On account of the current situation in Tana we have made certain changes to our schedule. First, Mark and Liz have decided to leave Madagascar on the 8th of March instead of the 13th as previously planned. There simply is not enough time to get to Midongy du Sud and Manombo on this trip now. However, we have also decided that even if it means only two nights we are definitely off to Ranomafana tomorrow. Our understanding is that the military has not so far made any moves in Tana to restrict the daily protests. Protests that continued unabated as we left the city. The local newspapers are also still defiantly questioning the imposition of martial law on Tana; for example, pointing out that it has not been imposed on any of the cities that have organized protests supporting Ratsiraka. We read yesterday that there is an expectation that the international community's attitude might now change in light of martial law (which apparently is a violation of the conditions required for continuation of foreign aid). The effect of the blockades by supporters of Ratsiraka were in evidence as we came closer to Tamatave, particularly the impossibly long lines for gasoline.
On the way to Mantadia, we stopped briefly at M. Peyeras' crocodile farm so that Evon and Riana could get samples of animals from the Canal des Pangalanes (on the East Coast) and from Lac Bemaba (on the West Coast). He has quite the operation going with a wide variety of captive animals including several species of chameleon, Uroplatus lizards, bamboo lemurs, Mungotictis (a vivarid that looks like a cross between ferret and a cat), and even a couple of very bored looking tenrecs. The work was pretty easy, so the rest of us sat in the shade eating bananas while they chased 12-inch baby crocodiles around a cage.
The time at Perinet has alternated between frustrating and wonderful. The Malagasy word for "dejected" is "Midongy" (Midongy du Sud gets its name in light of the mountains there having been a frustrating barrier to movement southward). This is pretty much how the leechers were feeling after two days of looking for leeches in the pouring rain and finding nothing. The first dull gray morning in the park followed a night of intermittent rain and cool temperatures that we anticipated would be ideal for terrestrial leeches.
The morning walk with our guide Eugene through damp secondary and virgin forest would take us 3 hours traversing the home ranges of two distinct Indri families. Indri are the largest of all extant lemurs, reaching maybe 4 feet high if they stood on their hind legs, and up to 20 kg. They are also probably the most threatened species of lemur anywhere, P. N. Perinet and Mantadia were established principally to protect the populations here. We reasoned that merely covering a lot of territory in the damp forest in the early morning while looking for Indri would simultaneously serve the purposes of drawing leeches to our exposed legs.
Though they can be hard to find, Indri are impossible to ignore. As we climbed up the southern ridge of Perinet the first cries began echoing through the dark understory. The morning vocalization of the Indri is a haunting, melancholy call… a heartbreaking wail that carries for miles through the moist air. We tracked the calls for almost two hours through the native vegetation thick with wild gingers, exquisite orchids, … stumbling over camouflaged butterflies, brilliant green isopods, land snails, and a multitude of fungi feasting on trees that had fallen into the dank earth. Then, suddenly we had found them. Large, nearly tail-less, launching their enormous frames off of one tree trunk and alighting gracefully on the next in search of young leaves and stems to munch on. It was clear they were aware of our presence, but they barely seemed to care, only occasionally bothering to look down on us in the morning light.
After leaving us, our remaining task was to move to lower, more saturated ground in search of our annelid quarry. Insect repellents can't be used if you are hoping for leeches. They make their decisions regarding whether to 'stick' around and feed in part on the basis of taste. This had meant for an already stressful morning of being munched around the lower legs and ankles by low-flying mosquitoes. Evon in particular is reacting very badly to the anophelines.
Inexplicably, another hour of barefoot, barelegged, bait failed to return even a single haemadispsid. It made no sense. The territory was ideal. The moisture levels were fine. And, there was no shortage of frogs. Mark is convinced that the terrestrial leeches can't be specialized to mammals. They take too long to find a good spot on us. Moreover, there just aren't that many mammals in tropical forests to support the numbers seen. Their normal victims must be the multitude of frogs that they co-occur with.
Midongy, the afternoon came and so did the sun. Lousy for leeches. Great for basking crocs though. The whole team arrived at Vakona reserve, an extremely important transition zone between Mantadia and Perinet owned by M. Jean-Claude Izouard. The approach to the reserve is reminiscent of Jurassic Park; a pair of iron gates with tall palms and lush vegetation stretching away to the hills behind. To make the experience even more surreal, we hadn't walked beyond the gates more than a few hundred metres when several 2-meter crocs began to take interest. These were simply wandering free. Nothing like the absence of a fence or wall between you and 3 dozen full sets of sharp teeth to get the blood pumping. M. Izouard had very graciously agreed to Evon's request for genetic samples; samples that cover a geographic range Evon would not otherwise have access to.
Another 2 hour hike for leeches in Vakona by Liz and Clara in a downpour still failed to turn anything up. Midongy be!
Our guide Eugene suggested an early morning. Maybe they would be out only in the early part of the day when it is not so bright. Mark was doubtful this would make much of a difference but there was little choice but to keep trying.
This morning started early. Up at 5 am, pack all the gear before breakfast and load it up into the Land Cruiser before breakfast. Liz was glum. This is her doctoral dissertation project after all. So far we have only a single species of terrestrial leech and there are 5 in the country. Yes, we can come back, it's just disappointing to go home without having met the objectives… no matter that the events surrounding this trip would make it understandable.
We arrived at the gates of Perinet where Eugene met us … holding up a whirl pack bag with 5 leeches in it, and a beaming smile on this face!!!
"I found them yesterday," he explained, "in a piece of native forest near where the town's water source comes from." Eugene then explained that he saw us buying meat for the crocodiles yesterday afternoon and thought to come over and tell us. He opted not to because we were talking to the butcher and he did not want to interrupt. The Malagasy are so polite, perhaps even to a fault.
The rains started again as he explained his previous day's solo adventure (he really doesn't like the dimatka!!). We all hopped back in the truck, Eugene too, and headed for the hills. Once again, it was only a few hundred metres into the forest before we started getting leeches on our shins and thighs. As if to make up for her unhappiness at being ignored by the leeches in Andohahela, Liz found the first one on her leg today. Within minutes there were more and Liz had her normal cheery disposition back… even more so as it started to rain harder.
There are 2 species here. And, interestingly, there seems to be a separation in their distribution. The leeches we found nearer to the entrance of the forest rival the European medicinal leech in their beauty. In addition to the intricate chain-mail dorsal pattern, these guys have a brilliant lime/torquoise fine line running the lateral length of their bodies. It strikes us that even though the anatomy of terrestrial leeches is well documented, and these two might already be known, there are no records of what they look like alive. These photos are the first documentation of that, in full aesthetic digital colors that will disapear after preservation. Evon found another way to tell them apart... the orange/brown species hurts!!
Finally… Faly be.
Evon's sampling is essentially over. In all she has about 38 blood samples, two pieces of skins and two eggs.
We are back in Tana (not in the city center though, and will make the long winding 9 hour drive to Ranomafana tomorrow. Two nights and one full day of hiking up to Vato and Valo will round out the leech collecting in Madagascar for us. Our spirits are good. Evon is satisfied that this has been worth the trip for her. Liz and Mark know that they have at least half of the known terrestrial leech diversity (even if one is a new species), as well as the erpobdellid from Ft. Dauphin.