Robin Hoskyns Nature Photography – Blog

Images and stories of nature, science and conservation.


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Ambodivoangy village: People and Conservation

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Our porters carrying bags of food on the 3 hour hike.

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View across rice paddies to a village en route.

A week ago I tagged along on an expedition with the health team and two medical students from stony brook medical school to see the other side of the work done at Centre Valbio. We visited a small remote village about three hours walk from the road, situated right on the edge of the national park itself.

Ranomafana National Park has more than 100 villages in its peripheral zone with over 25,000 residents in total. Most of these are subsistence farmers, mainly growing rice, cassava, coffee and sugarcane. The health team visit many of the villages and hold regular clinics where they diagnose and give basic treatment where possible.

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The view from the school when we first arrived with the park boundary in the distance.

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The closest of the 3 mini-villages to the school with rainforest behind.

As well as a health team Centre Valbio also has an education team which visit schools in these villages to explain about the importance of biodiversity and conservation and a team of dental students runs a yearly clinic in Ranomafana Village. Centre Valbio also works closely with Pivot, a healh NGO based in Ranomafana.

The purpose of this particular expedition was to collect information about a relatively unknown disease called Mycetoma. This disease manifests itself in a similar way to elephantiasis with excessive swelling of the limbs however it generally only occurs in the feet and usually only one. The village we visited, Ambodivoangy, apparently had three cases of this disease.

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The school building we set up camp in.

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Our food and camping gear.

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View from inside the school looking towards the village.

After the three hour hike across rice paddies and through a couple of other villages we arrived at Ambodivoangy which turned out to be a group of three smaller villages with a school in the middle. We set up camp at the school and went for a visit to the president of the village. There was barely enough room in this house for all of us but with the help of the Malagasy health team the purpose of the visit was explained.

The next morning four people with apparent Mycetoma turned up along with the rest of the village and lots of children. One of the cases was almost certainly elephantiasis as the patient also had massively swollen testicles but all four were given a questionnaire and samples were taken.

Mycetoma can be caused either by fungal or bacterial infection and is treatable if caught early however the swelling cannot be reversed and surgery or amputation to remove the infection may be the only option in the worst cases. Mycetoma is found throughout the tropics and is normally associated with communities who walk around barefoot, particularly agricultural workers. For this reason the majority people at risk are extremely poor hence why this disease has been so little studied.

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The first Mycetoma patient to the clinic.

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The second patient starting to draw a crowd.

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The result of having Mycetoma for years.

After the morning clinic we went for a short walk around two of the three villages. I really wanted to get some more images of people and village life but I found it very difficult to get natural images as the appearance of a group of “vazaha” was obviously a huge spectacle and people would just stare. I would have liked to stay longer a let people to relax and get used to having a camera waved around but it was not to be. The skills needed to photograph wildlife do not so easily transfer to photographing people and it certainly puts me out of my photographic comfort zone!

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Children playing outside the school, the game was to throw elastic bands onto a small stick.

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Another game, this one involved hopping and kicking a stone around a grid.

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The Malagasy way to carry a child.

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Pounding rice to remove the chaff

After visiting the villages we were lead off the path, through a patch of sugarcane until we stumbled upon people in the process of distilling “toaka gasy”, the traditional Malagasy moonshine.  A barrel of fermented sugarcane was set on a smoky fire attached to a condenser made from a hollowed out log and fed with cold water from a stream via a bamboo chute. Of course we sampled some toaka gasy which was still warm from the distillation process!

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Toaka gasy production!

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The barrel of fermented sugarcane and the carved condenser.

For me this trip really opened my eyes to how conservation projects need to include people to be successful. Most of the time conservation appears to be focused on a particular threatened species or area of habitat however real conservation in a developing country such as Madagascar is as much about people as it is about rainforest and lemurs.

Without people there obviously wouldn’t be any need to conserve nature however simply setting aside reserves and not allowing people in rarely works. This is especially the case in developing countries, such as Madagascar, where there are little or no resources to enforce such rules and a rapidly growing population hugely dependent on wood for fuel and building materials and requiring more and more land for slash and burn agriculture.

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My parting view of Ambodivoangy just after sunrise.


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Mad dog Initiative– Part 2: Clinic and Camera Traps

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Every year a team of biologists, vets and volunteers from the Mad Dog Initiative visit Madagascar in order to set up a clinic to carry out spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations whilst also setting up camera traps to monitor dogs entering the forest as well as surveying native wildlife. I spent some time with the team observing them as they carried out their work. It was incredible to see the dedication of this team whilst coping with the chaos of trying to organise a project such as this in Madagascar.

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Rolling out the mobile clinic!

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Informing the community.

Originally they had set up their clinic just outside Ranomafana under a tarpaulin next to the house they were renting. They “fixed” a couple of “patients” at this location however many of the people we spoke to were saying that they couldn’t bring their dogs as either they didn’t have leashes or the dogs were too aggressive or too scared to be coaxed through the territories of other dogs en route to the clinic. The result of this was the clinic being relocated to a shack behind a hotely right in the centre of town via a Malagasy style wooden cart. This central location proved much more popular and soon there was a crowd of people seeing what was going on and various animals in the yard. A local guy was provided with a megaphone and sent to walk around the village asking people to bring their dogs and explaining about the clinic.

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In many countries feral dog populations are controlled by trapping or poisoning. Culling animals has been shown to be ineffective as populations can recover within a single year. Research has shown that long term programs that have feral dogs spayed and neutered are much more effective at reducing populations. In fact it may be the only sustainable way of controlling populations especially when combined with education and encouragement towards more responsible dog ownership. As well as being more effective a spay/neuter strategy is far more humane than culling and it is much easier to implement in a place where dogs are still partially owned even though they are free roaming.

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One of the other objectives of the project is to involve local vets and vet students from Antananarivo which serves as a vital link between the project and the local community and also gives experience and training to the local vets that is generally not available in Madgascar.

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I also tagged along to help with setting up the camera traps. These are spaced at regular intervals in the forest surround in the villages being place along tracks that dog would likely use to travel into the forest. These camera traps are fitted into the existing matrix of camera traps already set up for long term monitoring of the parks wildlife.

Check out the project at: www.maddoginitiative.com

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Pulling off the Leeches!

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