Conservation in spite of coronavirus

As a seasoned field biologist familiar with Murphy’s law, I am accustomed to planning ahead to deal with anything from centipede bites to cyclones, salaries and statistics, but as I sit in my basement on day three of a 14-day self-quarantine, I never would have thought that my late winter trip to Madagascar would be cut short by over a full month due to a pandemic, nor all the issues I encountered along the way! 

During this time of year I am typically spending my days in Masoala National Park, Madagascar’s largest national park and one of the largest remaining tropical rainforests on the island. Masoala National Park is situated in a remote region on a large peninsula on the northeast of the island.

Our main research site, Andranobe, is located along the western coast of this peninsula, with access via boat from the nearest city, Maroantsetra, more than 30 km away. Needless to say, the site lacks all modern communications to the outside world.

While there, I meet with our local staff to ensure that our conservation research programs are all moving forward smoothly. I spend my days following red ruffed lemurs (Varecia rubra), the focus of our research, watching in awe at their curious behaviors and taking note of unusual interactions they have within their environment. This trip, however, was more than a little different.

While working at the site in early March, the world was starting to react to the realities of the novel coronavirus, understanding that this would soon become a pandemic.

In what was a turbulent 48 hours, the United States began restricting flights arriving from the European Union, and Madagascar followed suit by issuing a complete closure of the island nation. All international flights were suspended for initially 30 days, but the reality is that it could be longer. Not wanting to risk being separated indefinitely from my family back home, I knew I had to act quickly.

At this point, however, a low-category cyclone had been hovering over our region for nearly three days and I was stuck at our field site unable to return to town because of the large, cyclone-driven swells on the Antongil Bay, making the 30 km+ boat trip impossible. Though working in a rainforest is predictably wet, this cyclone ultimately dumped nearly 16 inches of rain on us over those few days—extreme even for rainforest standards.

Thankfully, within a day the storm eventually moved away from the coast, allowing for a return to town, and to electricity and internet access. With the fast acting help of everyone at San Diego Zoo Global, I was booked on the last remaining flight to the EU from Madagascar, and from Paris back to the US.

Despite being back in town, however, I still needed a local plane to return to the capital, Antananarivo, from where my international flights would begin. Cloud cover over the region was still heavy and so my first scheduled flight was cancelled, with the new date set to be on the morning of my international flight. In most of the world this would not be an issue, but here in Madagascar, even scheduled flights on good weather days with clear skies are often delayed or cancelled. 

Expat colleagues around the world were also evacuating to return to their home countries, with numerous field research projects largely coming to a halt. In fact, many PhD and masters field projects are being either postponed or cancelled entirely, with new efforts being placed on desk-based studies.

Thankfully, we work with an entirely local Malagasy team that is able to continue with this important lemur research during this time, thus ensuring continuity of presence and data collection; the reality is that our remote forest research camp is almost completely isolated from the outside world. 

Even with my expertise at planning for every scenario,  planning for this unpredictable event was challenging given the quick change to my schedule and looming departure. It was important to make sure that our team had more than adequate supplies and access to provisions to last them through the bulk of the remainder of this year, under a worst-case scenario.

Despite the stress, with the help of our local research camp manager, Delaïd, we were able to create an effective schedule for the coming months, as well as contingency plans for various scenarios. 

How the pandemic will ultimately play out in Madagascar is difficult to foresee. In addition to dealing with a variety of tropical diseases, this is a country that often deals with seasonal outbreaks of bubonic plague and even more recently grappled with outbreaks of both pneumonic plague and measles. Access to healthcare is extremely limited, and with over 75% of the population living on less than $1.90 per day, it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

For families that don’t farm, they purchase nearly all their food in densely packed open-air markets, which bring much of the population into close daily contact. Though some measures are being put in place to try to mitigate these potential zones of increased infection spread, there is a lack of information available to locals, coupled with the reality that there simply aren’t other means by which to acquire food.

All that said, the site where we conduct fieldwork is in such a remote locale that our local team is largely safe from the pandemic. We simply have to hope that our team’s isolation from the rest of the remote region’s already sparse population, as well as purchasing bulk provisions to last a few months, may be their best chance of avoiding harm’s way. Yet, if cases of COVID-19 begin to occur within the region, we will take additional steps to ensure that both our local team, and the lemurs, remain safe and healthy.

On the day of my flights home, everything went as planned—gratefully!

In the few hours I had back in Antananarivo, I was able to make arrangements for our (priceless) biomaterial samples that are continuously being collected by our field team, as well as set up necessary paperwork and reports to various collaborators who assist with logistical aspects of our large conservation research program in Madagascar.

Not surprisingly, my departing flight from Madagascar was completely full, yet my subsequent flights to and within the US were largely empty. The airports were empty and eerily quiet, and other travelers seemed on edge.

Now that I am back home, and having been in basement quarantine for a few days to limit contact to my family in case I was exposed to the virus during my journey, I can only hope that the contingency plans we put in place will, if necessary, ensure the health and safety for our amazing local team and the lemurs we work to conserve.

Photo above: Flooded street post-cyclone on the morning I departed Maroantsetra.