Written by Alexandra Birtles
These are the extremes of my time as a volunteer research assistant in Madagascar – two weeks spent in the forest in Mariarano and two weeks marine in Nosy Be.
The early morning mist netting with Solohery was a truly memorable experience. Tagging a paradise flycatcher and releasing it was an absolute highlight of the forest. The elephants’ nests were memorable but for a different reason. It’s the local name for potholes – there are a lot! The roads are very bumpy.
I have met some wonderful, passionate and committed people along the way – all the camp managers, the medics, the scientists, the local Malagasy scientists and the local guides.
I’ve also spent time with dissertation students, other Opwall workers and my group of twelve research assistants. The latter all share common ground – mainly their science backgrounds and their age, 19-22. I’m a little different, having just celebrated my 60th birthday and retired after a career as an English teacher and in educational publishing.
I was a little anxious before I set off and at Heathrow as Opwall expedition members met up, not to mention the first day in Antananarivo. But I shouldn’t have worried – I’ve been accepted and supported all along the way. I think we’ve all rubbed along together just fine. I’ve had so many interesting conversations and enjoyed their company immensely. Maybe we each have something to offer the other. Not a bad mix!
The forest was quite challenging – long days often with three surveys – starting as early as 5.30am and finishing as late as 10pm. We walked between the three camps in the heat of the day and sometimes walked as much as 18k a day. I’m not very fit but I was determined not to miss a survey. Doing them all felt like a huge achievement.
In the forest we did lemur, frog, spider, bird point, crocodile, wetland, chameleon and butterfly surveys and it was almost too much to take in. The sifaka, mongoose, mouse and brown lemurs never failed to show up, deliver and enthrall us all!
But what’s so special is Madagascar itself and the Malagasy people I’ve met and learned from. There are too many to mention. I think I’ll stay in touch with quite a few! Such knowledge, such humility, such a passion for their country and the magical, vulnerable ecosystem both in the forest and marine environments.
I used to dive but failed my medical. The team worked hard to ensure snorkelers had an equivalent experience to divers. I’ve done reef ecology lectures, transect surveys, Benthic analysis, planted broken living corals in artificial reefs, green turtle and hawksbill turtle surveys and made tools for measuring visibility. I’m learning all the time. I’ve snorkeled in a marine protected area and other parts of the reef and experienced the unbelievable turquoise of Nosy Iranja.
Throughout the journey I and my fellow research assistants have occasionally struggled a bit, but we’ve supported each and have all been open to the new and different experiences offered to us. It’s been a life changing experience for us all.
Opwall have got it right – difficult to explain exactly how, but it has something to do with being committed to science and conservation, the way they work with local communities and involve local expertise and the fact they have amazing personnel. They listen, learn, adapt and evolve to make sure everyone can make the most of this amazing experience.
I can’t think of a better way to start my 60s.