Six Weeks in Isolation with King Julian (or not…)

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HERMIONE BLOMFIELD – SMITH

After close to twenty hours spent in airports and on aeroplanes, landing in Madagascar was a relief. Or was until the twelve hour bus drive north, followed by four hours hard off-roading in a converted cattle truck to base camp. In the first couple of hours after arrival, we saw lizards, snakes and lemurs that came down from the canopy into the branches just above our tents.

Spending six weeks trekking through jungle in search of reptiles is not, I understand, everyone’s ideal way to spend their summer. However, for me it was an exciting opportunity (who doesn’t want to see King Julian in real life?) to explore Madagascar’s dry forests and collect data for my dissertation project.

I travelled to Madagascar alone, to join up with Operation Wallacea, an international scientific research organisiation. Madagascar itself is home to many unique species, of which over 80 % can be found nowhere else in the world. My project was based on chameleons, but I had opportunities to interact with all the other wildlife while I was there.

Henkali Baby Small

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(TOP: UROPLATUS HENKELI – LEAF TAILED GEKO, BOTTOM, PHOTOGRAPHY: HERMIONE BLOMFIELD SMITH, BOTTOM: STEVE IRWIN STYLE!, PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID LEATHERBARROW)

Madagascan Independence Day fell in the first week and this gave us a chance to get to know the locals in the huge celebrations held by Mariarano village, where you could find our base camp. We were invited to watch local schools perform a dance for us after a speech from the Mayor of Mariarano. After their performances, we felt obliged, as ungraceful as we were, to return the favour. Our dance was greeted with loud laughter, but also, thankfully, some applause.

Madagascar itself is home to many unique species, of which over 80 % can be found nowhere else in the world

Madagascar is known for its abundance of wildlife. The many species found only there are known as endemic species and the reason for this high ratio of endemism, is that the island has been in evolutionary isolation for around 165 million years. Less talked about is the interesting culture found there. It is thought that the Malagasy people are of mixed origins and there are anthropological arguments for both Indonesian and African origins but it is common ground that colonisation is fairly recent (~2000 years ago). The culture revolves a lot around the wild life. For example, many of the local people, especially in the more isolated regions, would not touch a chameleon because they believe that their independently moving eyes allow them to look into both the past and the future.

Of all the adventures I had in Madagascar, the most memorable and terrifying was a trip on the Croc boat

Another Malagasy belief revolves around the leaf tailed geckos. The largest of these is the Europlatus Henkeli. If captured, these small, nocturnal lizards will scream at you, and the Malagasy believe that a scream in the dark shouldn’t go unanswered. So, it’s tradition to scream back. As you may imagine, some of us had a lot of fun with this one.

Of all the adventures I had in Madagascar, the most memorable and terrifying, was a trip on the Croc boat through the mangroves. After spotting eye-shine all night and not being able to catch anything, one of the other dissertation students, Dave, noosed a massive crocodile on the trip back to the jetty. Not only was the beast too big to be hauled onto the boat, but it proceeded to let out the loudest and most terrifying, guttural growls. We had to tow this beast back to the jetty and haul it onto the bank to get a DNA sample and measurements before releasing him back into the mangrove.

So, Madagascar, although wild and hard to get to, offers many amazing opportunities; from walking around a crocodile farm to catching one in the wild for measurements and a DNA sample! There is no end to the extraordinary wealth of wildlife and culture on this beautiful island. My only disappointment was that I didn’t actually meet King Julian!

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