Reminiscing through a journal I kept on a lemur behavioral research job in Madagascar, an entry I wrote during a rest from navigating through the dense rainforest brought it all back…the smell, the sights and sounds of the jungle…the feeling of awe that never went away…
“9:03 am (in wildlife behavioral studies, everything is to the minute – if not to the second)
Being out here in the rainforest is just miraculous! I’m engulfed in dense forest…surrounded by wildlife. It’s absolute heaven on earth. Sounds are coming from everywhere, from all species of all sizes. Things are scuttling around and across me right now.
Life is everywhere here!
A local named Manjakanony is teaching me the names of everything, and showing me how to walk in the forest – where to step or not step, especially on dangerous, wet, muddy precipices. And he would know; the locals are all barefoot, even here in the jungle.
How they do it, I do not know!
In bare feet, they glide as if floating over all the brambles, stumps and protruding roots while I, in my ridiculously new hiking boots, stumble over everything because I need to watch where I step but keep forgetting to look down because I can’t stop gaping at everything around me.
Wildlife is everywhere – from high in the canopy to right at my feet on the forest floor. Lemurs are swinging overhead, landing on branches right in front me, staring me down as if I’m the research subject instead of the other way around.
My God, they are majestic and amazing! I can’t look directly at them while they’re looking at me; I have to peek from the side of an eye while pretending to look elsewhere.
So funny! Because I know they know I’m peeking. But I must study their behavior without causing them to change it by my own behavior…
I’m learning what to grab onto for support, and what to stay away from. I learned this lesson very quickly after grabbing onto a spiky vine that poked painful holes into my palm. I was about to slide down a hill I couldn’t see the bottom of, so grabbing the spikes seemed like the lesser of 2 deaths!
Some vines look so thick and sturdy that as we pick our way through the dense growth, I keep grabbing them only to have them break off in my hand as I tumble down a slope. This is the hilliest rainforest ever! And apparently, I am more entertaining than the lemurs because even though we’re supposed to whisper to remain as unobtrusive as possible (fat chance with me snapping vines and sliding down every slope), Manjakanony laughs out loud every time I fall.
But I am big time grateful for his knowledgeable presence. I’m fast learning just how vital locals are to field work; it literally could not be done without them. Minus their deep knowledge about and familiarity with their forests and wildlife, this type of study couldn’t be done.
The locals know where to find the animals (I wasted a whole day on my own, mostly crawling, cursing, and sliding through mud on my ass, without spotting even one lemur), how to follow them (note to self: eat more Wheaties! Lemurs move like lightning – am already battered, bruised and bleeding from only a few hours of crashing through the jungle trying to keep up), and what their vocalizations mean. It’s truly mind-boggling, the depth and breadth of the local’s knowledge of the forests and wildlife.
At first, the local’s own vocalizations were as mysterious to me as the lemurs. But I’ve gotten used to the sounds of their words now. They’re beginning to become familiar, and the associations, clear. I even catch myself wondering how it was that I couldn’t understand anything before.
I bet they feel the same way!
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