polygynous, possibly polyandrous mating system. Thus during my introductory three months in Madagascar I canoed around Lake Ankerika assessing Madagascar Fish-Eagle territory boundaries. I did this with the help of The Peregrine Fund’s on-site Malagasy technicians, who also took care of me and treated me with incredible hospitality during my stay.

At the end of November, I returned to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, to settle into life in the city and my PVA project. The project revolved around collecting all data on the life-history of the Madagascar Fish-Eagle available and then using this data to create computer population models. Concurrent with undertaking this project, I also assisted in translating documents – from French to English – on The Peregrine Fund's community-based conservation project that was located adjacent to fish-eagle concentrations.

Antananarivo
Antananarivo

By mid-December, I was well underway with my research but unhappy about the prospect of being alone in Antananarivo for the upcoming holidays. I decided to take a mini-vacation through the end of December. I chose Ile Sainte Marie, an island off the east coast of Madagascar, as my anti-holidays blues destination, unaware of the important events in my life that were to follow there.
Occasionally you hear stories about the power of a place or a location. I personally have never really considered myself pulled in any direction that could be attributed to some supernatural force or something called fate. But this I do know, during those first few weeks on Ile Sainte Marie, my priorities reversed themselves as I had never imagined possible. My impending arrival in graduate school began to loose all appeal in its opportunities to offer. Quite simply, I fell in love with Ile Sainte Marie and its people. And for the first time in my life, what I “should” be doing with my scientific career lost most of its meaning, and a stronger desire to work on the more humanity-sided edge of conservation took over.

My return to Antananarivo left me in somewhat of a quagmire. Whereas I had previously viewed my sojourn in Madagascar simply as an educational field trip in between my pursuits of higher education, suddenly Madagascar began to take on an entirely new significance. I began to think about staying. At the same time as this dilemma arose, I also began hitting some walls in my project. I realized that there was still not enough known regarding the Madagascar Fish- Eagles in order to carry out the PVA. Suddenly my life was filled with unknowns.

For the next few months, my attention became focused solely on these two issues: daytime was reserved for how to deal with the more-difficult-than-expected PVA project, and evenings were spent trying to sort out the issue of whether or not I would head off to graduate school at the termination of my project in May.

By the time May rolled around, I had decided on an approach using variable population characteristics to construct preliminary models of the Fish-Eagle population’s sustainability. I had also decided to refocus much of my project on an assessment of the population characteristics known up until the point of this first PVA, and to make suggestions for research directives for the upcoming years for The Peregrine Fund, as well as suggestions for how such research could be approached.

Whereas the decisions concerning the approach to the project required my concentration and lots of brainwork, I knew that my decision regarding whether or not to start graduate school the upcoming year had to be drummed up from some deeper part of myself and my intuition. In the end, I chose against continuing to graduate school. At the end of May, I packed up my bags, and instead of heading to Ithaca, New York, I set out towards Ile Sainte Marie. I settled onto the island to finish up the writing of my project report and to do some more serious soul-searching.

It would have been much easier to write this article had my PVA project been much more clear-cut with many fewer unknowns about the Madagascar Fish-Eagle and had I never visited Ile Sainte Marie and then been derailed from my original academic track. This conclusion would be easier to write. It would end with a strong prediction concerning the likelihood that the Madagascar Fish-Eagle will go extinct in the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years. It would also say something about how appreciative I am to The Peregrine Fund for giving me the opportunity to learn about the avifauna of Madagascar and to undertake a project that would lead to a publishable journal article before I continue on to pursue my academic career. But instead, my conclusion must now go something more like this:

While there are currently too many unknowns to determine the sustainability of the Madagascar Fish-Eagle population, one certain result of the first attempts to model the population is that the breeding size of the population, as well as the rate of the habitat destruction significantly affect the model results, whereas all other variable population characteristics have less of an impact on model results. However, until more about all of the variable characteristics is known, definitive sustainability predictions cannot be made. But for now, the rate of habitat destruction for the Madagascar Fish-Eagle and obtaining a more certain figure on the breeding size of the population should be primary research priorities.

And as for the personal story, I’ll be returning to Ile Sainte Marie soon after a visit back to the United States. I will be putting together a foundation to create a historical, cultural, and natural history museum for the island, with a broader focus of conservation on both the culture and natural history of this island that I fell in love with. I’ve never been happier or more optimistic with the upcoming projects in my life or felt so excited about the further paths that I will accidentally stumble upon and choose to follow. And for this I am truly grateful to The Peregrine Fund.

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