We made our way out of the land of the Antandroy… "the people of the spiny place"… generally thought of as hardened and fierce. On the way back from Berenty, as promised, Theo had our driver stop in several places along the road (you really can't call it a road though) in order to allow us to look for leeches or to ask the Antanosy… "the people of the islands"… if they had ever seen any in their rice paddies. It is hard to tell which bodies of water are natural and which are manmade here; the landscape is so heavily modified. Still though, a reasonable indication of natural water is one that is rife with water lilies and frogs. Though we spent some time in these, Mark wading out in the middle using the "passive" method, Liz and Clara worked the edges turning over debris where most leeches rest or brood during daylight hours.
No luck using the traditional technique so we moved on stopping at rice paddies along the way. Theo did the honors of asking the people working them, but all we got was "tsy misy"(not any). Finally, about a half hour outside of our destination we stopped again and received a positive response "Misy linta…". We piled out of the vehicle and made our way to the rice paddies, greeting the half-dozen or so children working the fields with "Salama, misaotra". No doubt the crazy strangers (Vaza Dala Dala) who were interested in the annoying bloodsuckers that occasionally interfered with a regular workday was a bizarre sight. Soon, a whole entourage of local villagers had gathered to watch. But there were two problems. The children told us that there were not very many of them, so we'd have to be patient… it might take an hour or two. Secondly, and more disconcerting, we were told by Theo that Shistosoma haematobium was very common in the area… a fact made more certain by several children with distended bilhartzia bellies. After reasoning that a short course of praziquantil would rid us of that evil should it come to pass, Mark and Liz ventured into the water in the hopes of attracting aquatic leeches. If such a leech could be found there is a very good chance it would be a new species. It was worth a little parasitism to find out.
Unfortunately, after about 45 minutes of wading and slogging through the muck, nothing had attached. But word got around about the crazy Vaza, as did the rumor they might be willing (of all things) to pay for the leeches. Funny how fast information travels without telephones or radios or the like. The rumor was partially true. We had offered a reward in Berenty for any terrestrial leeches (about MF 1,000, or about fifteen cents). By the time we arrived in Ft. Dauphin we were more than 80 km away from that place and yet within a few hours of getting here two men showed up to hand us a jar of 40 leeches!! Moreover, they were the very freshwater leeches we had risked shisto for a few hours earlier. Fantastic!
Small, black, very agile, at first glance they looked like members of the family Erpobdellidae. However, their tendency to hang out at the air/water interface, not to mention how excited they seem at the presence of human flesh, are more indicative of the bloodfeeding Hirudinidae. In some ways they look a bit like small Dinobdella ferox (the terrifying ferocious leech); a possibility given the mass introduction of Indian Zebu cattle here. We won't know for sure until we get back to the States. Whether introduced or a new species to science, these will no doubt prove critical in our broad assessment of leech phylogeny and evolution. This unscheduled stop in the far South of Madagascar has certainly been worth the hassle.
Today was a make-or-break day for Evon. In the waters of the Botanical Garden owned by M. De Heulme there are dozens of her beasts that have been given sanctuary following capture in the region. This was going to make for another for fun filled morning of croc sampling. Before heading out we needed to make a few stops in the local market to gather alternative materials in replacement for the missing croc pole and accessories. In the hardware store, we found a wood pole, eye screws and polypropylene cord perfect to make a new device. Once again, in the midst of this bustling market area, busy with the buying and selling of passion fruit, corn, beans, and Toaka gasy, all out of row on row of makeshift wooden shacks, the activities of the crazy Vaza drew the obligatory crowd of curious children. As we did not have a drill, we simply sat down on the steps of the hardware "store" amid the throng and put the pieces together right there using a hand drill and some elbow grease. Already the day was getting hot.
Upon our arrival at the Botanical Garden we were met. Scores of very hungry and very large crocodiles hoisted themselves out of the pea green swamp, scrambling over each other to be the first to have a taste. These were very big reptiles. Very big. And it seems that none of them has much of a sense of humor.
There was no way we were going to be able to use the pole for the 2 to 3 metre crocs. We could not separate them and as soon as any one of us was in the vicinity there'd be a mass of movement towards us. Sure we might have been able to handle one, but before we'd had a chance to get a sample, each of us would have been dragged off to the murky depths in a standard and highly effective death roll.
After some consternation at this impasse, the combined thoughts of the team resulted in an effective solution. Evon had brought some biopsy darts; a small hole-punch that would take a piece of tissue for genetic sampling. But the darts are only about 4 inches long and we reasoned we'd need a bit more distance than that. A 5-foot straight and trimmed branch and a piece of an old inner tube to tie the dart on with solved that quickly. Alas, crocodile skin is so tough that our first attempt, thrusting the pole at the side of large male, merely snapped the biopsy dart as it bounced off. He barely noticed. In the second attempt with a wider bore replacement dart actually bent the tempered metal end! At first dejected, we received a break when Evon saw a little blood well-up from the shallow 5 mm impression left in his skin. Thinking quickly she grabbed another sturdy 5 foot branch and asked around for something with which to swab the wound. Just before we were about to tear strips from our clothing, one of the team produced a source of excellent absorbent material she just happened to have in her bag this week (unscented) from which pieces were torn and fixed to end of the pole with the fingers cut off of a latex glove.
Through this ingenuity, perseverance and some deft jousting, we'd sampled from 9 of the big adults by the end of the day.
Thankfully the pole worked like a charm on the more manageable animals. Just a double loop of cord through the three in-line eye screws running the length of the pole and we were set. The necessity of the pole is very clear once you catch a crocodile, big or small. It has a dual function really. The first is good defense. Even prior to noosing a ravenous reptile it's a good prod to drive them away should there be an unexpected lunge (as though there we any that are expected). Also, it's useful to have something the crocodile can snap at besides the hand on the end of an outstretched arm. In terms of capture though, once the noose gets around a crocodile's thick neck, he'll start to roll and thrash around like a possessed demon. With the noose held fast onto the end of the pole, we can drive that end into the ground and immobilize the animal minimizing any danger to itself or to us. Eventually the thrashing calms down and he can be retrieved.
Evon, being the pro, has the awkward task of getting the mouth under control. It's a dangerous issue but one she knows well. Inasmuch as even a small crocodile can slam it's jaws shut with a force of hundreds of pounds per square inch, their muscles for opening their jaws are relatively weak. So long as you can get their mouths shut, a pair of hands can keep them there. Then it's a matter of having someone subdue the head end (Liz here) and another to prevent the body and tail from returning to thrash mode while Evon and Riana get their blood samples.
On another note, we are getting snippets of news from Antananarivo. It is hard to know what is real and what is rumor. We are told that Ratsirika has branded Ravalomanana a terrorist and is calling for his arrest. Apparently there are roadblocks all over the place within the capital, not just on the major highways outside. Already there is evidence of some of this here in Ft. Dauphin. There is a curfew in place. All establishments, bars, clubs and so on are on strict orders to be shut down by 8:00 pm. Everyone is to be off the streets. We are told that the curfew is nation wide. (It's being followed loosely here, but establishments are closed). The phone lines into Tana seem to be out as well. Our two Malagasy students are showing some signs of nervousness. Riana offered that we might think seriously about getting out of the country when we get back to Tana in a couple of days (if we can get back to Tana) in the event there might be an assassination or a civil war. We are not sure how to take all of this. It might just be sensationalized given that the country has been on edge for so long. All the news here is in Malagasy so we are unable to follow it. There's a storm blowing in from the Indian Ocean tonight. The mood on the whole is somber.
If someone out there can search for news of this on the BBC web site, we'd be much obliged to receive a text message of any news.