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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Milne-Edward’s Sifaka

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Recently I have been spending a lot of time going out with the Sifaka team recording the behaviour of the Milne-Edwards Sifaka (Propithecus edwarsi). These Sifakas are the largest lemurs found in Ranomafana National Park (RNP) and have been continuously studied here since 1987.

Formerly considered a subspecies of the Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema) P. edwarsi is now considered a full species and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Ranomafana National Park is the stronghold for this Lemur species with half of the total population thought to be found within the park.

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Sifakas are social animals and live in groups of 3 to 9 individuals and like many Lemur species females are the dominant sex. They occupy large home ranges covering 45 to 55 hectares. Both male and female sifakas regularly mark their territory with scent.

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Unlike other lemurs that move in a more quadrapedal fasion, Sifakas are vertical clingers meaning that they leap from trunk to trunk using their huge back legs performing a 180 degree twist in midair to land back feet first. It is incredible to see them moving through the forest hopping from one trunk to the next.

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Including Sifakas, 8 species of lemur have been studied long term in RNP and environmental variables such as rainfall and temperature have been recorded for this period as well as tree phenology. This data is especially important for studying the effects of climate change on endangered species restricted to isolated areas of habitat.

P. edwarsi are long-lived, they have been recorded as living up to 30 years old in Ranomafana. They reproduce slowly and older females continue to give birth until death with most infants born in June and July. Their diet consists mainly of leaves, fruits, and seeds and varies seasonally, with a preference for fruits and seeds when available and leaves when fruits and seeds are not available.

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Much of Ranomafana was subject to logging in the late 1980s and the effect of the differing levels of anthropogenic disturbance on the Sifakas has been well studied. Groups in unlogged forest have been found to consume more calorie and nutrient-rich fruits and seeds than groups in previously logged forest, which consume more leaves.

Groups living in logged forest travel less per day to minimize energy use, but cover a larger area overall to acquire resources. Sifaka groups in the unlogged forest appear to need less area to acquire necessary resources due to increased availability, but move more per day throughout the year to obtain higher-quality but patchily distributed resources, such as fruit.

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Mad dog Initiative– Part 1: Dogs

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Attitudes towards dogs in Madagascar are not the same as in most developed countries. Although a lot dogs are owned to some degree they are generally not kept as pets in the western sense. Many are kept for protection against thieves or to protect livestock however these are generally free-ranging or feral although the distinction between owned and feral dogs is often blurred.

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Dogs are a big problem in some parts of the world as far as wildlife is concerned as they can spread diseases such as rabies, parvovirus, and canine distemper virus (CDV) to native wildlife as well as preying on and competing with endangered wildlife. Even where direct predation doesn’t occur dogs may cause stress to wild animals by chasing or harassing which may lead to avoidance of certain areas by some species, further increasing anthropogenic disturbance of protected areas close to human settlements.

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The population of feral dogs in Madagascar is difficult to estimate as very little research has been conducted on feral dog populations both in Madagascar and on a global scale. The effect dogs have on endemic wildlife in Madagascar is unknown however there are anecdotal reports of dogs predating native small mammals such as tenrecs and even killing larger animals such as aye-ayes and fossas.

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Extensive camera trapping in Ranomafana National park has captured dogs travelling over a kilometre into protected forest near villages. Ranomafana has over 100 villages in its peripheral area each with many dogs. Dogs in this area generally seem reasonably healthy and the majority are owned to some extent however the problems to wildlife caused by dogs may greater in other areas of Madagascar where the proportion living feral is higher. The benefit of working in and around Ranomafana National Park is that the populations of lemurs, other native wildlife and habitat have been well studied on a long-term basis and therefore provides baseline data with which to monitor the effect of the project on both dog and wildlife populations.

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The Mad Dog Initiative now in its second field season aims to study the effects of free-roaming and feral dogs on the native wildlife as well as running free spay/neuter/vaccination clinics, extensive surveys and educational programmes at villages in the area surrounding Ranomafana National Park whilst assessing the effect of these efforts. Once there is more understanding about the ecological effect of feral dogs then the project hopes to be able to expand to other areas across Madagascar.

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Frog Diversity in Ranomafana

Boophis madagascariensis

Boophis madagascariensis

In the past couple of weeks I have been going out photographing one of my favorite subjects, frogs! Ranomafana has one of the highest amphibian diversities of any national park in the country with only Andasibe offering any competition. Of the 300+ described species of frog in Madagascar all except two are endemic and at least 120 of those have been found in Ranomafana including 8 potential species endemic to the park.

Spinomantis aglavei

Spinomantis aglavei

Spinomantis aglavei

Spinomantis aglavei

According to the Global Amphibian Assessment (GAA) in 2004, Madagascar ranks as the country with the 12th highest amphibian species richness however it probably should be higher than this as over 200 candidate species have been identified since. This would make the estimated total number of frog species over 500 and would mean Madagascar is home to roughly 4.3% of the world’s amphibians whilst occupying less than 0.5% of the worlds land area.

Gephyromantis tschenki

Gephyromantis tschenki

Boophis reticulatus

Boophis reticulatus

The largest family of frogs in Madagascar is the Mantellidae which is very diverse and is estimated to have colonised Madagascar around 58 million years ago. Some species of the Mantella genus share convergent features with neotropical dendrobatids (poison dart frogs) with their sharply contrasting aposematic (warning) colouration being associated with toxic skin.

Mantella baroni, common names include: Baron's Mantella, Painted Mantella, Harlequin Mantella, Variegated Mantella

Mantella baroni, often called Painted Mantella or Harlequin Mantella

Boophis is another endemic genus of frogs belonging to the family Mantellidae. This genus is known for its brightly coloured eyes which it has been hypothesised act as an anti-predator startle response. The brightly coloured sections usually remain hidden during the day when the frog is resting but suddenly become visible when the frog opens its eyes.

Boophis tasymena

Boophis tasymena – Polka-Dot Bright-Eyed Frog

Boophis tasymena

Boophis tasymena – Polka-Dot Bright-Eyed Frog

Almost all Malagasy rainforest frogs are either terrestrial and diurnal or arboreal and nocturnal. This is probably because of alternating predation pressure from birds in trees during the day and snakes, tenrecs and other predators on the ground at night.

Mantidactylus femoralis

Mantidactylus femoralis?

Plethodontohyla notosticta

Plethodontohyla notosticta

As with amphibians elsewhere in the world Malagasy frogs face numerous threats. Ongoing habitat destruction has already led to destruction of 90% of the original vegetation and threatens most species to some extent.

There are recent reports of the arrival of Asian common toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) in Madagascar, most likely arriving inside shipping containers from Asia. This species’ relative, the cane toad (Rhinella marina), has caused widespread ecological destruction in Australia, and there is now concern that an invasion in Madagascar will have disastrous impacts. One positive aspect is that so far this species has never been recorded as a carrier of the Chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd).

Unlike the majority of the world’s amphibian populations Madagascar has so far escaped the catastrophic declines associated with Bd. However Between 2010 and 2014, Bd was recorded in five different areas of the country, including Ranomafana, although the virulence of the strain is as yet unknown and no die-offs have been reported.

Boophis elenae

Boophis elenae

Boophis elenae

Boophis elenae

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