Wednesday
Aug202014

The Day in the Life of a Frontier Crab

Image courtesy of Yogendra Joshi

(Que: creepy French accent) ….It was a sunny Saturday morning, the stagnant stench of the long drop loomed forever in the air, as I watched the puffy eyed campers making their way to the temple of doom. The day ahead had the same promise of averageness as everyday did in my burrow beneath the sand. However, this perspective was later changed.

It was after my mid morning snack my attention was drawn to a newbie camper innocently helping herself to a laundry bidan. The opportunities that arose in my mind were endless. When the washing had been hung on the line overhanging my hideout, I waited for the opportune moment to strike.

I'd been watching the washing for what seemed like hours...with my eye on one particular item. My luck finally came when the wind untangled said item from the line and sent them floating lazily towards my direction. They landed but a few steps in front of my burrow. The coast was clear, I scurried to them and brought them back to my burrow... the lacy underwear was all mine, mwahaha. I caressed my new found treasure into the long hours of the afternoon.

While thoughts and fantasies of what I could do with my new possession played repeatedly in my head, my luck seemed to take a turn for the worst... I spotted an eye looming towards my borrow with a hand swiftly following. The delicate hand reached deep into my lair, snatching my dreams away. My life seemed to have been turned upside-down, now all there was left to do was to sit and bide my time until my next opportunity...

(NB. This story was based on real life events)  

By Louise Dixon, Research Assistant Volunteer

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.

Wednesday
Aug202014

Staff blog: The elusive Langaha

I have always had a fascination with reptiles, and snakes in particular. The unique reptile fauna was one of the many reasons I initially chose to come and work for Frontier in Madagascar. And indeed, when I first arrived here, I was not disappointed. I joined at the very end of the wet season, and snakes abounded everywhere!

One of the most captivating species that are present here on Nosy Be is the Madagascan leaf-nosed snake; Langaha madagascariensis. This species is predominantly arboreal, spending most of its time up in the trees. Many snake species around the world that have adapted to this lifestyle are extremely long and thin (which serves as good camouflage as well as making it easier to traverse through branches) and are often referred to as vine snakes. Langahas exhibit this morphology, but go one better with their exquisite rostral appendage (an extra bit of flesh stuck on the end of their nose). They are also one of the few snakes that with a clear sexual dimorphism. The females are a predominantly brown colour, but with a flat, leaf shaped rostral appendage, while males have a beautiful yellow colouration on their belly, and a pointed rostral appendage. These snakes are incredibly cryptic both in their appearance and behaviour, on the whole doing an extremely good job of mimicking a vine. They even sleep vertically to make this mimicry complete at night. These animals are one of the more venomous species of snakes you will find in Madagascar; that is to say, not very. They are very reluctant to bite humans even when handled, and if they do, it results in only short term pain and localised swelling.

Soon after my arrival the value of this species, in my eyes, soon rocketed due to its perceived rarity, like some precious jewel. On every survey, I looked to find one of these individuals. Every vine in every tree became a Langaha. The potential of finding one became a driving force that kept me going. I even had recurring dreams of finding one dangling from the trees. As we came more into the dry season, and the numbers of snakes that we sighted in the area slowly dropped, I had nearly given up hope. More worrying was the information from the chief of the nearby village of Ampasipohy when we showed him a picture of a Langaha; that many local people were afraid of these snakes and killed them on sight. I sadly wondered whether this might be one of the reasons for their rarity. Apparently, however, the forest was abundant with Langahas last year in the wet season, even turning up in the long drops on camp. I consoled myself with the fact that at least I might be able to find one of these beauties in a few months time. Perhaps they hibernate during the dry season? Many of the snakes here do, although I could find nothing in the literature that expressly gave this fact.

Suddenly, last week as I was sat on camp in the evening, one of the forest staff members, Tim, rushed into camp, shouting my name. He had been out on a reptile nightwalk in site 5; a fairly disturbed fragment of secondary forest. I immediately feared something terrible had happened to one of the volunteers on the walk, and I was filled with a sense of dread. I ran over and asked what was the matter. He looked at me and smiled, saying “You’re gonna want to get your camera, mate. Langaha.” I was slightly dumbstruck at first, thinking that maybe this was a joke.

In fact, by sheer coincidence, Lou, forest ARO, had also been on the night walk, meaning that Tim was able to come back to camp and inform everyone of this marvellous stroke of luck, while she remained to keep an eye on the animal and prevent it from slithering back into the ethereal darkness.  Absolute heroes. Upon hearing this news, the mariners gave a quizzical look, a shrug of the shoulders, and continued playing cards. All of the foresters, however, went into a mad frenzy; grabbing bags, boots and cameras as quickly as possible before setting out to experience this marvel of nature that we had all heard about and yearned for, and which had achieved an almost mythical status. When we got there, we found Lou and Dale, waiting patiently. “Sorry. It’s gone,” was all she said. Our hearts sank. “Only joking. It’s right here!” She then quipped. Well played, young lady, well played.

We all marvelled at this elusive beauty; a male, a little over half a metre long, entwined around a small branch overlooking the path just above head height; seemingly completely oblivious to all the excitement going on underneath him. Every one of us was elated. A photographic frenzy ensued. I couldn’t quite believe it. This was what I had spent the last 5 months hoping to see, yet it didn’t quite seem real. It felt almost bittersweet; this is what had been driving me through the forest for such a long time. What now? Well, on reflection, I hardly imagine it won’t be equally as exciting to see another in the coming weeks or months! And besides, I still haven’t seen a female yet.

The potential of catching sight of rare or elusive creatures like these in the wild is what I love about working in this field. Having to work hard and be patient in order to receive your reward makes it all the sweeter. That’s certainly a good proxy for life in Madagascar as a whole, and right now I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

By Richard Burger, Principal Investigator 

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.

Wednesday
Aug132014

Volunteer blog: In Search of Bee-eaters

For those of you unlucky enough not to know a bee-eater when you see one, it is a small, gregarious bird, which across all the different species is fantastically coloured. They have always captivated me with their distinctive swooping flight and cheery colours. As a result of this, when I got into photography it was only natural for this highly attractive bird to be target number 1. To this end I set my sights on a set of photos that would get across what attracted me to these birds in the first place. It all seemed so simple; all I needed to do was find one.

Image courtesy of Lip Kee

This is where I’m afraid that things start to go downhill. My first attempt was in Germany trying to see European Bee-eaters. Not a feather. Not even the sound of one in the distance. No matter, I knew I was soon due to head to Africa. First Tanzania, and lo, little Bee-eaters abounded everywhere; it was Bee-eater heaven. Surely the next two months could not be as good as this? How right I was would soon become clear. After the initial flurry I saw none. Zilch. Squat. Damn.

Finally to Madagascar with Frontier, where surely my luck would change. The early signs were good, with calls and flashes of brightest green atop the trees. But, alas, I sit here 2½ weeks after arrival with completely and utterly nothing noteworthy to show for my hours of work. Such is nature: beautiful, frustrating, elusive, but never boring!  

By Barnie Martin, Research Assitant 

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.

Wednesday
Aug132014

Volunteer blog: The Underwater Espionage 

When making the 500 mile journey over Africa, brushing the Indian ocean, my head was brimming with thoughts of lemurs, reptiles and trekking adventures.

Little did I know that 4 weeks in to this sandy escapade I would betray my forest brother and cross over to the moist side...

MARINE!

It was quite a change from a month of venturing on dry land – I went from bushy penetration of sharp foliage to a branching coral environment.

This week I began the arduous and enjoyable open water qualification. Aside from the process I diving theory it was an exciting entrance to the underwater world.

The initial training involved simple breathing exercises, it wasn't until day 3 I did my first real ocean dive. With our regulators on and fins at the ready we prepared to roll backwards off the boat – this alone is a stimulating sensation the begins the adrenaline rush.

Once under I opened my eyes to discover I had entered a fresh new realm I never knew was there. Straight away a chilled turtle was gliding alongside me, making me envy his  cool take on life. As we go deeper the corals emerge beneath us; red, purple, pink and yellow creating a fantastic mosaic ocean floor.

Swimming among this is an array of sea dwelling creatures; yellow striped butterfly fish and colourful patterned puffa's escorted me through their enchanted haven. Sea urchins (balls of black spikes) appear the villain in this habitat – making me catch my breath.

In no time at all (or so it felt) we were exchanging the divers signal to go up and I return dripping to the boat. I sat in awe – It’s not every day you discover a new world.

By Beth, Research Assitant Volunteer

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.

Thursday
Aug072014

Volunteer blog: Alfire Sheridan

Satellite camp- more commonly known as Sat Camp- is a semi-regular event here at Frontier Madagascar, occurring once every 6-8 weeks, and lasting around a week. Our trip lasted from Tuesday 29th July until Friday 1st of August, and had the aim of assessing the Herpetofauna on the nearby island of Nosy Komba.

So it was that at 6 o’clock (6:15 Madagascar time) the 15 of us (5 staff and 10 RA’s) stumbled bleary-eyed but excited onto the boat, where Victor was ready to take us south across the Passe de Nosy Verona to Komba.

The egg-shaped island of Nosy Komba lies inbetween Nosy Be and the mainland, climbing to a height of 622m- much higher than our home island, and an altitude we would soon appreciate. Although its cone-shaped outline was undeniably beautiful in the dawn light, Komba is a troubled island, as well as a paradisiacal one. Widespread deforestation has removed the primary forest, and replaced it with patches of secondary forest dotted amongst plantations of ylang-ylang, banana and cacao, as well as the occasional village. Add to the problems such as tourists (who, in their defence, know no better) feeding the local lemurs bananas, and problems such as lemur obesity and diabetes emerge. However, awareness of these issues is being raised, in part by Frontier, and various travel guides and other organisations are now advising visitors to see the now relatively tame lemurs, but not to feed them.

We arrived at Komba after a short boat ride, skimming past early morning fishermen silhouetted in their pirogues, greeted by the locals with the customary “Mbola tsara”. We made our way to the local President’s shop to put on our boots and prepare ourselves for the long climb ahead.
Two sweaty hours later, and we found ourselves atop the summit in a humble village, with the water far below, glinting through the trees that surrounded the settlement. The locals, as seems to be the case here in Madagascar, found both the arrival and actions of the vazahas, or foreigners rather hilarious. Our poor attempts at barefoot football on the tree roots were greeted by cries of “Bravo! Ronaldo!”, and near tears of laughter. Amongst this light-hearted atmosphere, we bedded down on the church/monastery floor, and begun to cook dinner, and plan our first nightwalk.

Nightwalks are a part of the schedule at both base camp and Sat camp, partly due to the fact that nocturnal species tend to be regarded as somewhat more exciting than diurnal ones, and as a result, are the source of much anticipation.

Despite its highly degraded habitats, Nosy Komba is home to species rarely seen on Nosy Be. As a result, our nightwalks were filled with sightings of Calumma boettgeri and Uroplatus ebenaui galore. The lemurs, however, were nowhere to be seen. Black lemurs, in particular, hang around (no pun intended) the lower altitudes, where the banana-brandishing tourists are.

The days that followed consisted of long walks in the mid-morning, where individuals of the genera Phelsuma, Zonosaurus and Trachylepis abounded. Lunch and a nap in the heat of the day became routine, with an afternoon walk sometimes following, before tea, and a nightwalk. Not only did the nightwalks hold species rarely seen on Nosy Be, the daywalks were also something to look forward to.

Species such as Phelsuma quadriocellata and Zonosaurus subunicolour became commonplace sightings, whereas neither I nor the other RA’s come across those species (particularly the latter) on Nosy Be. Although varied, the days began to blur into one another (as often seems to be the case here). The distorted sense of time, coupled with the long, hot walks, served to make us very tired indeed, making for a somewhat subdued party night on Friday back on camp. In short, the days on Komba Sat Camp were tiring, but nonetheless exciting.

After what seemed like far too short an amount of time, we packed our bags, and headed back down the mountain to cleanse ourselves of 4 days’ worth of dirt (there being no showers available in the church), and to await the arrival of both Victor and the coming of the next Sat Camp.

By Alfie Sheridan, Assitant Research Volunteer

Find out more about Frontier's volunteering projects in Madagascar.