The Tsiribihina River

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We float down Willy Wonka's chocolate river in a dugout canoe powered by two young Malagasy men. This murky river is the Tsiribihina, which flows from the center of the island to the Mozambique Channel on the West Coast of the island. Along the sandbanks children play in the water, swimming towards us as we float past. The people that live along this river rely on it for bathing, drinking and washing. They literally dip their toothbrush in to brush their teeth. Woman wash clothes and men fish. 

The river's color comes from the top soil that washes in as the forests are burned for charcoal and small scale farming. Tobacco plants are grown along the water's edge. 

The scenery changes almost as drastically as the weather. Large rock formations tower over us, vegetation dripping down the cliffs. Iguanas bask on rocks and bats sleep within the cracks high above the river. Around the bend the rocks are gone and tall grasses grow along sandbanks at the edge of the water. Large chameleons cling to plants and watch us row past. Purple flowers bloom from aquatic plants that we float past. 

 
 Four days worth of food, camping equipment and all of our belongings are packed tightly into the the pirogue. This included live chickens. 

Four days worth of food, camping equipment and all of our belongings are packed tightly into the the pirogue. This included live chickens. 

 We found this bird floating along the river, it most likely was caught in the rainstorm. 

We found this bird floating along the river, it most likely was caught in the rainstorm. 

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In this murky water lies the only dangerous reptile in Madagascar, the Nile Crocodile. Although this is the same species that is found in Eastern Africa, it stays smaller here, averaging 9 feet (compared to 16 feet on the mainland). In one village, we are told that several children are lost to crocodiles each year. This doesn't stop our rowers from occasionally hopping out of the pirogue to cool off. 

I fall asleep floating in the hot sun and wake up as the sky turns dark. Thunder crashes in the distance. We rush to cover all of our belongings with large blue plastic bags as a storm approaches. I clutch my electronics to my chest inside of my raincoat and hide out under the umbrella as the rain began to come down. Within a few minutes, we are floating 6 inches from the river in a full storm with all of our belongings. The piroguiers keep rowing as the rain falls harder. 

The storm soon passes and we stop for lunch under a large mango tree that stands alone in a grassy field. The large trees that have survived the large scale deforestation seem to be an oasis for wildlife. Geckos hide under the bark and iguanas bask in the sun. I lay under the tree and spot a tiny snake wedged in the bark of the tree about 8 ft up. As I am figuring out how to get a closer look at the reptile, a local quickly climbs the tree and knocks the snake down into my hands. Although there are no dangerous snakes on the island, most people seem to be afraid of them. Our guides won't even touch them. 

Before long, children have gathered and watch attentively as I hold the tiny reptile in my hand. Instinctively they want to swat it and squeeze it. Without words, we practice snake handling techniques together. After a few minutes, they begin to gain the courage to touch it and quickly learn to hold the snake with open hands. By the time we leave, even the most shy kids are proudly holding the snake. 

Both adults and children find themselves absorbed in my almost 500 page Field Guide to Amphibians & Reptiles of Madagascar. We sit in the sand and flip through together. I explain the range maps and show people what they can find in the area. They take photos of pages and I think about how so many people don't have access to the information about the animals that live in their own backyards.

For my next trip to Madagascar I want to create simple "field guides" that spotlight species from specific areas to help create an appreciation for the creatures found where one comes from. I am looking for collaborators for this project: artists, translators (Malagasy and potentially French) and funders. If you're interested in helping me bring this herp guide to life, please contact me at Hello@lickyoureyeballs.com. 

 Practicing snake handling techniques with local children. 

Practicing snake handling techniques with local children. 

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 Spiny-tailed Iguana,  Oplurus cuvieri . 

Spiny-tailed Iguana, Oplurus cuvieri

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 Silvan, one of the rowers catching an Oustalet's chameleon spotted from the canoe. 

Silvan, one of the rowers catching an Oustalet's chameleon spotted from the canoe. 

 Geckos take refuge under the bark of trees. Phelsuma Sp. 

Geckos take refuge under the bark of trees. Phelsuma Sp. 

 Spiny-tailed Iguana,  Oplurus cuvieri . 

Spiny-tailed Iguana, Oplurus cuvieri

 Here I am with the worst sunburn of my life and two iguanas. 

Here I am with the worst sunburn of my life and two iguanas. 

 Oustalets's chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti.

Oustalets's chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti.

 Our rowers were also the musical entertainment for the people of the villages were passed through.

Our rowers were also the musical entertainment for the people of the villages were passed through.

 Notice the visible deforestation and the few large tree that have survived.

Notice the visible deforestation and the few large tree that have survived.

"House" Day Geckos

 Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma quadriocellata), Ranomafana. 

Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma quadriocellata), Ranomafana. 

Text & Photos by Audra Barrios

We have spent most of the day hiking in the jungle. Land leeches reach up from the ground trying to hitch a ride like earthworms standing on their tippy toes.  Exhausted, we stop to rest in an abandoned shelter with maps of the reserve's trails on the walls. I rest my arms across the table and a bright green gecko approaches me. It begins to lick my hands that are sticky from snacking on lychee fruits all day. I have a couple left, so I slowly pull a red fruit from my pocket and peel off its skin. I hold the juicy fruit out to the gecko and it climbs right up. 

 Hatchling Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) living in the potted plants at the hotel in Ranomafana. 

Hatchling Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) living in the potted plants at the hotel in Ranomafana. 

There seem to be those animals that have learned to survive in human alterd environments. They find shelter in the cracks between tiles of the wall. They eat crumbs off the floor and steal from the table when you aren't looking. For some of us, those animals are rats and pigeons. In Madagascar, several species of day geckos have adapted to the human life. They roam the walls of the restaurants, licking sweets being sold in baskets.

 Hatchling day gecko found on the hotel wall, Ifaty.

Hatchling day gecko found on the hotel wall, Ifaty.

Madagascar is home to about 70 species (and subspecies) of day geckos. Each different region of the island has its own species that are adapted to the area's unique conditions, with the species of geckos in human dwellings varying from region to region. 

Lined Day Geckos (Phelsuma lineata) are found throughout the humid forest on the east side of the island. They run behind the toilet when you walk into the bathroom, and catch moths by waiting for them next to lights. These are behavioral adaptions that has helped them succeed in the human  environment. 

In Ranomafana rainforest region, Lined Day Geckos are joined by two species of Peacock Day Geckos (P. quadriocellata & P. parva) sharing the same buildings. The two peacock day geckos have been separated into two distinct species. P. parva is smaller and has red stripes along it's side and is more readily found in the human environment than in the jungle. 

 Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma quadriocellata). Ranomafana. 

Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma quadriocellata). Ranomafana. 

In the hot, dry southwest region, the Thick Tail Day Gecko (P. mutabilis) is the "house gecko."  They are not a brightly colored day gecko, but grey to brown, occasionally with a bright blue tail. The range of their natural habitat is huge, extending across most of the west side of the island. 

In the Spiny Forest, there are three species of day geckos taking shelter on human made structures: Standings Day Geckos (P. standingi), Modest Day Geckos (P. modesta) and Thick Tail Day Geckos (Phelsuma mutabilis).  

 Thick Tail Day Gecko (Phelsuma mutabilis), Salary. 

Thick Tail Day Gecko (Phelsuma mutabilis), Salary. 

Although Standings Day Geckos are commonly found in buildings, their populations aren't thriving. They are listed as Vulnerable, meaning that their population is small enough that extinction is highly likely if conservation actions aren't taken (1). 

Why haven't Standing's Day Geckos been able to grow their populations, even though they seem to have adapted to the human environment? They are more than twice the size of any other Phelsuma "house gecko," meaning they require more food. Does this lead to more competition and perhaps there aren't sufficient resources to support populations of these larger geckos?

In captivity, they pair bond. Does this somehow affect their ability to reproduce in the wild? 

Most animals aren't able to modify their habitat or behavior to successfully live in altered environments. Species are going extinct every day. What behavioral changes do animals make to live with humans? What traits have allowed them to thrive? Leave a comment with your thoughts. 

 Vohimana Reserve. 

Vohimana Reserve. 

 Can you spot the day geckos behind the bar? 

Can you spot the day geckos behind the bar? 

 Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) in a Pandanus plant in the forest in the Andasibe region. 

Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) in a Pandanus plant in the forest in the Andasibe region. 

 Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) in it's new "natural" environment, the bathroom. Ranomafana.

Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) in it's new "natural" environment, the bathroom. Ranomafana.

 Standing's Day Gecko (Phelsuma standingi) on a building, where we most commonly spotted them. Ifaty.

Standing's Day Gecko (Phelsuma standingi) on a building, where we most commonly spotted them. Ifaty.

 Thick Tail Day Gecko (Phelsuma mutabilis), Salary.

Thick Tail Day Gecko (Phelsuma mutabilis), Salary.

 Two species of day geckos sharing this parking sign in Mangily: Phelsuma mutabilis and Phelsuma modesta. 

Two species of day geckos sharing this parking sign in Mangily: Phelsuma mutabilis and Phelsuma modesta. 

 Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) on the counter of a restaurant. Andasibe. 

Lined Day Gecko (Phelsuma lineata) on the counter of a restaurant. Andasibe. 

 Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma parva), Ranomafana. 

Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma parva), Ranomafana. 

Phelsuma bloopers:

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(1) Raxworthy, Christopher. "Extinction and extinction vulnerability of amphibians and reptiles in Madagascar." Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. December 1997: 15-23. 

 

The Tortoise Village, Madagascar

 Radiated tortoises ( Astrochelys radiata).

Radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata).

Photos & Text By Audra Barrios

Inside the dry spiny forest of Ifaty in southern Madagascar there is a sandy sanctuary that is home to over 1,000 tortoises. These are tortoises that were confiscated from poachers and smugglers, many in airports en route to Asia, where they were destined for the world's pet trade. Others were collected to be sold in the markets for food.

Confiscated tortoises are brought to the village to be rehabilitated before being released into monitored areas or placed into breeding projects (4). The Village des Tortues houses some of these breeding programs in enclosures that are built around the native spiny plants that provide shade to the animals. Wild lizards move freely in and out of these enclosures, also benefiting from the protected area built for tortoises. 

 Entrance to the tortoise village. 

Entrance to the tortoise village. 

Madagascar is home to four species of tortoises found nowhere else in the world. 

Due to habitat loss and the demand for tortoises for food & the pet trade, all four species have been listed as critically endangered. 

Extreme poverty affects sixty percent of the people of Madagascar. Scarcity of food has lead to massive deforestation as habitats are burnt to plant crops. Only 2% of the original spiny forest remains (3). At the end of 2016, the southern region of the island was on the edge of famine (1) so everything, including tortoises is food.  

Tortoises were not always eaten, as most of the tribes within the Radiated Tortoise's range still consider it taboo to harm them. However, as people migrate, so do customs. It's thought that the majority of poaching is done by people that are not originally from the region (3).

Although the Radiated Tortoise native range is the southern part of the island, we found them as pets in gardens throughout the country. They are traditionally kept in pens with ducks and chickens as a means of warding off poultry diseases (2). Rabbits, birds, lemurs, chameleons and dogs are also commonly kept as pets throughout the island. 

In one dusty hotel there was a tortoise walking down the narrow corridor between buildings. "Good morning tortoise," I said out loud to the radiated tortoise walking across the cement. A scream came from down the corridor. Looking out further I could see a large wire cage with fingers sticking out. I climbed out the window to get a better look -  two lemurs were living in the cage. 

 This Radiated Tortoise was living behind our hotel in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina.

This Radiated Tortoise was living behind our hotel in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina.

 Our tortoise village guide shows us an adult male Radiated Tortoise from a breeding group. Notice the bottom is concave - the male's shell is shaped like this for mounting the female.  Astrochelys radiata.

Our tortoise village guide shows us an adult male Radiated Tortoise from a breeding group. Notice the bottom is concave - the male's shell is shaped like this for mounting the female. Astrochelys radiata.

 Captive breeding results: Baby tortoise napping in the sun. 

Captive breeding results: Baby tortoise napping in the sun. 

 Elegant Mabuyas,  Trachylepis elegans.

Elegant Mabuyas, Trachylepis elegans.

Spiny Tailed Iguanas bask on tree trunks inside of tortoise enclosures. Chameleons watch us from above, moving from tree to tree. On the ground, underneath dry shrubs, there are slender skinks with red stripes on their necks called Elegant Mabuyas, Trachylepis elegans. They move through the leaf litter, occasionally stopping to wave their front legs around. Could it be to move the ground cover to scare out potential prey? 

 Spiny tail iguana, O plurus cyclurus.

Spiny tail iguana, Oplurus cyclurus.

 CHAMELEON,  Furcifer  spp.

CHAMELEON, Furcifer spp.

 Tortoises finishing up lunch. 

Tortoises finishing up lunch. 

 These insects change color as they grow. 

These insects change color as they grow. 

 The tortoise vet clinic 

The tortoise vet clinic 

 Madagascar Ground Gecko, ( Paroedura picta ). This gecko was found sleeping in a basket.

Madagascar Ground Gecko, (Paroedura picta). This gecko was found sleeping in a basket.

At the end of our walk through the tortoise village, there is a small nature center with posters on the wall showing other reptiles found on the property, including a photo the Madagascar Ground Gecko, Paroedura picta. I inquired with our guide, pointing to the photo. He laughed and said 'there is probably one in the office now. ' He shuffled a few things underneath a desk, and sure enough, there was one asleep in a basket! 

There are a handful of dedicated people who are working hard to ensure the survival of tortoises. Without intervention, it was estimated that viable populations of Radiated Tortoises will be extinct in the wild within 45 years. (2) Their cousin up north is in even worse shape: 

fewer than 100 Ploughshare Tortoises are left in the wild. 

 Meeting a tiny tortoise that hatched at the tortoise village. tortoises are bred to be released back into the wild into protected or monitored areas. In the background is the enclosure where this baby lives.  

Meeting a tiny tortoise that hatched at the tortoise village. tortoises are bred to be released back into the wild into protected or monitored areas. In the background is the enclosure where this baby lives.  

For this large species of tortoise (Geochelone yniphora), it's the global demand for these rare animals that is driving them to extinction. Hundreds (probably thousands) of Malagasy tortoises are seized every year en route to the worldwide pet trade- how many make it through without anyone knowing? Several years ago a shipment with hundreds of tortoises was stopped in an airport in Thailand. This illegal shipment contained 54 Ploughshare Tortoises. At the time, that would have been 10% of the entire species left on the planet (6). This continues daily. 

Supporting conservation projects such as le Village des Tortues will ensure the survival of biodiversity. Over the next few months, I will introduce you to other conservation projects happening in Madagascar and ways we can help from home. 

If you are already working with any species from Madagascar in captivity, especially threatened and endangered animals, you have the responsibility to try to establish assurance populations in captivity in case we loose them in the wild.

And, please do not purchase wild caught animals as pets as it can be extremely difficult to know where they actually came from. 

 


Bibliography

(1) http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/12/05/504164887/drought-stricken-southern-madagascar-teeters-on-the-edge-of-famine

(2) http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/9014/0

(3) http://www.turtlesurvival.org/component/taxonomy/term/summary/21/45#.WdO3Na2ZOT8

(4) http://www.villagetortues.com/m/fr/presentation11/5/38/

(5) https://news.mongabay.com/2017/05/more-than-300-smuggled-tortoises-seized-in-malaysia/

(6) https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/poachers-tortoise/

Tsingy De Bemaraha National Park

One Day In Madagascar

Photos & Text by Audra Barrios

 Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, one of Madagascar's largest protected areas. 

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, one of Madagascar's largest protected areas. 

 Our jeep was loaded onto a ferry to cross the river, as there are no bridges. Notice the red river. It's colored by the soil that has washed down from where forests once stood.   

Our jeep was loaded onto a ferry to cross the river, as there are no bridges. Notice the red river. It's colored by the soil that has washed down from where forests once stood.

 

I wake up to a sting on my arm. Without opening my eyes, I roll over and swat at my arm only to be stung again on my hand.  I sit up quickly and feel around the dark tent for my headlamp and glasses. It takes me a second to find the culprit: a tiny scorpion, the size of dime. I put it into a cup so that we could ID it if I started to react badly to the venom.

What would I even do if I reacted badly? I am sleeping in a hot tent in a mango grove next to a village so small, there wasn't even a market. We crossed two rivers on boats to get here, because there are no bridges. The dirt roads we spent hours traveling on don't show up on maps. I am in the middle of nowhere and aching from scorpion venom making it's way though my arm. My mind races as I lay back down and pull my sarong over me. I am afraid to fall asleep, worried I might have an allergic reaction to the venom that is making my hand throb. Eventually sleep finds me.

    A collared iguana,  Oplurus cuvieri , one of 7 species of Iguanidae from Madagascar. 

 A collared iguana, Oplurus cuvieri, one of 7 species of Iguanidae from Madagascar. 

The next morning, our Malagasy guide Coco, a large man with dreadlocks and tattoos wakes us early. My arm aches and I feel slightly nauseous, but ready to go. We eat a breakfast of French bread, jelly, tea and mangos. There are so many mangos that the air is sweet and the ground is sticky. Children throw them into the river. Dogs chew them. 

We load up into the jeep as the world around us begins to wake up. The road is one lane of sandy soil surrounded by dry forest. The bumpy car ride and early morning lulls me to sleep. It isn't long before our car rolls off the road and everyone that was sitting next to me is on top of me. Our driver has taken a curve to quickly and our car is briefly stuck on it's side with two wheels spinning in the air. He is able to un-flip the jeep and we continued on our way. 

 The mango grove where we were camped. When the wind blows, you quickly learn to shield your head because the mangos fall hard. This mango grove was filled with reptiles. 

The mango grove where we were camped. When the wind blows, you quickly learn to shield your head because the mangos fall hard. This mango grove was filled with reptiles. 

 Vegetation growing up the wall of the tsingy. 

Vegetation growing up the wall of the tsingy. 

 Our car troubles didn't stop there. On the way back, our jeep broke down and we had to abandon it, some riding on the roof of another car to get back to the village. 

Our car troubles didn't stop there. On the way back, our jeep broke down and we had to abandon it, some riding on the roof of another car to get back to the village. 

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When we arrive to the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, we are equipped with harnesses. We begin our hike through a dry forest, leaves crunch under our feet. Praying mantises and chameleons camouflage in the brush. A group of crowned lemurs moves through the vegetation that has grown around the rock formations. Day geckos watch us from high above in the trees. Giant blue snails and millipedes with bright red legs also call this place home. Fossils of their ancestors are imbedded in the limestone. 

 View looking up from cave inside the Tsingy at the forest maving it's way in. 

View looking up from cave inside the Tsingy at the forest maving it's way in. 

Some of the critters from Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park & immediate surroundings: 

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 millipede or isopod? 

millipede or isopod? 

  Zonosaurus laticaudatus  living in the leaf litter of the mango grove. 

Zonosaurus laticaudatus living in the leaf litter of the mango grove. 

 Giant Day Gecko,  Phelsuma madagascariensis . One two species of phelsuma seen here. 

Giant Day Gecko, Phelsuma madagascariensis. One two species of phelsuma seen here. 

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 This frog was living in the outhouse. 

This frog was living in the outhouse. 

 A collared iguana,  Oplurus cuvier , eating lunch at the small tsingy. 

A collared iguana, Oplurus cuvier, eating lunch at the small tsingy. 

  Zonosaurus madagascariensis  sunning in the Little Tsingy.

Zonosaurus madagascariensis sunning in the Little Tsingy.

I flip on my headlight as we make our way into a cave that sparkles. At the end of the cave, it opens up to the sun. There is a steel ladder, at the top we clip our harnesses to the cable and begin our ascent to the top of these jagged rocks. We climb up, over and through the formations along suspension bridges and stairs carved into the rock. Twisted Euphorbias, plants covered in spines grow in the crevics. 

 At the end of the cave we emerged here, ready to climb up to the top of the Tsingy.

At the end of the cave we emerged here, ready to climb up to the top of the Tsingy.

   This was one day

of 50 on the island. For the past 10 years I have worked with animals from Madagascar in captivity and it was my obsession with wanting to see these animals in the wild that lead me to make the 35+ hour voyage across the world to this island. It was beautiful, exhausting, & amazing.

I can't wait to share it with you. 

 Euphorbia blooming 

Euphorbia blooming 

 Inside the caves 

Inside the caves 

 Plated lizard,  Zonosaurous karsteni . 

Plated lizard, Zonosaurous karsteni

Stay tuned to learn about what's happening on the island.

 

Follow Lick Your Eyeballs on Facebook and Instagram to learn more and see more photos from this day. 

 Author with chameleon in camp 

Author with chameleon in camp 

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