As part of our MSc studies in Conservation Science at Imperial College London, we spent almost three months time of fieldwork in Madagascar. Our two projects, in collaboration with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, share one geographical area (the lake Alaotra) and one species, the "bandro" or Alaotran gentle lemur (Hapalemur alaotrensis), a critically endangered primate endemic to the marshes of the lake.

The natural marsh dominated by papyrus and reeds has been decreasing in size, transformed into rice paddies and burnt in accidental or deliberate fires. The area is relatively densily populated, and is one of the most important rice-production areas of the country. On top of this, several species of fish have been introduced, that have affected the ecosystem of the lake. Well, yet another case of clash between development and conservation! Durrell has been active in the area for many years, working with the local communities in promoting the sustainable use of the marsh, involving them in its protection and raising awareness of the benefits that this would bring to their communities.

We based our work in 4 villages around the area of better quality marsh: Anororo, Andilana Sud, Ambodivoara and Andreba Gare.

Our fieldwork consisted in repeating transects through the marsh in pirogues, following already existing channels used by fishermen. The positions of the bandros encountered were logged in order to create:

  • (Guru) A statistical model of occupancy and detectability of the bandro based on a maximum likelihood analysis of the detection history with the objective of studying the factors that affect these two variables. Based on this, recommendations for future monitoring programs in the area were produced (see abstract)

  • (Jota) A model of habitat suitability for the bandro based on information extracted from satellite images and the bandro positions obtained during fieldwork, in order to explore what factors influence the species distribution. A map of suitable habitat in the marsh was produced, that can assist conservation action in Alaotra. (see abstract)

The total transect length was about 50km. With an average of 6 repetitions, that gives about 300 km of canoing! The following satellite image shows our transects in yellow, and the position of bandro sightings as red dots.

The following sections illustrate with a few pictures our days in Ambatondrazaka, our life in the villages around the marsh and finally our fieldwork there.

We'd like to thank all of those who made this work possible: our project supervisors at Imperial College (Prof. E.J. Milner-Gulland, Dr. E. Nicholson) and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Dr. R. Young), the Durrell personnel in Madagascar and in particular Bary Jean Rasolonjatovo in Ambatondrazaka who helped us a lot with the logistics, our guides "experts villageois" Richard Rasolonjatovo and André Rakotonierana and other fishermen that guided us. And last but not least, thanks to all the friendly Malagasy people who contributed to make of this experience a lasting memory!

Our basecamp was located in the city of Ambatondrazaka, at the southern edge of the rice cultivation area that borders the southwest of the lake. As a city, it is as big and varied as it gets in the region (35000 inhabitants and several restaurants!). The city is perched on several hills, surrounded by eroded terrain and rice paddies. Located about 250km to the north of the capital Antananarivo, it takes around 8 hours with public transport to reach it. Nevertheless, fish from the lake is sent to the capital every evening!

Durrell's office The office and their landrover The room we used at Durrell's "gite"
View from our balcony View from our balcony Ambato and the surrounding
rice paddies
Sellers at the
taxi-brousse station
New friends Dining at a hotely
with Durrell's team

During the fieldwork days we stayed with local families. Life at the villages is simple, with little room for luxuries for most! Only one of the villages visited had electricity (the closest to Ambatondrazaka) and although there are some brick houses, many of them are made out of construction materials extracted from the marsh, like papyrus and reed stems. Most people are either fishermen or work in the rice fields, and whoever can afford it would also have some cattle (zebus). In the villages we had the chance to attend some of Durrell's "radio crochets", environmental education parties with quizzes and prizes where everybody in the village participates.

Houses made with materials from the marsh (Andreba)
Zebus in Andilana
Market on the old railway line in Andreba
With Richard's family, our hosts in Andreba
Bary Jean carrying out Durrell's environmental education quiz
'What is the right answer?' Environmental education quiz
Rice fields outside Andreba
The deforested surrounding hills with typical erosion formations (Ambodivoara)
The marsh around the lake is being
cut to create new fields (Andilana)
Dinner with Durrell's team at Andre's house in Andilana. No electricity, so candles rule!
A good Alaotran dinner: tilapia (fish), ranonapango (boiled water with burnt rice) and a mountain of rice!
Guru writing the diary in our room in Anororo
Children... (our room's window in Andilana)
...children... (coming back from fieldwork in Anororo)
...and children! (Anororo's school)

Fieldwork days were long! Wake-up call at around 4.30am in order to be at the marsh around 5am and start the transect before sunrise. We used local dugout pirogues or Durrell's canoes to survey for bandros along the narrow channels that cut through the marsh vegetation or the lake shore. Bandros keep a long siesta at midday, so we would return to the village for lunch and siesta ourselves, and then back to the marsh until sunset, at around 6pm. After that, it's mostly darkness in the marsh and in the villages! A true bandro life!

Our study species, the Alaotran gentle lemur, locally known as "bandro"
The lemurs hide easily in the marsh vegetation, so they're difficult to spot
Noting down the position of a lemur sighting
Pierre, Maître, Richard and André in Ambodivoara
Starting the evening transects in Anororo
Another transect in Andreba
Our first transect in Andilana, a narrow channel going deep into the marsh
Along the channel surrounded by papyrus stands
Surveying along the shore near Andreba
Our dugout canoes in Alaotra lake (Andreba)
A fisherman near Ambodivoara
A young lemur about to cross a channel freezes as it sees our canoes...