First, the political situation is dodgy at best. We are back in Tana. There is a curfew, and they are serious. There have been scattered outbreaks of violence. Not just here in the capital but in Fianarantsoa where the TV and radio station were destroyed, and in Ansirabe, which we would have to drive through to get to Ranomafana. Our thanks to our friends at home who have been sending text messages over the satellite phone keeping us updated. We arrived back in the capital this evening but our ICTE/MICET driver was turned back at a blockade and was unable to get out of the city to meet us. Our Malagasy students are distressed to say the least. Clara has a 16-month-old son she has not seen in a week and she cannot get into the city to see him. Riana in particular is nearly beside herself with concern for her father. We three are a bit concerned for ourselves. In Ft. Dauphin we were asked why the American government is backing Ratsirika. Apparently the US has condemned the move by Ravalomanana to declare himself president rather than wait for a second round of elections. It is not lost on the Malagasy that our own president was elected with a minority popular vote. Nor is the fact that he fought hard to prevent any recounting in Florida and yet the US is backing a full revote here following what appears to have been considerable voting irregularity by the incumbent government. There is a sense that rich people and rich nations will continue to back Ratsirika because they have more at stake in the 30 yr status quo. The people here have seen Ratsirika's opulent palace built by North Koreans at enormous expense even as people starve in the countryside and the capital, and they remember 1991 when 31 peaceful demonstrators were slaughtered in front of that palace by North Korean trained presidential guard. Isn't North Korea supposed to be part of this new "Axis of Evil"? One can see why US policy seems to be confusing to the Malagasy… it is confusing to us.
More on our situation below. We are here to collect leeches and crocodiles and we have again been successful in both.
The morning of the 26th was taken up with Liz and Clara diligently preparing excellent specimens of the leeches given to us the day before. At this end the procedure is simple. About half go into 100% ethanol and the other half in formalin. There are several reasons for this. Ethanol is a suitable preservative for DNA and it is from these that we will extract genetic material and sequence several genes for determination of their phylogenetic (evolutionary position) in the family tree of leeches, and from which we will later try to isolate genes that code for the powerful anticoagulants they have in their salivary cells. Ethanol hardens tissues though, so the fomalin preserved leeches will be used for dissections that will reveal internal anatomy. These data are necessary for species determinations and for proper descriptions if the species is new to science. Already we are again leaning back to the supposition that they are erpobdellid leeches not hirudinids in light of their lacking the row of ten eyespots that the bloodfeeders have.
Meanwhile, Evon and Raina did some morning reconnaissance in town and got permission from M. Aziz to sample from the crocodiles at the Nahampoana Reserve just outside of Ft. Dauphin. This is a long standing botanical garden initially established by the French in the 1800's as a nursery to determine which plants from their other colonies could be grown here for a profit… essentially a hot spot for mass introduction of non-native plants. Today, under the direction of M. Aziz, the young, dashing and energetically successful proprietor of Air Fort Travel Services, it is a well managed place with a strong mix of native species tastefully arranged throughout the long walks through the reserve. Because the crocodiles in the reserve are siblings, only a single sample was required. Evon's population studies require a random sampling protocol for the statistical measures to be valid; using blood from more than one of these with prior knowledge that they are related would interfere with that.
On returning to the city M. Aziz greeted us enthusiastically and asked us back to his home where he has a pen of baby crocodiles. Many of the Malagasy we have met show a genuine enthusiasm for natural history, conservation and even the specifics of our work, and genuine sadness for the ecological situation of their country. At his house he invited Evon to jump into the pen and sample at will, though was a little surprised to watch her joyfully hop the wall into a throng of hungry crocodiles. After a few moments of chase, Evon had whisked one up and immobilized it with two hands for Raina to extract the blood sample from the tail. The remainder of the day was relaxing as we sipped on beer as M. Assiz told us stories of the sunken ships in the bays around Ft. Dauphin and asked for anything we could tell him about our work.
We knew today would be rushed. Yesterday, the owner of Le Petit Bonheur (a comfortable place on the sparsely populated South end of town with spectacular views of the Ocean and surrounding cliffs) offered to have his driver take us up to P. N. Andohahehela which is the site of the Managotry rainforest. This park, established in 1997 is still not developed and is hard to get to, but it is known to have 13 species of lemurs, 120 species of birds, plus many frogs, crocodiles, and most importantly, ravenous terrestrial leeches!
As out flight back to the capital was to leave in the early afternoon, we got a 5.00 am start to the day and a 90 minute ride on bumpy roads following a quickly eaten breakfast. The rainforest was stunning and lush. The guide we picked up in the local Antanosy village, keen (if amused) to find us our leeches, led us away from the road and upwards into the sopping wet jungle. We soon arrived at a clear water pool at the bottom of a cascade with thick green foliage overhead and dozens of tiny frogs of all sorts underfoot. Our guide explained as he forged through barefoot that we would have to get to the other side and climb up a steep slope into the understory. That would be the best place for Dinta, and there would be no shortage. As some circumnavigated the pool, Mark and Clara doffed their boots and made after the guide barefoot. Even our driver was into it, scampering into the woods with us in his flip-flops!
On the lower slope were the grassy damp remains of a small banana plot which will soon be overgrown by the encroaching jungle. Within minutes Mark was picking leeches. First off his right hand, then his left foot, then both shins. Then as we entered the forest and the incline steepened, there was an "Ooooh" from Clara who hadn't noticed the three critters making their way silently up her legs. All of these were quickly bagged. The going soon was difficult. Boots, hands and feet sliding as the saturated mud gave way underneath. Reaching high above for a handhold from the base of a tree, or even a tuft of vegetation growing in this slick substrate. Going barefoot seemed to have some advantages… you could dig a big toe into the muck and press-in lifting your weight up to the next handhold. Moreover, the barefoot among us were getting more leeches on them. Not quite vertical-biology but getting there. Liz, who once harboured a fear for leeches, became annoyed that today they seemed to be avoiding her.
We rounded the top and descended through the understory, bouncing off of saplings, down to the stream below and eventually to the pool we started from. On the downward trek, along the stream something scurrying off as we approached caught our eyes. Crabs! Freshwater crabs way up here in the mountains, no doubt getting sufficient rain that the difference between being in the water and being on land mattered little. We bagged a couple of these and a crayfish for one of Mark's colleagues, Greg Rouse, who is interested in a symbiotic worm on Malgasy freshwater crustaceans.
Thoroughly soaked through from head to toe, in all we had about 20 leeches. Probably the same species as those we found in Domaine de la Cascade, but still a different population and thus a good source of genetic variation. At least we thought we had 20. As we packed and stowed our gear into the truck, Evon let out a shudder as she carefully extracted yet another leech… this one from inside her ear.
The plane from Ft. Dauphin to Tana flew through the tall anvil clouds of the gathering tempest below and arrived under a heavy gray sky. The troubles here are unnerving. The country is in a state of emergency. Ratsirika has assumed full power over rights of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of movement. We have had to stay at the Cheval Blanc hotel near the airport not being able to get into or out of the city. Air France is continuing its intransigence and unhelpfulness. This time by not facilitating a change of flight for Evon. She is scheduled to leave on the 10th, but due to all of the delays we have experienced, is trying to reschedule for the 14th or later. It should be a simple matter, but the combined efforts of ICTE/MICET, Cortez Travel in California and us here, seem to be incapable of getting a straight answer or any cooperation whatsoever from Air France. Already they have hindered our work by their repeated promises that the croc-pole was on its way, only to be forever forgotten and left behind on flight after flight. Now they are threatening to charge another $1000 for Evon to change her flight to later (a flight that probably will get cancelled anyway). Apparently customer service is not a priority for Air France. Mark and Liz have had a very different experience with Air Mauritius who called to say that our flight out was moved up a day and we would have to stay in Mauritius overnight… at their expense. Still, the embassy staff, like Strother Murray who we had had our meeting with a week ago, have been very helpful and reassuring. We have been told that so far there is no call for foreigners to bug-out. They know where we are. They have our cell number. Strother called us directly last night to tell us of the curfew after it was announced and to ask us to stay indoors. Moreover we've been asked to call the consular section this morning to see if they cannot sort out Evon's flight schedule.
Our feeling is that if we can get to Ranomafana, we'll be fine. But Ansirabe lies between, and travel there is not recommended by the embassy. Failure to follow embassy recommendations invalidates our insurance. For now we are here. We can get to and from the airport. This morning will be taken up with phone calls and logistics and probably some final decisions to either stay and press on with the research, or bug-out to the Seychelles. We can still wait this out a few days and make it a success. Just not sure what to expect.