July 2000 (Part III): Courteous Bandits & Deviant Fish Eagles
Ruth Tingay— 14 July 2000 — in Madagascar Project Share
We passed the Mayor of Tranghy along the way, a toothless, barefooted village elder that everyone liked and respected, who always carried a large WW2 rifle and a bullet belt slung low over his arthritic hips. A space was made for him inside the cab and he jammed himself in, clasping his rifle to his concave chest. He was travelling to Bekopaka to see some friends for a card game and if we hadn’t been going that way he would have made the 30 km trip on foot.
Bekopaka is the southern-most point of the Tsingy de Bemaraha, a 152,000-hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site that stretches north up to Antsalova and effectively splits western Madagascar from the central highlands. It’s largely an impenetrable jagged limestone region, with 30 metre high razor-sharp needles and spires created by karstic erosion over the years. Home to at least seven species of lemur, 60 bird species, various endemic succulents and orchids, and a largely unknown herpetological fauna, it’s also a sacred site for the Sakalava tribes and mostly off-limits to visitors except to scientists with valid research permits. The Petit Tsingy close to Bekopaka is open to tourists though, and a steady flow of visitors make the gruelling journey up from Morondava between May and October before the monsoon rains arrive and wash away the roads. The edge of the Tsingy forms spectacular cliffs along the Manambolo River Gorge, the route for Lily and his team.
Martin and I had rafted into the gorge last year and had seen a Peregrine perching on a small ledge not far upriver from Bekopaka. Lily wanted me to show him the site so we launched one of the canoes whilst the technicians unloaded the truck and got themselves sorted out. I was also on the lookout for potential fish eagle nesting sites along the cliff tops. We had only been paddling for a few minutes before we accidentally disturbed a juvenile fish eagle that had been perch-hunting on one of the large boulders on the riverbank. It flew out in front of us and low over the water, allowing us a quick glimpse of a faded blue band on its right leg. We would have to check our banding records later and see if we could work out who it was and where it had come from.
We passed the Vazimba Tombs, a sacred burial site where skeletons were placed high up on a cliff ledge so the ancestors could preside over the river. The site used to be open to tourists, who were allowed to visit the ledge as long as they poured rum over the skeletons as a ritual mark of respect. But then a few years ago it was noticed that bones and skulls were going missing, so the tours were banned and curiosity had to be satisfied by looking at the skeletons from a safe distance down on the river. A little further on was the Peregrine cliff but it was hard to point out the exact spot on the cliff face to Lily as it was ‘fady’ (taboo) in the region to point with an outstretched finger for fear of upsetting the ancestors. (Pointing with a clenched fist was acceptable but never really felt quite right to me.) A brief search proved to be fruitless this time so we headed back downstream to meet the others.
I had mixed feelings as we waved the team off on the start of their river expedition. It would have been a great adventure to paddle for ten days up through the gorge and back again, but I had other work to do. Besides, ten solid days of sitting on a fibreglass seat would probably be pretty uncomfortable, plus the prospect of camping next to a river full of rather large crocodiles wasn’t all that appealing. A woman had been eaten by a crocodile at Bekopaka just last year, grabbed as she kneeled by the water doing her laundry.
Our first site to check was a small lake close to Bekopaka where fish eagles had been recorded for several years. Sure enough, we found a pair and what looked like an old nest, but there didn’t seem to be any evidence of a breeding attempt this year. I looked out over the lake in dismay; at least 70% had been dammed with sticks and rotting vegetation and transformed into a rice paddy, leaving just a tiny area of open water for the fish eagles to hunt over. I counted 37 people bent over amongst the bright green rice shoots and wondered how much longer it would be before the entire lake had been altered and the fish eagles were forced to leave.
It crossed my mind that this particular site might benefit from an eco-tourism approach, whereby the locals protected the fish eagles and their habitat in return for the proceeds from fee-paying tourists. Obviously it would have to be organised and monitored properly to protect against the all-too-common corruption and greed, but the type of tourists who visited this area were generally ‘green’ eco-tourists wanting to see the Tsingy and it’s associated wildlife, so the demand for seeing the critically endangered fish eagle would probably be high. Many enterprising locals had already tapped into the tourist market by selling drinks and snacks and hand-made artefacts and offering short trips in dugout canoes along the Manambolo River. It wouldn’t take much to set up a fish eagle protection scheme, using the residential National Park personnel as a regulating authority.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful and relatively easy in fieldwork terms. We drove back along the ox-cart track towards camp, stopping every few kilometres for us to hike the short distances to visit small lakes, finding fish eagles at each site. We rolled back into camp at dusk, having completed in one day what would have taken us a week without the truck.
The following morning was another early departure, this time heading north up to Antsalova. The truck was crammed full again, this time with 15 people. Eight were Peregrine Fund people and the rest were various villagers who were keen to catch a ride north. We looked more like a taxi-brousse (bush taxi) than a research vehicle, but it was difficult to refuse people, especially when local relations were so important to the overall success of our wetland conservation project.
We made it up to Antsalova after a seven-hour hot and sweaty journey. A few of us went to Christophe’s house where his wife and five-month-old baby lived when Christophe was down at camp. It was a humbling experience to see how they lived. His house consisted of one room with a bed, a dresser, two chairs, a battered ghetto blaster and a sack of rice in the corner. On the mud wall hung a clock that was still wrapped in its protective plastic cover. I’d seen a lot of these in other’s houses and they all still had the wrapper on which meant you couldn’t actually see the time. Outside the room was a narrow concrete ledge next to the sandy street where Christophe’s wife built small fires to cook on. I sat on the ledge waiting for the water to boil and watched a small child drop his shorts and squat in the middle of the dirt road. An old man walking by bent down to pick up a discarded plastic bag, which he used to clean the child before throwing the bag back into the gutter. A brief insight into the Antsalova community spirit.
We ate a hasty lunch of boiled rice then had to get moving again. Loukman, Christophe, Ady, and I had to be dropped off at a village 20 km north, whilst Yves, Zarasoa (a Peregrine Fund sociologist), and technicians Lala and Jules were driving a further 100 km to the west to reach the coastal town of Maintirano (‘Black Water’). They were carrying some GELOSE paperwork that needed the signature of an official and it was easier to go and visit him rather than trust it to a runner. We had the obligatory assorted passengers too, including Christophe’s uncle and his family and a handful of women, going who knows where to do who knows what! I was always amazed at the ability of the Malagasy to be prepared to go anywhere with such short notice. They couldn’t possibly have known we would be arriving in Antsalova and yet they would show up in their best travelling clothes and with bags packed full, all vying for the best position in the truck!
We had 15 km to walk that afternoon to reach our first fish eagle site at Antsoha. It was as hot as hell and with heavy rucksacks hauled onto our shoulders we had to stop every 20 minutes to find some shade and guzzle down some boiled water from our bottles. We’d tried to keep our equipment down to the bare minimum but we still were carrying about 20 kg each, what with tents, food, drinking water, cooking pans, plates, mugs, binoculars, telescope, GPS, camera, notebooks, sun block, etc., etc. I had a newly found respect for Jim Berkelman, a previous Peregrine Fund student who’d done his PhD on the fish eagle a few years ago. As well as carrying similar equipment, he’d also had to carry heavy fishing nets and an inflatable boat and oars with him, as part of his study was to find out which fish species were present at different lakes.
An uncomfortable three hours later we made it to Antsoha, or the ‘Cut Palm Tree’ site as we called it. It was a tiny little lake nestled in a desolate grassland savannah and had palm trees growing in the middle of the water; a clear indication that this was not a permanent wetland. A few temporary mud and grass huts were clustered around the edge, home to a few hardy fishermen. Bright green shoots sprouted in the shallows, yet another rice paddy in the making. But my attention was drawn to the palm trees. There were about 100 in all, but nearly every one of them had had its head cut off! Loukman explained that the locals used the sap of these trees to make an alcoholic drink, and to get to the sap they needed to chop off the top of the tree. The people here were obviously keen on their drink, judging by the number of headless trunks remaining. I thought to myself that if I lived in a place as desolate then I would probably be a hardened alcoholic too. Although once chopped, the tree was effectively dead. Not much forward planning and I wondered what they’d do next year when there were none left.
We pitched our tents close to the edge of the water (no danger of crocodiles here) and managed to persuade one of the fishermen to hire out his dugout canoe to us for an hour. It was a small model (no big trees available) but Loukman and I managed to squeeze in, just. We paddled out between the cut palms, not really expecting to find any fish eagles given the shallow water and density of tree trunks, but as we reached the far end we heard the unmistakable cries of at least two individuals.
There was a small isolated group of trees, not very tall but with plenty of foliage (I guess that particular species wasn’t any good for the alcoholic brew) and the calls were coming from that direction. We stopped paddling and tried to set up the scope (not easy inside a rocking, slimy, narrow log!). We couldn’t see the trees properly and couldn’t get any nearer thanks to a wall of tall dense vegetation so we had to sit and wait for the eagles to show themselves. It didn’t take long and our patience was rewarded with not one, not two, but three adult fish eagles, all hanging around the same clump of trees! I was delighted, as finding trios was my main purpose. We sat and listened to the calls for a while, deducing from the tones that this trio comprised two males and a female. By then dusk was upon as, as were the evening mosquitos, so we made a hasty retreat back to shore for a fish and rice supper then early to bed by 8 p.m.
I woke up at 11 p.m., absolutely freezing. I thought I’d been clever by not packing my sleeping bag (I wanted to keep the weight of my pack right down) so I’d just brought along a thin cotton sheet. Big mistake. I got up and put all my stinking field clothes back on and then tried to find sleep again. It didn’t come though. My muscles were aching from tensing up against the cold and I started getting cramp. I was pleased when the sun appeared and could get up and start moving around again. The others had suffered a similar cold night so we all huddled around the fire waiting for the rice to cook, drinking hot tea.
We were packed up and ready to leave by 8 a.m., for a 30 km march to a site called Besara Nord. The landscape en route was desolate. Just vast grassland savannahs with burnt and stunted palm trees dotted around. I lost my sense of direction within minutes but Ady and Christophe knew the way well; they had visited each of these sites regularly for a number of years to monitor fish eagle productivity.
The heat soon became unbearable for us, and with no shade and heavy packs pulling on our shoulders and backs we had to stop every half hour for a short rest and a drink before moving off again. The sweat was running off us but I thought my pack would feel lighter as the day went on, given the amount of water we were draining from our bottles, but that was just wishful thinking.
Seven hours later we trudged into the tiny village of Besara and all literally slumped in a heap, not even having the energy to take off our bags. Christophe then headed across to talk to someone in one of the huts and re-emerged with a big beaming woman who came over and vigorously shook our hands. It turned out that this lady was a relative of Christophe’s, and in typical Malagasy style, she insisted on being our hostess for the evening. She scuttled back inside her hut for a few minutes, and came back out brandishing a large reed mat, various plastic jugs and plates, a huge pot of rice and some tinned sardines. She fussed over us and made sure we were all settled on the mat with our plates piled high and our mugs full of water then she sat herself down and smiled maternally as she watched us stuffing our faces with a meal that had never tasted so good! As usual, the appearance of a white female had caused a huge amount of interest and it wasn’t long before we were surrounded by a gawping crowd of curious faces.
After resting for a while, we decided to go and look for the fish eagles before dusk so we could head off early in the morning. My legs had begun to seize up whilst we’d been sitting eating and it took a good few minutes of walking to get rid of the aches. We stumbled down the hill and across several rice paddies to reach the lake, then crammed into a small pirogue and paddled over to last year’s nest site.
The fish eagles were in residence in the same nest tree and were easy to find as they were making a real racket. When we got closer we realised what all the noise was about; five pied crows were dive-bombing the nest and the two eagles were desperately trying to fend them off. I knew from last year’s work at the three lakes that pied crows have a liking for newly hatched fish eagle nestlings so I guessed that the nest here contained young. The pied crows were smart birds, working together to distract the fish eagles to try and lead them away from their nest. Some of the crows flew close to the adult fish eagles that were standing next to their nest, calling loudly. The fish eagles would then give chase, leaving their nest unattended and allowing the remaining crows a chance to fly in and grab a nestling. The fish eagles were going berserk, frantically screaming as they flew back and forth desperately trying to protect their offspring. We stood and watched the commotion for about half an hour until finally the crows seemed to have given up and the fish eagles returned, one sitting low in the nest, the other one perching on sentry duty on a nearby branch. We took our field data and moved silently away, not wanting to be the cause of any more disturbance to the pair.
As we headed back across the paddy fields towards the village, I began to feel dizzy and wobbly. I didn’t know it at the time but this was a common side effect of the Lariam (anti-malarial) pills I’d been taking. I just put it down to being tired from the day’s march and tried to focus on the distant horizon. We picked our way through the rice field by balancing along huge walls of rotting slippery vegetation. Loukman was just ahead of me and turned to warn me about a gap I would need to step over…but it was too late. My foot slipped and I found myself waist deep in a pool of black, putrid water that stank of zebu dung! The good news was that I had somehow managed to keep my telescope, binoculars and GPS above my head and out of the water. The bad news was that I didn’t have a single item of clean dry clothing to change into as I’d deliberately left them behind in an effort to keep my pack weight down. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Loukman managed to haul me out of the water whilst Christophe and Ady did their best to stay upright whilst laughing hysterically. They wouldn’t be laughing the next day when having to walk next to the smell of stale zebu dung that would attract the world’s largest gathering of flies
It was a long, long day and we were literally on our last legs by the time we walked back into the village of Antsagnaloky. Fortunately it was dark so we managed to get our tents up without too much of a commotion from the villagers and were all asleep within minutes of arriving. The following morning word had got out and I unzipped my tent to be faced by a crowd of kids shouting “Vazaha! Vazaha!” as they ran away to stare from a safe distance. We weren’t due to meet Yves until later that afternoon so we spent the day hanging out around the village.
Yves and the gang showed up in the truck later that afternoon and they obviously felt sorry for our weary legs as the cab was vacated and the four of us were allowed to travel to the next site luxuriating on the plastic cushioned seats! Bliss. We were dropped off about 40 km southwest at a large lake called Masama, where we knew there were at least two fish eagle nest sites. Masama Lake was huge and surrounded by deciduous forest and looked remarkably similar to the three lakes back at camp. Yves and company departed back to camp for the night whilst us four began to set up our tents once again.
Just like at camp, Masama Lake was subjected to strong afternoon winds, making it impossible to paddle a pirogue after 2 p.m. This meant that we had to stay put until early the next morning, as the fish eagle nests were across the other side of the water. We were looking forward to an early night but it wasn’t to be. We’d unwittingly picked the one night of the month when the fishermen came from miles around to have an all-night party in readiness for the market the next day. I ended up having to padlock myself inside the tent to keep out over-inquisitive onlookers, who then decided to play bongo drums right outside in an attempt to draw me out. Instead I switched on my Walkman, turned it to full volume and pulled the blanket right over my head.
We were up by dawn, tired and grumpy and keen to move on. We hired a couple of pirogues and loaded up our field equipment under the watchful gazes of about 150 villagers who had gathered on the lakeshore. Just as I’d managed to sit down inside the log without tipping it over, there was a huge commotion on the shore, arms being waved and voices raised. I got the impression it was something to do with me but couldn’t understand a word that was being said. After a few minutes of garbled babbling, Loukman stepped over to me and told me to take my shoes off. It turned out that it was fady at this lake for anyone to cross the water whilst wearing their shoes, as it was considered disrespectful to the Ancestors. I quickly took them off and sat on them as a makeshift seat to keep me out of the slimy fish remains slopping around in the bottom of the pirogue. The locals were happy and began smiling again and I was happy because we could get on with the work and get away from the crowd.
A few hours later we’d found our fish eagles (one trio and one pair), Yves had returned to collect us and we were on our way back to Camp Handkerchief for much needed showers, change of clothes, and a good night’s sleep.
A day later we were back on the road again, this time heading south and across the Manambolo River. It was another 30 km hike for us as Yves had gone off to pick up Lily and company to take them back to Tana, so we didn’t have the luxury of a 4WD anymore. By lunchtime we’d made it to the Manambolo River and it was only when we got there that Loukman told me we would have to swim across it! I thought he was joking at first. The Manambolo is well known as a crocodile haven, but there were no boats around to hitch a ride so we prepared ourselves for the crossing.
Surprisingly I wasn’t worried about a personal attack. Their whole demeanour was so typical of many of the Malagasy I’d met; quiet, non-aggressive and polite. I didn’t feel threatened at all. It only took them a few minutes to choose the food they wanted—a large bag of rice, some hot chocolate drinking powder and a few tins of sardines. There was some more gentle conversation and then they were off, back into the shadows of the forest as silently as they had arrived.
As dawn broke we were out on the lake, paddling through the swirly mists in search of eagles. The first pair was easy to find as they were duetting from their nest tree, typical of early morning fish eagle behaviour. We saw a large nestling peering over the nest rim and estimated it to be about six weeks old. This must have been an early hatch date as it was the biggest nestling we’d seen at any of the other sites.
The second nest site at Bejijo proved more difficult. It was an odd lake, mainly due to the presence of the water hyacinths. They’d built up into huge and extensive ‘rafts’ and had effectively closed off the far end of the lake to fishing boats. We knew there were eagles at that end as we could hear them, but there was no way our pirogue could cut through the hyacinths. We decided to try and get round on foot through the forest and eventually battled our way through the undergrowth to emerge on the shoreline. The fish eagle nest was easy to spot and we saw two adult eagles perching in nearby trees. We wanted to try and reach the nest tree to take some field measurements but the tree was across the other side. There were no fishing pirogues—a fisherman had told us the previous night that nobody fished there due to problems of access.
Christophe and Ady decided to try and walk around through the forest whilst Loukman and I set up the scope and tried to figure out how many eagles were there. We could clearly see two adults, but could also occasionally hear a third bird, way back behind the nest tree in what we presumed was just forest. The more I listened to the birds calling, I began to think I could hear two females instead of the usual single female. I listened a few more times then asked Loukman what he thought. He listened, then shook his head and said it was a male and a female. I began to doubt myself and listened again, but each time they called I was certain it was two females. The female fish eagle call is slightly lower in tone than the male, although it’s only a very subtle difference and you have to be ‘tuned in’ to their calls to be able to detect the difference.
Christophe and Ady returned, unable to get through the forest, and I asked them to listen to the calls. They both said male and female. Again we listened. It was definitely two females. Christophe shook his head vehemently and said it wasn’t possible. Then the third eagle called from the background and it gave us a reference point. The call was high-pitched and definitely male. The two adult birds in view responded and it was easier to place their tones this time. Two females, for certain. Loukman agreed. I was really really excited! If we were right, this would be the first polygynous trio ever recorded in this species. All the other trios we’d seen had consisted of two males and one female. It would throw up all kinds of interesting questions, like whether the two females each had a nest and did the male visit both nests to try and raise two different broods? Did the females share one nest and if so did they both lay eggs? Was there a dominance hierarchy between the females? Were all three eagles unrelated or was this a ‘family’ group?
Whilst we were pondering these questions, a 4th eagle flew in and the whole group began calling again. It was impossible to single out the calls with so many at once but we knew that this was an unusual set-up and warranted closer investigation. The only way we could be certain about the gender of each bird was to trap them and take a blood sample that I could later analyse the chromosomes in the lab. We didn’t have any of our trapping gear with us as we hadn’t expected to catch any eagles on this trip, so it would mean a return journey within the next few weeks. We were worried about the feasibility of getting a pirogue onto this part of the lake; without boat access there was no way we could trap the eagles.
We went off and spoke to some of the fishermen on the other side of the lake and they agreed that for a modest fee they would cut a path through the water hyacinths wide enough for us to get a canoe through. They reckoned it would take them a few days but maybe more; huge crocodiles lived in the lake (we’d seen a few skulls lying around and they were massive!) so it would be dangerous work for the fishermen but they agreed to give it a go. We planned to return the following week, fully equipped and prepared for the challenge.
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