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The Gap Year Blog

Emma Kersley - Lemur Conservation Volunteer - Frontier

4 Jan 2017 15:10 PM

Read about Emma’s experience on our Madagascar Lemur Conservation project!

1) Why did you choose this particular project?

During university, I completed work experience at a zoo, where I cared for and worked alongside lemurs as well as carrying out a project studying their behaviour. So after learning so much about them, I became determined to go to Madagascar and get involved with their conservation! 

2) Which kind of work and activities did you do during your project?

During the project, we would set off into the forest in the morning and complete a 'lemur box survey' where we would trek through primary forest, secondary forest and degraded forest to check the artificially made lemur best boxes and record any lemur presence. 

Another activity was to complete ethograms, which involved observing an individual lemur in a troop for around 20 minutes. One person would be the observer and describe what activity the individual was presenting; another would be the time keeper who would notify the group when a minute was up (as recordings of behaviour were completed every minute) and there would be a note taker, who would write down the behaviour being presented. 

During the night we would go on "night walks" and would use a GPS to record the coordinates of any Sportive lemur presence within the area. This was always an interesting activity due to how lively the forest is at night. It's like the wildlife party from dusk ‘til dawn! 

Other activities I enjoyed while on the project are the reptile surveys, where we would walk slowly along a transect through the forest and search for any reptiles that are in the area, if any were spotted we would identify the species and record where it was in the canopy (e.g. in sunlight or shade). It was like a wildlife version of the game 'where's wally?' As some of the species were so well camouflaged it was such an achievement to actually spot them! Particularly the Uroplatus Henkeli, the leaf tailed gecko!

3) How did the culture and people differ to home, and what were the locals like?

The culture and people in Madagascar are incredible. They're all so welcoming and friendly! It's insane to walk down a street and one minute I'd see a group of children all piled into a cart while one child is in charge of the Zebu pulling it, the next minute a tuk-tuk zooms past with about 10 people piled in the back and the next I see a really fancy car cruising past. It's insane! 

I loved the village that the camp is situated next to, it was always so lovely to come back from a tiring trek through the forest and hear the villagers shout "mbola tsara!" Which is how they say hello, it made it feel more like a home. I loved how involved the children were with everything going on in the village- helping to bring goodies into camp including battered bananas or little doughnuts and they would stand outside camp in a morning waiting for the boat to school. Imagine being able to say you travelled to school by boat?! They were all so much fun, I remember going to a village party and playing handstands and cartwheels on the beach with the children and dancing with the locals while they played all sorts of music, from Malagasy music, to Justin Beiber! It was one of my most memorable nights there as I really felt like part of the village. I'm even still in touch with some of the locals; they've become friends I will cherish for life!

4) What was the accommodation like?

As basic as the accommodation is, I loved every second of it. I remember during my first week, we'd just got back from a night walk and I jumped in the shower (which is just a cubicle with a pipe poking over the top) and I showered under the stars, I spent so long gazing up at the sky I noticed a faint but strange glittery cloud stretched over the camp and I later asked the camp what it was and they told me it was the Milky Way! It was so surreal, showering under the stars or in the warmth of sun and watching birds fly over. It was like something out of a film! 

Camp food was basic too but they have a volas night on Thursdays, where a lady from the village cooks a meal which is delicious! Also, going back to town at the weekends allows you to get a chocolate fix! (We had chocolate ice cream for breakfast one weekend and it was the best ice cream I've ever had!) 

Toilet trips on camp are definitely an experience to say the least. Despite the long drop just being a hole in the ground hidden just off camp, you can find yourself trying to do your business with an audience of lemurs above your head and a chameleon named Jeff sat on a branch behind you!

5) What were the staff and other volunteers like?

The staff and volunteers could not have been more welcoming! From the moment I arrived off the boat everyone immediately introduced themselves and showed me around the camp. It was so easy to settle into camp with everyone, before I knew it I felt like a part of a crazy, misfit of a family! As everyone was so unique and had their own incredible, hilarious stories to share- all so different but bonded by sharing the same experience on such a beautiful island.

6) What was your most amazing moment or your best memory?

I think my most amazing moment was on the trip to Sakatia. I had never been snorkeling before and we were all on a boat waiting to delve into the crystal blue sea. As I rather ungracefully flopped into the water, I was a little panicked trying to make sure my snorkel was in place, so I braved the idea of breathing in a bit of water and looked directly below myself and was so outstandingly shocked at what I saw gliding underneath me - a juvenile whale shark! 

I'll never forget how surreal that moment was. It was like all time had stopped. The fact I was absolutely clueless with how to use my fins and snorkel in a graceful manner just left my mind. It was as if I was suddenly dreaming, this giant creature cruising past within reaching distance and before I knew it, engulfed by darkness of the blue water as it swam into the distance. The moment probably only lasted about two minutes but it felt like an endless amount of time!

7) Do you feel the work you were doing was worthwhile?

I definitely feel like the work I was doing was worthwhile. Euan the PI was extremely enthusiastic about getting us involved in new ideas to help improve studies on the project and kept us well informed of the research that had previously been carried out before we arrived and what he had planned in the future after we had left. He said he'd keep us informed of the research being carried out over the year while he was there too. So knowing I have contributed to research that is continuously being carried out feels so rewarding, especially when this is the kind of career I'm aiming for in the future.

8) What sort of wildlife did you encounter?

The amount of wildlife I encountered was endless! Just a simple trip to the long drop involved spotting some incredible species, such as sportive lemurs, crabs, a scops owl, panther chameleons, ground boas and many more! An uncountable amount of reptiles were spotted throughout the duration of my time there, as well as many birds and butterflies and a crazy amount of insanely pattered spiders!

9) What were you hoping to learn while on project, and have you achieved those goals?

I was hoping to gain more knowledge on practical conservation techniques, after studying different techniques at university I wanted to learn more on an active project. I have definitely achieved this and was also able to use techniques that I had learnt whilst at university, such as an ethogram, which is an observational survey that studies the behaviour of an individual. 

Another part of the experience was to learn more about myself, as I have never travelled alone before, so I wanted to test my limits as well as learn about the Madagascan culture, which is definitely an achievement I am proud to be able to take home with me. I feel a lot more confident in myself after this experience and I've learnt not to doubt my abilities- if I can do it, anyone can!

10) Any tips and advice you might like to pass on to future volunteers?

Tips for future volunteers would definitely be to bring more money than you think you'll need, better to have that safety net than not! You get to go on some incredible day trips which I didn't expect so you'll need more money for things like that, they're all so worth it. Another tip would be to bring an enthusiastic, positive attitude to camp, it's certainly not short of it. Everyone bounces of each other’s enthusiasm, which makes the camp such a brilliant place to be!

11) What do you have planned next?

 Unfortunately my travel plans are on hold for now, as I'm about to start my masters in wildlife conservation! Madagascar has inspired me to continue my studies in the world of conservation, in hope that in the future I can contribute more to the world through further knowledge and experience!

12) Anything else you would like to add?

There's probably a million and one things I could add to this. For a first time travelling experience, I couldn't have asked for a better place to do it in, better people to experience it with, or better memories to have left with!

People just have to experience it for themselves and get out there!

Frontier runs conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

Emma Kersley - Frontier Volunteer | Madagascar Lemur Conservation