First full day on the reserve. After a somewhat fitful night of sleep (3 inch thick foam mattress on a straw mat on a 10 x 10 foot wooden floor will do that to you), we awoke at 5, no help required. Having gone to sleep at 7pm one is actually ready to get up at 5. Not to mention the cacophony of ‘song’ being chanted repeatedly by all type of birds and frogs in the surrounding forest.
We began with a Lemur walk along the forest trail and lucked out 3/4 of the way through when our eagle eyed guide Rene, (with a Bruno Mars smile) caught sight of a group of 7 of these curious creatures (not to be confused with the Canadian artist Group of Seven) playing in the treetops. Already a bonus according to Réné and fellow US volunteer Kyla, who claim that they are not so fortunate to see them everyday.
Back to camp, breakfast of rice and beans, pineapple, papaya, peanut butter and banana prepped by our 19 year old Malagasy cook, Shawna.
Partner of Shulu, one of two camp guardians hired to do some of the heavier work on the reserve (filling water tanks with buckets of water schlepped from the river for example) as well as paddling weekly boat loads of food and other supplies up river and patrolling the beach for sea turtles at night. Oh yes, did I mention that the reserves stunning southern border is the Indian Ocean? Not bad for daily swims and nighttime strolls….so, back to work.
1st official task: weeding!!! Pulling all the intruding growth out of the recently planted vegetable garden. No sweat-right at home with that one. Then joined Bruce, Kyla, and Rene planting seeds collected from the forest floor into little black plastic bags where they will hopefully germinate.
Old pros, as we had done the same in the Ecuadorian jungle a few years ago. Never know when those obscure skills might come in handy.
Break for lunch: rice, white beans, fruit, etc
Afternoon task: more potting until 4:30, when we were interrupted by a commotion near the kitchen – one of the staff reporting a sea turtle sighting on the beach. Definite cause for excitement. The entire staff, Kyla, followed by Bruce and myself (strategically changing into bathing suits before heading to the water and therefore lagging slightly behind), run the path to arrive on the scene: a small crowd gathered in a circle around a large struggling turtle anxious to return to the water, while being physically held back so that the ‘fasas’ (us white folk) could take photos of this elusive creature.
Once done, the she turtle is finally released (on Kyla’s increasing insistence) to make its way back into the sea, all caught on video by Bruce for repeated viewing and posterity.
Tuns out that the she turtle had been up on the grassier banks most likely trying to lay her eggs. Turtles by instinct return to the same area they were born to prepare a nest, lay their eggs, then return to the sea. Roughly 80 to120 at a time, up to a dozen times a year. One in a thousand survive. The predators are many, from birds to man. Only a handful survive to maturity.
I now become aware of the presence of four fisherman, one who appears to be the elder and perhaps leader of the group, in discussion with Rene. In his hands a net which I fear he might have been using to capture the turtle. The others are carrying fish and oysters and intently following the discussion. Apparently our guardians had interrupted his attempt to capture the turtle and bring it back to Fort Dauphin where he claimed it would fetch 400,000 ariary. ($160CDN). The turtle meat would have been cut up and distributed amongst 100 people. Before we arrived they had appealed to him to let it go. Clearly he was upset that by so doing we had just cost him and his family considerable unexpected income. Several of the group tried to educate him on the importance of conservation of the species which are endangered, and by disturbing it we had prevented it from laying its eggs. Not to mention that he was on private property and that turtle killing is illegal. Clearly not his main concern. We were also surprised to learn that turtle meat is not even considered a delicacy, just another form of meat, the flavour of which the villagers do not even particularly like. Finding the turtle was a bonus, not something he had sought out.
As I watched the conversation become less and less productive and more and more removed from this old man’s reality, I appealed to the others to approach the situation from an entirely different angle: Acknowledge that we had kiboshed his plan and thus forfeited his fortune and asking what we could do to compensate. This is when he told us he could get good money for the meat. While we were in no position nor had any intention of meeting his 400,000 ariary request, we asked if he would accept a smaller amount in good faith, in exchange for his agreement to desist from trying to capture the turtle with a plan to meet up again to have a dialogue about how he and other villagers could work together with the reserve and possibly earn income as a guide or beach patroller etc..
He seemed to like this idea. I noted that he had kindness in his eyes. Without hesitation he and Bruce extended hands and handshakes were exchanged between myself, Bruce, Rene, Kyla, and his 3 cohorts. A promise to meet on the beach the next morning at 8AM, same location. All smiled, reasonably content with the outcome and we parted ways. He joined the two basket carrying woman respectfully waiting a bit further ahead on the beach. Relieved, we stood around for a bit and discussed the pros and cons of what happened. Staff and Kyla returned to camp, Bruce and I peeled off our clothes and plunged into the awaiting ocean.
Dinner conversation centred around the event of the day and whether we had handled it well. Kyla was still feeling stressed for the turtle who she was concerned might not return to make her nest. Bruce and I were happy the turtle was alive and that the fisherman seemed genuine in his pledge. We all acknowledged the fact that no threats or accusations were made and all had taken place in a friendly and respectful manner.
The follow in morning Bruce and Rene set off as planned. As agreed, the fisherman was at the designated spot waiting. They learned that he and the others come to the beach regularly to fish for oysters and that he has been doing so for 40 years. He is the father of 7 children, who attend school. Although he is known in the nearby village he is actually from the larger city of Fort Dauphin.
To our delight and surprise, he is interested in the idea of conservation and working with the reserve by monitoring the beach and performing other tasks. More than money and sea turtles, he would most like to be compensated with fishing equipment, snorkels, masks, etc…items that would help him in his efforts to catch oysters, his life’s work which he knows so well.
Moral of the story: if there is any hope for Madagascar, it must begin with a trust and understanding of the local population’s customs and needs. There is no ‘right or wrong’ .
One cannot expect people whose lives have continued the same ways for generations, to understand or buy into the notion of conservation if it impinges negatively on their lifestyle and livelihood. The concept of long term is foreign when one trying to survive and feed his family day to day. Easy for the conservation minded to come in and take over, believing they are doing something positive for the planet. There are always trade offs. There are always consequences, not all positive. The commonality is our humanity. We are all built with the same physiology and set of emotions. Trust is key. Respect is key. Equal exchange of ideas and listening is key. There is a way. But it takes time. And patience. And commitment.