February 23 - Reserve Privee Berenty
Wrangling Crocs in the Spiny Desert

Never ever ever travel to a tourist area of Madagascar in the midst of a political crisis in the off-season. No one accepts credit cards and no one can change your money because the central bank has been closed for so long and they can't figure out the exchange rate. We are approaching a difficult point financially. Normally, Madagascar is like just about any other country in the world in terms of being able to extract money from your bank account using an ATM. Evon previously has had no trouble in this regard. But not now. The bank machines are empty, we used up all of our travelers cheques paying our research fees to MICET, we've changed all of our dollars (almost) and we are at a high risk of getting stuck.

But in a way it might be worth it. The principal reason for coming out to Berenty was to afford Evon the opportunity to collect blood samples from crocodiles and this is easily done here thanks to the cooperation of M. de Heulme. Besides, there are reports of land leeches, and even aquatic leeches in the area that might make it worthwhile even for that aspect of the expedition.

Arriving here involved a three hour drive from Ft. Dauphin from the coastal mountain slope rainforests through a transition zone and then abruptly into the exquisite spiny desert. This is a place like no other on earth. Anyone who has been to Joshua Tree park in California knows this feeling. It is otherworldly. The euphorbs and didiereaceae are like nothing else ever seen. The number of lemurs. In a desert no less (but in fact in the gallery forests that line the river banks). In point of fact this is probably the best place in all of Madagascar to see Ring-tailed lemurs. But there are Brown lemurs, Mouse lemurs, Sifaka lemurs, chameleons, spiders of unusual size, trees and grasses that grow nowhere else in the world, and 5 intrepid young (and youngish) scientists soaking it all in the 90 F heat of the late desert summer.

On the way, Liz and Mark asked our guide Theo to do a little reconnaissance. Prior to the range of sacred mountains that marks the divide between wet and dry, were endless acres of rice fields inundated with water. More often than not people from the local tribe were tilling or planting or harvesting. A few stops, and conversations in the local dialect confirmed that there are, in fact freshwater leeches here. More to the point, what we have been calling "Linta" or "Lita" are the freshwater ones and "Limatka" is reserved for the terrestrial variety we have already encountered. We will work this are again on the way back and see what we can find.

With daylight fading fast on our first day here we had only enough time to acquaint ourselves with the local crocodiles (from afar) before taking in a night walk. The spiny forest is magical at night. And the combination of the long drive with this quiet companionship in the darkness has us all bonding well as a team. Many people travel thousands of miles in the vain hope of seeing a lepilemur. We have seen several... eyes reflecting back the beams of our headlamps in the dark. Riana is working on her English as she patiently teaches us Malagasy. Liz is learning some French. Clara knows more Malagasy dialects than anyone should have to. Evon is doing most of the translating, and Mark is butchering all languages honorably.

Thankfully, Evon is on the mends. Whether self-resolving or thanks to the Cipro, her fever has dissipated, but she's still off too much solid food. If anything she is becoming over hydrated with everyone's insistence that she drink more water. In truth, it is amazing how many lives could be saved in the developing world but for want of water. And how many more still for want of proper salt balance. Dysentery kills millions each year. And for pennies, many could be saved with rehydration salts (potassium, sodium, etc) which get lost with the illness and severely compromise the sick. Yes, of course food is needed, and medicine too, but above all else, water and salts. Thankfully John, who is still with us, is well equipped and Evon's body is getting the essentials.

Our second day here was an adrenaline rush.

It's croc day.

Evon has identified two subjects from the area that we absolutely must get blood samples from. But we are distressed at the size of the larger of the two. Nearly two metres in length, this ornery monster is in no mood to be handled or captured. Normally this would be a simple matter of slipping the noose of the croc pole over his head and holding him down while he struggles (in a way that cannot hurt him). But no. After two weeks the incompetence of Air France has caught up to us and is now endangering life and limb. Repeatedly we were told that Evon's croc pole was on its way. There was well over a week for Air France to get it to us either in Paris or in Tana (several flights came in). And now we are in a position of having to capture a 2 metre crocodile by hand!! At a time when airlines are complaining of lack of passengers one might think that there could be someone in the organization somewhere who might get on the ball and make sure lost luggage gets where it is supposed to be. When incompetence endangers lives, though, it becomes hard to have any sympathy for their lack of fares! Caveat emptor.

We spent the morning sizing up the situation. We would have to noose the crocs western style. Simple enough. All that we have to do is get a rope noose around the neck, draw it tight before he bites through it, throw a wet towel over his head as he is snapping ferociously, hold the head down and get the mouth closed without losing an arm, sit on his back with another on his haunches and wrap a piece of inner-tube around his snout to neutralize the business end. This all has to be accomplished in about 10 seconds.

We are afraid.

Evon starts to rethink the logistics. She does not want anyone to get hurt.

The rest of us convince her that we are all together in this and we will all do this together at her direction.

It's time to try.

We allow the locals, who seem to know what they are doing, to make the first attempts.

After several tries, all of which failed, we are left with an angry cornered crocodile under a tree, mouth agape, hissing, and a noose sliced in two by but a single snap of his razor sharp teeth.

Evon prods at him from the other side to encourage him out of the bush. This is necessary but has the unhappy side effect of making him very cheezed off and ready to snap at anything. Finally, Mark manages to get what substitutes for a rope (really several layers of twine twisted together) over the crocodile's neck and taught. We've got him!

As hundreds of pounds of pure muscle twisted and writhed against the rope, Evon ran up, threw the towel over his eyes and jumped on his back yelling for someone to control the thrashing tail end. Evon's plea was reacted to with blank stares from stunned onlookers, so Mark handed the rope off, jumped in and held on. As it was, Evon the pro had it all under control anyway. "All" Mark had to do was hold his mouth shut as Evon secured the lizard and took a blood sample.

Emboldened, the second croc was quicker. Though in a difficult place in the bushes and hard to lasso, after several attempts, Mark had jumped on his back spreading a towel over his eyes, straddling his body. Evon quickly wrapped his toothy grin shut. Riana was ready with the syringes and vials and the whole procedure took less than about 10 minutes, though to some of us it seemed like hours.

One of the most awkward procedures is letting them go without loosing a hand. In unison, one has to get off the back, release the jaws, retrieve the towel blind and run like the wind. It was the running part we think we did best.

Drenched with sweat we are all satisfied in a job well done. Evon has her samples. The crocs are none the worse for it. And the rest of us have lost about 10 lbs from fright alone.

So far no leeches here. It's very dry despite the humidity in the air. Still it is truly amazing what can be found in a desert. One of the local people (who are all too eager to be supportive) found us an enormous flatworm. To find a soft bodied invertebrate of any sort in this place is truly astounding. We are holding out hope for more.