March 5 - In Ranomafana
Dimatka Betsika!!


Well…some people might think it's crazy to drive 9 hours through 11 or so roadblocks, searching in vain for some of the last remaining petrol in Madagascar in order to make it to Ranomafana National Park for one day and get back to Tana……but it was worth it. In any case, we were in no position to stay in Tana until our departures. The Embassy has issued warnings for foreign nationals to avoid downtown areas and to stay indoors after dark. Thus we embarked on our final, mad Madagascar excursion to visit the site of previous fond memories for Evon and Liz. We managed to make it through the bleak countryside of Lavaka (massively eroded slopes in light of the extent of deforestation) to Fianarantsoa in under 8 hours notwithstanding the series of roadblocks. Our driver, Dede (a.k.a. Mario Andretti) was master of getting us through them… the only awkward spot was our encounter with a drunken, burly soldier demanding MF 10,000 to let us drive through the woods and around an enormous tree they'd felled to block the road. Since he had a kalishnikoff and we didn't, we paid (the equivalent of about US $1.75). About 50 km from Fianar, the truck suddenly stalled. Our fears that we were out of gas in the Malagasy countryside were quickly assuaged when it turned over after we and 5 local farmers pushed till it was rolling fast enough for Dede to get it to jump.

One result of having to hunt for gas in Fianar is that we did not arrive in Ranomafana until well after dark. This close to the equator, the sun sets about 6:30 pm and it falls fast. The rains let up long enough for us to pitch our tents in the woods by the cataracts so we could get a good night's sleep before hunting all day for leeches today. Most of us did, in the end sleep well. Liz, however, woke up at about 1:30 am with a whopping big leech happily feeding from her face!! Inside her tent. Our first sample from here.

The leeches have finally found us…and how! Ranomafana is considered one of the jewels of Madagascar's protected area network and has been the subject of myriad ongoing research projects and documentary films. The park was established by ICTE/MICET to protect the forest and its residents. Ranomafana is perhaps best known for the extensive lemur research that has occurred in its confines. The guest book reads like a who's-who of primatologists and other established biodiversity scientists. More than just lemurs though, of which there are about 8 species, the tropical rainforests are host to a broad range of vertebrate, invertebrate and plant life. Frogs that lay eggs on the leaves of trees, lizards, wasps, mushrooms, countless flies… The region around the base camp, Talatakely is a secondary forest, recovering from having once been clear-cut. As such it is a strange mix of indigenous plants, bamboo and guava trees.

This morning we split up into two groups. In light of having only a single day to sample the leech diversity, Mark and Liz made the 2-hour hike to Vatoharanana while Evon, Riana and Clara worked the area around Talatakely. The latter is situated at 880 metres above sea level. The hike to Vato, on the other hand, winds up and over several hills reaching 1100 metres. The difference may not seem like much but the relative exposure to sunlight is sufficiently varied through this transect that we expected there could be differences in species composition.

The rains were heavy overnight and the ground saturated through the morning. Mark and Liz had been walking with their guide Francois for no more than 15 minutes when they were already plucking several leeches off of their boots. Within a half hour there were so many that the progress to Vato had to be halted every 100 metres or so in order to allow them to bag the leeches rapidly accumulating around their ankles and up their legs. Finally we just gave up. It was becoming impossible to put more leeches into Falcon tubes and Whirl-pak bags without several others eagerly climbing their way out. The others were having similar experiences on their morning hike around the lower regions with George. Feet, ankles and bare legs covered in leeches, and then fingers, hands and wrists too as one tried to keep get them into bags and tubes.

By the time Mark and Liz had made it to Vato, they had collected at least 60 and flung away half as many again as that. As they removed their boots to rest for a few minutes before retracing their steps, the full extent of their encounter was revealed. Dozens more Malagobdella tucked away between boots and socks, and more still had wriggled their way over the cuffs and had managed to engorge themselves. There was blood everywhere! It's amazing how powerful the anticoagulants are that these little guys leave behind.

After so much struggle, and so many false starts, plane-delays, strikes, crises, roadblocks, and illnesses, we all felt like we had finally arrived. This place is leech heaven! We are fairly certain that there are three species of land leeches here. If so, that means we have found 6 species in Madagascar... only 5 are described. One or more of these must be new.

With the exception of Clayton Clement working on the long-term lemur projects established years ago by Pat Wright, we are the only researchers here. This is after all the rainy season (and it's coming down in buckets outside as we are writing in the late afternoon). But it is, of course, a rainforest. The sights and sounds in the rainy season are intense. Birds flushing from the understory as we walk by. Enormous land snails as big as your fist pairing off and mating (like the tenrecs, and so much else does during the rains) so that their young will be big enough before the ground moisture becomes less predictable. And the smells of the forest… overwhelming. A waft of ginger, then potato, and mace and the musky smell of a patch of fungus, then cinnamon, and vanilla and just the dank smell of wet earth. Of course, none of these are the real smells… they are but weak approximations that register in your mind as you walk through the saturated woods. Something recognizable. Something sweet. And everywhere lush.

We are very happy. Satisfied again with our work. Faly be. With so many leeches to prepare, we are sure to be busy well into the darkness of the coming night, and the continuing rains.

March 6 - We are back in Tana. All is quiet. There has been no violence. The army did not act on the edicts of martial law. Ratsiraka has fled the city and has stated his intentions to move the capital to his home base of Tamatave. No one seems to think this will matter much. Ravalomanana has installed his government. The strikes are off. Barricades remain but are a minor inconvenience. Things seem to be getting back to normal.