We set out from camp after dark carrying only what we need: headlamps, and a backpack full of simple research equipment. Our bellies are full from a dinner of rice and pumpkin stew and this fuels our bodies as we begin the forty-minute journey to S-9.
We walk silently as the evening breeze dances through my hair and billows my loose linen pants. At night the deadliest predator is the mosquito. We are a party of four; myself, Mark (another volunteer), Forest, the research assistant, and our local guide Alterre. As we walk along the road sand slips into my sandals and finds it’s familiar resting place between my toes.
There is no escaping the sand in Sainte Luce. I’ve learned that quickly over the past week. After my first bucket shower, complete with a good scrub of my feet, (to discourage the parasites from burrowing in my toes!) I walked back to my tent, a mere 30 yards away, only to discover that my feet were covered in sand! There is no fighting the sand because it’s everywhere. It’s the foundation layer of the littoral forest that we are striving to protect. Full of rich and ecologically valuable minerals, it provides the forest plants the nutrients they need to grow and thrive, which provides the habitat and ecosystem for the biodiverse species to live in.
Less than ten minutes of walking brings us to the edge of the forest. This is where S-8, the section of forest closest to our village of Ambandrika and the camp, ends. The road continues and as we step beyond the forests’ edge the light of the full moon spills over us lighting up our faces and moving limbs. We walk without headlamps as the moonlight provides a steady glow of light. It moves across the landscape like a shallow stream over a pebbled beach, rippling the landscape with soft waves of grey.
My eyes take in the openness. Since arriving in Sainte Luce I have been surrounded by trees, their tall branches blocking a sweeping view of the area. But here is different. The moonlight highlights the scrubby plants that have grown up in place of the forest. I can make out a few smaller trees in the distance. Scrawny and skinny, they stand around like awkward teenagers at a dance not sure what to do. If I didn’t know, or hadn’t seen the dramatic change from forest to plains, I might think this is how the landscape is supposed to be. But I know better.
Madagascar has lost almost all of its forest. What is left are various fragments isolated by areas of plains. The reasons for deforestation are complex and not necessarily easy to solve.
First there are the local Malagasy who depend on the forest and its resources to survive. Although the volunteer organisation has helped stop the killing of lemurs and other animals for food, it still occurs. Walking through the forest one day we passed two men, one carrying a bounty of small rodents. It took me a moment to realise what I was seeing. I had been excited at the prospect of seeing the unique species of tenrecs and was sad to learn they are extremely rare to find. I hadn’t counted on seeing them in this context. The local villagers also depend on the forest for their houses, various fishing baskets, boats, firewood and charcoal. It is rapidly disappearing because the demand from the villages is so high.
The forests of Sainte Luce face another threat: mining. Sections of the forest are on deck to be mined by Rio Tinto within five to ten years. The desired mineral is ilmenite, a (titanium-iron oxide) whitening agent found in everything from toothpaste to paint. It is found in the very depths of the forest, the part of the earth that makes its way into my tent, hair, ears and of course my toes; the sand. The extraction method Rio Tinto uses is dredging; a process that requires the absence of trees.
On this night, however, my spirits are high as we stride through the dazzling landscape. Even without the heat of the sun beating down the air is heavy with warm moisture and I feel the beads of sweat gathering at my brow. My long sleeved shirt protects me from mosquitoes but also blocks the warm breeze from brushing my damp skin.
We turn off the road onto a smaller path, following Alterre’s lead. He knows the forests by heart. Without a map or compass I would be completely lost in these forests. Even with trails, it’s hard to remember where you are. The narrow paths we use to navigate the forests and find the lemurs are so numerous and they weave around in curves so it’s quite easy to lose track of where you came from.
One day, at the end of a lemur behavior study (where we follow a individual lemur for 1 1/2 hours through the forest), I said, “I really have no idea how to get back to camp!” Tall towering trees surrounded us with no trail in sight. For fun we each pointed in the direction we thought we needed to go. As suspected, we were all wrong. Our local guide easily led us through the underbrush back to a small path, which led to one of the main trails. Eventually, after two weeks of walking the paths I did come to recognise the main path we used everyday. However, I would never trust myself to know the way alone.
The further we walk off the road the closer we come to our destination. S-9 stands before us, glimmering in the full moon’s light. The forest begins as abruptly as the other section ended, as if a bulldozer had come through in a straight line, destroying everything in its path.
When we step into the forest we turn our headlamps on. Not because we can’t navigate the branches that cross the path without them, but because we are in search of lemurs. Our bright lights catch in their eyes and reflect back toward us. We spot them by searching for a pair of bright beady eyes staring back at us, often with the rest of their bodies obscured by the light. As we walk slowly along our path, necks craned upward, eyes scanning the branches for a sign of movement or a flash of bright eyes, I am suddenly struck by the simple yet incredible fact that I am in the Madagascar rain forest in search of nocturnal lemurs.
How many people have experienced this? Not many, I think. Then Mark spots one high up in a tree, 3 meters off the transect (path). We scramble to get the equipment from the backpack: GPS, clipboard, and metered tape. I mark the lemur’s location on GPS while Forest and Alterre take measurements and Mark writes down the information. For a moment I stare up into the bright eyes above me, watching them stare back into mine. Do they know that we are here to help them? Are they aware of how very unique and special they are? What is their future?
We walk back as we came; silently cloaked in moonlight. My feet re-trace my earlier footsteps in sand as my mind re-traces the evenings transect. I reflect on the various fat-tailed dwarf lemurs and the southern woolly lemurs that we saw. I can’t help feeling nagged by the question, “What will happen to their home?” It knocks on my brain like an unwanted stranger at your door.
I don’t have an answer. All I have is hope. Hope that by sharing the story of Sainte Luce, of the forest, the lemurs, and the people, that others will be stirred to join in conservation work.
This post was written by Karrin Pearson, a volunteer with Azafady's Conservation Programme. Azafady is a registered UK charity and Madagascar based NGO working on sustainable development projects and offering a wide range of volunteering opportunities. Visit www.madagascar.co.uk for more information.