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Kathryn Scobie: The Southern Woolly Lemur of Madagascar

Kathryn Scobie is currently studying the sleeping site characteristics and habitat use of the Southern Woolly Lemur, in forest fragments of varying degrees of degradation in Southeast Madagascar. Her research aims to identify the relationship between habitat quality and population density, and how it copes with habitat disturbance, from hunting and deforestation.

Name: Kathryn Scobie

Habitat: Southern Woolly Lemur (Avahi meridionalis)

Location: Madagascar

Twitter: @Kathryn_Scobie

Bio: I am currently studying for a Masters by Research at the University of Bristol UK, which has taken me to southeast Madagascar, where I am studying the southern woolly lemur, in connection with Azafady- a UK charity and Malagasy NGO.

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Can you tell us a little more about the issues faced by the southern woolly lemur?

The southern woolly lemur (Avahi meridionalis) is a nocturnal species, found in the coastal forests of southeast Madagascar, and like all lemur species is endemic to the island. Unfortunately, these forests have been heavily impacted by human activity; slash and burn agriculture is common, and nearby villages continue to rely on the forests as a source of firewood and construction materials. More worryingly, an imminent mining project is set to remove the majority of remaining forest cover over the coming decades. The southern woolly lemur was recently reclassified from Data Deficient to Endangered. Little is known about their habitat needs and it is hoped that the more we learn then the more effective future conservation measures will be in protecting them.

How many people are there in your research team?

There are three of us in the research team, and we employ guides and a cook from nearby villages who work and live with us. The forests in which we work are in rural southeast Madagascar. We camp in tents at the edge of the forest; we are usually far from the nearest town and always without the luxury of electricity and running water.

TOP: Malagasy dug-out canoe. BOTTOM: Verreauxs Sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi).

 

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"…between August and November, you’ll often look out and see humpback whales with their young."

Can you describe your base camp?

We actually use a few different base camps; the most comfortable has a long house where the team can eat and relax during time off from fieldwork and concrete wash blocks where you can take a bucket shower. The biggest perk is that it’s only 10km from town and so we can send for supplies if we run out of fresh food. Another site has wooden shelters and a solar powered research station. Here, the forest neighbour is a small village where we can buy meat, fish and fresh fruit, aside from which we eat rice three times a day, every day.

The most remote site is a three-hour bus ride, or ‘bush taxi’, from town, followed by a two hour walk to the nearest village. From there a local fishing boat, or dug-out canoe, can take the team across the river and through the mangrove swamps to the forest. This fragment doesn’t have any campsite facilities so we need to take everything with us including all the food and drinking water we need. If and when we run out of supplies it’s a two-and-a-half hour walk to a nearby fishing village where we can pick up beans, rice, fish and if we are lucky, lobster! The downside is there’s no real shelter so if it rains you get wet. If it rains for a few days, this can be pretty miserable. On the plus side, you are camping in pristine forest, bordered on one side by (supposedly) crocodile-infested swamps, and on the other by miles of untouched beach and the Indian Ocean where, between August and November, you’ll often look out and see humpback whales with their young.

 

TOP LEFT: This is the transport the team uses to get to and from research sites. TOP RIGHT: A  Southern Woolly Lemur (Avahi meridionalis). BOTTOM: Brown Lemur (Eulemur fulvus).
"Looking up and seeing a family of sleepy wide-eyed woolly lemurs staring back at you makes all the hard-work worth it and my heart melts every time!"
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What are the highlights of your project?

The landscape is amazing. One week you might be camped in the middle of the forest watching a group of bamboo lemurs pass by as you eat breakfast, a few days later the Indian Ocean and miles of your own untouched beach might be on your doorstep, and the next week our camp site might overlook the river and mangrove swamps.

Of course, I love the wildlife too. Looking up and seeing a family of sleepy wide-eyed woolly lemurs staring back at you makes all the hard-work worth it and my heart melts every time!

What are the hardest aspects of the working environment?

The weather! The climate in southeast Madagascar is highly seasonal; the wet season is long and there is no real dry season. Essentially, it often rains! This can be frustrating when you are working outside all day every day and because we are camping there’s nowhere to dry off – there’s nothing worse than putting on wet clothes each morning! When it’s not raining it can be very hot and humid. We have to be very careful to keep equipment dry, and to look after ourselves too. In this kind of climate wounds can take longer to heal and a small mosquito bite can quickly turn into a tropical ulcer.

 

TOP: The team at camp in Sainte Luce. BOTTOM: Incredible sunset at Sainte Luce.

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Do you have some ‘Top tips’ advice for young conservationists working on this kind of project?

1) Learn the local language. Your efforts won’t go unnoticed by the community that you’re working in, even if you only have time to learn the basics. You will also get so much out of the experience if you are able to communicate with your local guides who I have found, not only know a huge amount about the forests, but are also great company!

2) Settle into the pace of the country that you’re working in. Everything might take a little longer in Madagascar and this can be frustrating, particularly if you’re working to deadlines. But, you will get there eventually!

3) Learn about the local customs and beliefs. Malagasy people have a system of beliefs and taboos, known as fady. They might dictate that you shouldn’t eat pork before swimming, that you shouldn’t eat bananas on the beach, or that you shouldn’t build your house on stilts. Fady can vary from one region to the next and so it’s important you are familiar with any local taboos to avoid causing offence.

4) Be flexible. You can be sure that things won’t always go to plan- stay positive and learn from it for next time.

5) Have fun! You might not get to shower for a few days, you will probably be covered in insect bites 90% of the time, and you might be completely exhausted, but try to enjoy every second of it!

The Last Word…

Lastly, are you optimistic for the future conservation of the southern woolly lemur?

These lemurs are definitely up against it. Their populations are decreasing in size and their habitat is under severe threat. But despite this I truly am optimistic.

The region’s huge biodiversity, incredibly high level of species endemism, and breath-taking natural beauty has attracted committed and passionate charities and researchers. Through their work we are continuing to learn more about this species, the ecosystem in which they live, and those they share it with, building knowledge and capacity for sustainable conservation efforts.

Thanks Kathryn!

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