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Jungle Science and the Future of Conservation

Mireya Mayor in the field, on an expedition. Photo by Brent Stirton.

My love of science comes from many places. I am drawn to the adventure, the exploration, and the possibility of discovery. Like many scientists, my thirst for knowledge stems from an insatiable curiosity about the unknown. Unlike many scientists, my “laboratory” is far from civilization.

In an age of technology where information is consistently and almost instantly at our fingertips, we tend to forget that there are still many places around the world where there are no telephones, no running water, no electricity, and yes….no internet.

Mireya Mayor and British Explorer Benedict Allen talking to Maasai Warriors in Tanzania. Photo by Brent Stirton.

The animals that attract my curiosity are the ones we know least about, largely ignored, or unstudied, in part because of this remoteness. And yet their seclusion has not made them any less vulnerable to common extinction threats such as logging, mining and hunting. These animals are generally found only in far and remote parts of the world, often so remote, that many villagers had never seen a foreigner prior to my arrival.

But science in the jungle has its challenges, and it’s not just the bugs, snakes and malaria that are problematic.

Mireya Mayor holding a rescued capuchin monkey in Guyana, South America. Photo by Shawn Lehman.

My first expedition began in 1996 deep in the green abyss and impenetrable forests of Guyana in South America.

Near Death Experience

Despite a near death experience, running out of food in the middle of nowhere and being surrounded by gold miners who took off with all my gear, I fell in love. I fell in love with exploration and the unknown, in a way that I can only compare to that passion for it described in Dr. David Livingstone’s journals. The exploration bug had bit me and I needed more.

 

Mireya Mayor sitting on top of a tepuis in South America during a scientific expedition. Photo by Charlotte Mangin.

 

Shortly after the expedition that nearly claimed my life, I caught a glimpse of a Time Magazine article entitled “Death Row”. Surrounding that morbid title were the faces of creatures so fascinating and beautiful, I had to know more. Two of them, Perrier’s Sifaka and the Silky Sifaka stood out the most. They were depicted by simple line drawings, an oddity I thought since pictures of wildlife are generally abundant. I looked up the names of these two critically endangered lemurs the article all but eulogized, and found there were no pictures available, or any information for that matter.

These beautiful looking primates, close cousins of ours, were virtually extinct and we risked never knowing a thing about them. I started planning my expedition then and there to a far away island where biodiversity is virtually unsurpassed and critically endangered animals are the majority. Madagascar, the only place in the world where lemurs are found.

In 2000, I stood before these amazing creatures I had seen drawings of, but this time their charcoal red eyes beamed at me and the light of the hot sun glowing off their luxurious fur made them appear holy.

Like good researchers do, I documented their every move. What they ate, who they groomed, which trees they preferred and how much time they slept filled the pages of my waterproof notebooks.

But it suddenly struck me that this information was totally and completely useless if they were soon gone. I had to do something more than just create an activity budget for these animals. And that’s where my research interests took a turn. And the challenges became bountiful.

Up until that point I had led expeditions like the pioneering explorers of the past. I was happy to carry just a backpack, some notebooks, a sturdy pair of boots and passion. My flashlight was about the only piece of modern technology I indulged in. But I knew this wouldn’t be enough to save these animals. I quickly turned to the field of genetics.

The white lemur is the critically endangered Propithecus candidus (Silky Sifaka). Photo taken by Mireya Mayor during the first genetic and long term study of this animal.
The black lemur is the critically endangered Propithecus perrieri (Perrier's Sifaka). Photo taken by Mireya Mayor during the first genetic and long term study of this animal.

With colleagues and a Malagasy crew, we began to capture these lemurs in order to obtain blood and tissue samples. These were necessary to prove what we came to discover as a result of our studies.

These majestic animals were not just mere subspecies we might lose, they were genetically and morphologically unique and distinct species that desperately needed our help.

And therein lies the dilemma of jungle science. Genetic studies require utmost sterility, much like the labs in which the samples are processed. Jungle conditions where animals are laying on tarps or rice sacks on the jungle floor, when my hands have not been properly washed for weeks and keeping anything clean and dry verges on impossible, are less than ideal circumstances for this research.

Mireya Mayor and Dr. Pat Wright obtaining genetic samples from the critically endangered Silky Sifaka in northeastern Madagascar. Photo byPeter Tyson.

 

Contamination is a real problem for looking at things like chromosome numbers which is crucial in distinguishing species. Some of these samples need to be contained and frozen in nitrogen tanks which need to be refilled often, and are not easy to lug in waist-deep swamps if you are carry them out in time. Plain and simple, the jungle is a breeding ground for everything you would keep out of a sterile environment.

Then there’s the fact that all of these valuable samples have to be exported and processed in other parts of the world. It may sound hard to believe, but blood vials in your luggage are not always received well at customs. This delays the process even further when they are held up in some airport storage room, sometimes deteriorating and leaving them unusable.

In my view, there is also the moral dilemma of taking these samples out of their originating country. In all fairness, the options are limited when it comes to this. Electricity is scarce in most parts and finding running water is tough. Finding a laboratory with thousands of dollars worth of equipment suitable to process the samples is impossible in a country where the average salary is less than $250.00/year.

Or is it?

Much to my heart’s content, nestled in the heart of one of the most beautiful rainforests in Madagascar is a five-story, 15,000-square-foot multipurpose building scheduled to open in July 2012. Named Namanabe “Friendship” Hall, it will serve as a combined research facility, residence hall, and conference center for students and scientists.

 

Photo of the Centre Valbio by Dede Randrianarista.

 

Construction of Namanabe Hall by Noel Rowe.

This new facility, which will make studies like my genetic analysis possible in Madagascar, is part of the existing Centre Valbio (CVB), a world-class research station sited on the edge of Madagascar’s beautiful and abundant Ranomafana National Park. It is the first of its kind and spearheading the kind of sophisticated science biologists are able to undertake in the field.

CVB was created by my former graduate advisor Dr. Patricia Wright in 2003, to help both indigenous people and the international community better understand the value of conservation in Madagascar and around the world.

Conservation is only effective when it meets people’s real needs. CVB’s mission encourages environmental conservation by developing ecologically sustainable economic development programs with local villages. The research here is done in collaboration with the villagers, and is creating jobs and opportunities for the people whose lands are yielding breakthrough discoveries.

 

Pat Wright with the villagers. Photo by Mitch Irwin.

Green Design

In accordance with its mission, the building is also a model for “green” design.

Namanabe Hall is being constructed without the removal of any vegetation or significant modification of the existing site, thus upholding Centre ValBio’s mission of encouraging environmental conservation and preserving biodiversity. Featuring an innovative wedge shape that fits neatly into its delicate rainforest surroundings, Namanabe Hall blends seamlessly with the topography and nearby buildings, courtyard, and road.

I’m also going to note that The Hall is being built with locally sourced granite, brick, and concrete, and will offer many energy-saving features, such as a habitable planted roof and systems for grey water recycling, solar hot water, natural cooling, and enhanced daylighting.

Rooms designated as sleeping areas have non-load-bearing walls to allow future flexibility in reconfiguring the building to meet changing needs. The rooms are situated around a central area, similar to dwellings in local villages, to encourage socializing and the exchange of knowledge.

The building will also feature several verandas, affording residents additional opportunities to socialize and commune with nature. Best way to love something is to know it, right?

 

Mireya Mayor with Tatersall's sifaka and a boy ("education is so important"). Photo by Roland Wolff.

 

Hundreds of sweat bees around Mireya Mayor. Photo by Paul Paragon.

With CVB’s Namanabe Hall’s doors opening soon, it seems that my days of Livingstone-like genetic sampling, had that been possible then, will meet a modern fate. And empowering the local people who hold the future of Madagascar’s biological treasures is the ultimate example of conservation forward.

I think it’s safe to say that at long last, the future of conservation in a monetarily impoverished but biologically rich country is foreseeable. Now I can concentrate on the bugs.

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