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Day of the Dead Tribute: A Visit to the Eighth Continent

The Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 2nd, is a holiday celebrated in Mexico. It is acknowledged around the world in other cultures, including All Souls’ Day. The purpose of the holiday is to remember friends and family members who have died. It occurred to me that this holiday is an apt time to pause and reflect on those members of the birding community who are no longer with us—those who inspired us by their example. What follows is my remembrance of California birder Luke Cole. Nate Swick, the editor of this blog welcomes additional contributions on this same theme, especially those that show, rather than simply tell, how the person in your tribute influenced or mentored you.  — Tom Leskiw <tomleskiw AT suddenlink.net>

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A Visit to the Eighth Continent:

Topping Off the Pot

While planning our trip to South Africa, my wife Sue pointed out that Madagascar was, relatively speaking, a stone’s throw off the African coast. Given the distance that we’d be traveling from California, it made perfect sense to add a visit to the world’s fourth-largest island to our itinerary. Biologists sometimes refer to Madagascar as the Eighth Continent: a museum housing living fossils—dead ends down the evolutionary pathway. The island has long held travelers in her spell, as evidenced by the words of French naturalist Philibert Commerson in 1771:

May I announce to you that Madagascar is the naturalists’ promised land? Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she has used elsewhere. There, you meet bizarre and marvelous forms at every step.

Terms like “living fossils” and “different forms” are apt, as almost all of the mammals on the island today closely resemble groups that, while once prominent elsewhere, have been replaced by more-advanced species. For instance, on Africa, lemurs reigned until about 35 million years ago, when monkeys took center stage.

LukeColeI contacted Luke Cole, a friend and birding comrade, for information on Madagascar. As a former resident of South Africa and owner of Red Owl Tours to Madagascar, Luke was intimately familiar with the island’s unique flora and fauna. Unfortunately, he had no tours planned for the time frame that we’d be there, so he generously offered to help me stitch together a trip framework. Travelers are required to hire an on-site guide when visiting the island’s national parks, but there are private reserves where one is free to guide oneself. It is also possible to rent a car and do one’s own driving and trip logistics. In the end, we opted to go with Madagascar Grace Tours—just Sue and I in a Peugeot  station wagon piloted by Romance (pronounced Romans), a driver who spoke French, the national language, as well as Malagasy and English.

For naturalists, the spiny desert in the southwestern portion of the island exerts an inexorable pull. These forests of baobab trees and bizarre succulents such as euphorbia and octopus tree (Didierea spp.) are unlike any other on the planet. Words fail those trying to describe the other-worldly landscape. Lacking a familiar plant community with which to compare the area, the speaker trails off, mumbling about “Vegetation from something out of Alice in Wonderland… or Dr. Seuss.” Two Malagasy endemics are found in the spiny desert: the Long-tailed Ground Roller and the Subdesert Mesite, whose ranges on a field guide map are denoted by mere dots.

Much of Luke’s advice was equivocal: “Wildlife at ‘Place A’ also can be seen by going to ‘Place B’ and—given your scant 12 days on the island—certain trade-offs must be made.” However, when it came to the spiny desert, he was adamant. “Hire Moussa, the local guide. He knows the daily habits of the birds you’ll want to see. He’s the real deal, following the birds’ tracks in the sand until you get a long, satisfying look. Make it easy on yourself. Otherwise, you’ll thrash yourself in the heat and see only a fraction of what he’d show you.”

          “I hear what you’re saying,” I responded. “But between 2+ weeks in South Africa, including an expensive offshore boat trip, we’ve got to trim expenses somewhere. I just don’t know if it’s in the cards to hire Moussa.”

          “You’ve got to,” Luke urged. Then, out of character for my easy-going friend, I heard the anger rising in his voice, “Just do it!”

The months passed swiftly in a whirlwind of activity: vaccinations, malaria pills, new hiking gear, “homework” on the array of unique flora and fauna we might encounter. Then, in October 2008, as the seasons shifted and autumn began, it was time to go find spring in the southern hemisphere.

The wisdom of hiring a guide and driver who spoke the local languages was immediately apparent. Malagasy banks wouldn’t accept our traveler’s checks, so Romance guided us through the convoluted process of locating a hard-to-find ATM. Not to mention navigating the car down the narrow, crowded streets of Tana, the capital city of 1.3 million residents.

On our first night in the tropical forest of Andasibe National Park, our guide Saholy worked her magic: locating lemurs, frogs, and chameleons amid the snap, crackle, and pop of the night chorus. Early the next morning, indri—the largest of the island’s 40 or so lemur species—began their dawn song. The jungle reverberated with their calls, an eerie roar that sounds like a cross between a humpback whale and a lion. About an hour later, we rendezvoused with Saholy. She pored over my field guide as if it were the first time she’d seen one and I couldn’t help but notice the inexpensive pair of binoculars hanging around her neck. The poverty of this third-world country was beginning to sink in; it occurred to me that serving as a nature guide was likely one of the better jobs available to women. Soon thereafter, we caught up with indri family groups. Trees swayed crazily, as the lemurs made 30-foot leaps through the canopy, their flights all the more impressive when we spotted their babies hanging on for dear life.

The twilight trek through the jungle of Ranomafana National Park to see civet cat and mouse lemur—which tips the scales at less than 4 ounces—wasn’t easy, as no worthwhile trek should be. In a driving rain, the trail went up, up, up from the river crossing. Steaming in our rain gear, we vowed, “It’s too hot. Next time, we’ll just get wet.” The hyperkinetic nature of the mouse lemur made for a challenging photo shoot, counterbalanced by an oblivious, obliging civet cat.

Conversations with Romance during the long road miles helped to dissolve barriers between driver and client. A font of information, he furnished details on everything from roadside brick kilns and rice growing to local customs and politics. With the 2008 presidential election looming in several days, Sue and I remarked that we’d voted early for Obama. Romance expressed relief, admitting that he’d assumed that anyone with the financial resources to travel to Madagascar must have been a staunch Republican supporter. Although we all laughed about his misconception, it served as a reminder of a driver’s “Prime Directive”: say nothing to irritate the client.

Further south, on the dry (lee) side of Madagascar’s central plateau, we entered the first national park established on the island: Isalo. With our guide Leonardo, we ascended a trail flanked by pockmarked rock escarpments. The local Bara people—herdsmen of zebu, a skinny, humpbacked cattle—have long used the caverns as burial caves. A bee-eater held court atop a tree, the bird’s green and russet hues gleaming in the morning sun. Later, Leonardo pointed out a bulbous, yellow-flowered fleshy plant that emerged from a cleft in the sandstone. He informed us that the plant had been aptly placed in the genus Pachypodium, elephant’s foot.

Forest Rock-Thrush, Photo from wikipedia

Forest Rock-Thrush, Photo from wikipedia

From a rocky promontory, we studied a serpentine, palm-lined stream winding lazily through the grasslands and sandstone massif terrain. The trail began a series of descending switchbacks and Leonardo offered to carry our liter water bottle. Promptly placing it on his head, he negotiated the rough trail without a hitch, treating us to yet another “Now we’re in Madagascar” moment. The watercourse included a large swimming hole known as Piscine Naturelle (French for natural pool), the pay-off for a tiring hike in the heat. And a wonderful, other-worldly spot it was: a deep aquamarine pool, shaded by pandanu palms and canyon walls. Here, Leonardo spotted a pair of Forest Rock-thrush, the male sporting beguiling shades of gray-blue and orange.

Two days later, we reached the village of Ifaty on the southwest coast. Our palm-thatched bungalow fronted the azure, glass-smooth waters of the Indian Ocean. We spent our last two days on the island in this remote, sleepy seaside village. In the 21st century, “sleepy” is a relative term, but this particular village more than lived up to its billing. We’d planned to take a taxi to the nearby private reserve. However, upon inquiring, we soon discovered that Ifaty’s only “taxi” was a rough-hewn wooden cart, pulled by zebu.

We were grateful for transport in the early morning heat. At the reserve, we learned that Moussa’s guide service was now a family affair. Our walk was led by his two sons. They worked in tandem: Jean-Marie remained with us, while Gila went ahead to try to pin down the location of our two target birds. In his back pocket, Jean-Marie carried the only field guide we’d seen a local guide possess. Apparently, he’d no need for binoculars, as every 30 or so steps, he’d pause to point out wildlife we’d never have found on our own: a spotted lemur in a tree cavity, a “three-eyed” lizard camouflaged against deeply furrowed bark, Vasa Parrots feeding in a tree. On occasion, Jean-Marie called out to his brother. One of his shout-outs elicited a distant response, then, with urgency in his voice, Jean-Marie told us to follow him down the rock-lined path.  Under a bush sat a Long-tailed Ground Roller, which cooperated for nearly full-frame photos. Later, we followed him to a spiny tree that held the Subdesert Mesite, another unique bird seemingly crafted from the left-over parts of rail, thrasher, and whatever else was at hand.

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Periodically, I recall the images—and fragrances—of Madagascar: busy city streets filled with bicyclists, pedestrians, roadside vendors, and barefoot men pulling rickshaws. The long-distance trek of firewood gatherers. Teams of men pushing brick-filled wooden carts up steep mountain roads. Women working in impossibly green rice paddies stair-stepped out of bright red earth. We were grateful for our driver’s knowledge of the island: where to find savory local food, insight regarding local customs and politics—not to mention interceding on our behalf when the French language barrier popped up.

Nuthatch Vanga, photo via wikipedia

Nuthatch Vanga, photo via wikipedia

Commerson’s description of the island as a “naturalists’ promised land” was spot-on. Among our many indelible moments were forest birds sporting a variety of blue hues: Nuthatch Vanga, Blue Coua, Blue Vanga. To have experienced both the world’s smallest lemur—the fit-in-one’s-hand mouse lemur—and indri, the largest, was a special treat. Madagascar’s diverse people, landforms, plants, and wildlife made for a wondrous, life-affirming experience—one tempered by seeing first-hand the poverty of a third-world country.

Wherever we stopped in Madagascar—at gas stations, markets, or along the roadside— we quickly attracted groups of children. Their body language revealed an inherent tension: curious, yet shy. Sometimes, the children had goods for sale, such as greeting cards sporting ornate embroidery or tree bark cut in the shape of a chameleon. Other times, children whispered unintelligible phrases to us in French, to which I’d respond with a shoulder shrug and quizzical look, trying to convey that that I didn’t understand. They then employed gestures: moving hands through the air in short arcs — almost as if they were …sky-writing.

“Oh, you want a pen or pencil.”  I’d brought a pencil or two for journal entries, but they were tucked away in my luggage. And if I did decide to gift them, how would the throng divvy the booty up?

“Sorry,” I gestured. Sue and I turned to each other. “If we’d only known… we could have brought a bunch from home.” (Romance later explained that although school is compulsory up to the 5th grade, school districts are impoverished and parents are expected to provide basic supplies.)

When I reflect on most Americans’ privileged economic station, I’m reminded of my conversation with Luke just before we left for Madagascar. We all know that ecotourism can be a vehicle for improving the economic lot of those who lack the array of opportunities available to us. For this reason, I shouldn’t have been surprised by his chastising of me about my waffling over whether to hire a local guide at the spiny desert. A bit of Luke’s backstory is in order.  Following graduation from Harvard Law School, he interviewed with a number of firms, expressing the desire to specialize in what we now term environmental justice. One-by-one, the law firms responded that they had no such position, that representing the disenfranchised was a foreign concept to them. So, in 1989, he co-founded the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment with Ralph Abascal, a legendary poverty lawyer.

Luke understood better than anyone else I know that ecotourism can play a pivotal role in the protection of habitat. We’ve all seen the devastating effects of long-term commodities extraction; ecotourism can provide an incentive to protect what’s left. Furthermore, Luke grasped that a wide spectrum of people must benefit: not just tour companies, but a tapestry of folks that include the local guide that shares with travelers the wonders of coral reef, jungle, or desert.

Luke Cole was traveling with his wife on a rural road in western Uganda in June 2009 when a truck hit their vehicle head-on. His wife survived, but he did not. At the time of his death Luke served as counsel for the Native Village of Kivalina, Alaska, in its case seeking damages from greenhouse gas emitters and the impacts to their town due to  global warming. In 2009, he was given the American Bar Association Award for Excellence in Environmental, Energy, and Resources Stewardship. That someone with so much to give was lost at age 46 is a tragedy—one I’ve struggled to make sense of. But Luke truly “walked the walk.” His life of service to others is an inspiration, for it embodied the Malagasy proverb, “This is only half a pot of honey but my heart fills it up.”

Initially, I’d contacted Luke for everyday travel information, the kind sought by many who journey to “the Eighth Continent.” Although it was unsettling to be chastised by him during one of our final conversations, I’m grateful for his honesty in not mincing words that hiring a local guide was the right thing to do. The anger in his words stung at the time and their reverberations were instrumental in revealing an essential truth to me. That, ideally, traveling precipitates a journey that is at once without and within. And that a glimpse into the lives of others who aren’t as fortunate should engender empathy… and heighten our gratitude for the advantages we enjoy.

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  Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician.  His essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of  journals. His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com