Widening the lens in Madagascar

It has been nearly 15 years since I first traveled to Madagascar, and my work through San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) focusing on red ruffed lemurs (Varecia rubra) began in October 2017. During all of the years I have worked on the island, following lemur species from dawn to dusk, and sometimes dusk to dawn, I never once saw an elusive fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), Madagascar’s largest carnivore and feared predator of lemurs!

This species is relatively common to see in the western, dry deciduous forest habitats, often loitering around research and tourist camps, but in the eastern rainforests, they are among the most difficult species to observe.

San Diego Zoo Global’s main research site in Madagascar is Andranobe, situated in the lowland rainforest of Masoala National Park in the northeast. A couple weeks into my first trip there, I spotted my first fossa, meandering along the rocky shoreline of the nearby river. I was amazed, and just stood in silence as it scent-marked a tree on the opposite side of the narrow river.

The momentary sight of this animal made my heart race, and then lo and behold, a second fossa appeared and moved nonchalantly towards me. It lowered itself at the edge of the river, no more than 15 feet from me, lapping up an early afternoon drink in the shallows and monitoring the immediate area, including me! I still kick myself for forgetting my camera that day, but the memory of that 20 minute experience with two fossa in the rainforest will be etched in my mind forever. 

Since that day two years ago, I have not seen another fossa at Andranobe or elsewhere in eastern Madagascar. But, that does not mean they do not slink through the underbrush undetected: as part of our species and habitat monitoring program, we have created a grid of camera traps across the entire Andranobe research site, a wonderful gift donated by the SDZG Ocelots. These cameras allow us determine both the density and distribution of the most cryptic and elusive fauna in one of the few lowland primary rainforests remaining in Madagascar.

In addition to fossa, which are regularly recorded (even on camera traps near our research camp!), we often find photographs of other euplurid carnivores, including Malagasy civet (Fossa fossana), three different mongoose species, locally known as vontsira (Salanoia concolorGalidia elegans, and Galidictis fasciata), and the eastern fanalouc (Eupleres goudotii). Many of these species are relatively common throughout Madagascar’s rainforests, however, the brown-tailed vontsira (S. concolor) has been the subject of relatively little research. Based on the frequent occurrence of this species within our current photo dataset, it would appear that Andranobe has a very high density compared to other sites where camera traps studies have been undertaken. 

In addition to Andranobe, we also collaborate at the Ampasy Research Site in Tsitongambarika, a lowland rainforest in southeast Madagascar. We have created a similar camera trap grid here, not only to monitor the region’s native fauna, but also to understand the pressures that may be inflicted by exotic species. These include Indian civets (Viverricula indica), bushpigs (Potamochoerus larvatus), and even feral cats and dogs! These animals can cause great harm to natural ecosystems, and so being able to monitor where they are and how they are affecting native fauna is critical for conservation.

It is only with these camera traps, an increasingly common conservation research tool, that we are able to obtain this important information on both the cryptic and exotic species present at our research sites. Furthermore, this passive method of data collection runs nonstop, even now in the midst of a pandemic that has stalled much field research around the world, our camera traps are continuing to monitor the faunal diversity of Andranobe and Ampasy. As such, it is important to remember that while Madagascar tends to be synonymous with lemurs, there is an incredible diversity of non-lemur fauna that inhabit this unique island and are important for conservation.

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