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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Exploring Madagascar

Air Date: Week of

Journalist Dan Grossman talks with host Bruce Gellerman about finding new species on the magical island of Madagascar, which has more species of lemurs and orchids than anywhere else on the planet.


GELLERMAN: Environmental reporter Dan Grossman recently returned from his second trip to Madagascar. Located about 400 miles off Africa's southeast coast, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in world and considered one of the ecologically richest countries. In fact, most of the creatures there you won't find anywhere else on the planet, including 99 percent of the world's frogs and toads and all of the world's lemurs.

But Madagascar is one of the poorest nations in the world, which is part of the reason why less than 15 percent of its original forest cover remains. Slash and burn agricultural practices, use of firewood, and other human activities have devastated the island's forests.

A giraffe-necked weevil. (Photo: Dan Grossman)

Dan Grossman joins me. Welcome back, Dan. Why Madagascar? And, not once, but twice!

GROSSMAN: I went on several expeditions. One of them was quite amazing. This particular trip was organized by a biologist named Steve Goodman who's a mammal expert, and I'd like to play you a little part of a recording I made where he described to me some of the conditions that he's encountered on some of these expeditions.

GOODMAN: We would come to what formerly was just a small creek and there was this raging torrent where you couldn't imagine how you would ever get across it. And we would find someone with a canoe and we'd attach a rope to the other side of the river – either someone would swim across to attach the rope and, you know, person by person, different portions of equipment going across, get to the other side. Then walk to the next village, find another oxen cart, load the oxen cart, go to the next river. And so there's this long sequence and, with all of this, it was still pouring rain. It was difficult to make a fire to eat.

GELLERMAN: Boy, that sounds really rough!

GROSSMAN: Yeah, yeah. Well, the funny thing is, is that the best time to see the wildlife is the rainy season…that's the worst time to get around. Now, I'd like to play you a little piece of a recording I did with Patricia Wright who's a pretty famous lemur expert. And while I was there she actually discovered a new species of lemur. It hasn't been scientifically verified yet, but she believes it's a new species. And she describes what it was like looking for that new species.

WRIGHT: We had been tipped off by one of our Malagasy graduate students, Felix, who told us that he thought there were two kinds of fat-tailed dwarf lemurs in this forest. And I'd never seen one in the areas that I'd been. So, we took a darting team, a capture team, and we captured it, we took some samples, and weighed it and measured it and then released it the next morning. I sat there with this little animal in my hand thinking, 'my God, you know, it had been since 1986 that I'd really discovered a new species and here it was happening again.' Of course, the graduate student really is the one that discovered it. And then I suddenly realized there were 13 species of primates in this park. It was just a thrilling moment at 2:18 in the morning. It was amazing!


GELLERMAN: This tape that we're listening to now, those are the lemurs?

A black and white ruffed lemur (varecia). (Photo: Dan Grossman)

GROSSMAN: Yes. Lemurs don't exist anywhere else in the world. Madagascar is the only place where lemurs exist in the wild. And, what you're listening to is a, the scientific term is a varecia. It's also called a black and white ruffed lemur. This barking sound is just amazing. I went on one of these expeditions doing a survey of wildlife and it was in a steep little valley and these sounds were just echoing through the valley.


GELLERMAN: What a racket!

GROSSMAN: Yeah, yeah. It was amazing to hear those sounds; it was just amazing. Now, Steve Goodman told me a very interesting story about one time when he discovered a new micro-mammal. A micro-mammal is, you know, a small mammal, a little mouse-like or shrew-like thing.

GOODMAN: We're up at the summit of a maltan in northern Madagascar, a maltan called Agananawi (sp?). And, the summit is kind of this mystical place. Everything is covered with dripping moss and epiphytes. And, it was on the second or third morning after I had put out my traps. I remember the trap was on a branch that was covered with very, very thick moss. And I picked up the trap and it was clearly a very, very small animal. And, I thought, well, it's probably just a young of one of the larger rodents that occur in the forest. And, you know, it sounds a bit silly but I know the smell of these animals. And, I smelled the trap and it had a very strange smell. And I knew that it was something that I hadn't encountered before. Kind of opened the trap a little bit to see what was inside but I didn't want the thing to jump out. So, I, kind of, put the closed trap in my trap bag and with, you know, incredible anticipation went back to the camp and pulled it out of the trap. And, I had no idea what it was, absolutely no idea. In fact, it turned out to be not only a new species to science, but a new genus to science.

GELLERMAN: Dan, you know I remember looking at a National Geographic a few years ago and it had a couple of decades of satellite images of Madagascar and you could see the forests just shrinking. It was as if it was a lake that had just dried up.

GROSSMAN: Steve Goodman told me a really sad story about a colleague of his who discovered some new animals in a block of forest that he was visiting. And, he asked Steve Goodman if that when he was in that area if he could take some pictures of it to go with the scientific paper that the scientist was publishing. And so he went down there and when he got there, the forest had been cut. So, by the time the article was published the species that this researcher had discovered was extinct. So, it was supposed to be a paper about a new species that had been discovered. Instead it really was an article about a species that had just become extinct.

GELLERMAN: You going back to Madagascar?

GROSSMAN: As a matter of fact, I do intend to go back. I am working on a bunch of short radio pieces about the wildlife of Madagascar that I'm going to translate into Malagasy, which is the national language along with French. And, I'm hoping to go with a radio producer there around the country to play these pieces to kids in the towns that surround some of these forest areas. Because what people have told me is that people there don't really understand just how special the wildlife is. I mean, a lemur to them is like a gray squirrel to us. They don't realize that it only exists in Madagascar. So, the idea is that if they knew more about how special the wildlife there was that maybe they'd be a little bit more protective of it.

Newly discovered chameleon, found in the Marotandrano Special Reserve in northeastern Madagascar in November 2004. (Photo: Dan Grossman)

GELLERMAN: How do you say "thank you" in Malagasy?

GROSSMAN: Well, there are a lot of words in Malagasy where the word's kind of long and then they have various short versions. Uh, so you say, "misoutra" or "soutra" or "sout" depending on how fast you're trying to get away.

GELLERMAN: Then, sout. Environmental Reporter Dan Grossman.


[MUSIC: Eric Manana "Tsara Ny Hiran'ny Taniko" Gardens of Eden (Putomayo) 2001]



Dan Grossman Madagascar Special on WBUR


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