“No One Speaks English and Everything’s Broken…” The Development Of An Invertebrate-Themed Exhibit At Parc Zoologique D’ivoloina, Tamatave, Madagascar
Bob Merz, Zoological Manager, Invertebrates Saint Louis ZooGovernment Drive, Saint Louis, MO 63110
The challenges were daunting. The project was to create a sustainable, outdoor, invertebrate-themed exhibit at a small, rural zoo in Madagascar. The barebones zoo had no electricity or running water, but it did have an immensely imaginative staff with more than enough enthusiasm to see the project through. Collection of invertebrates was limited to what could be found on zoo property. The following explores, in detail, what worked and what didn’t work in this five-week process, as well as the current status and reception of the exhibit by the zoo’s visitors.
In the song Tom Traubert’s Blues, Tom Waits laments, “No one speaks English and everything’s broken…”
These lyrics must have gone through my head several dozen times during my first week in Madagascar. In fact, I was fairly certain that Tom Waits was singing specifically about Madagascar. Yet, I left the country five weeks later with a far different and considerably more positive impression. The real story, however, is found between these bookends of utter frustration and unexpected inspiration. Upon first glance, this is not unique story. On a basic level, this is just a story about setting up an invertebrate exhibit at a zoo securing funding, survey of potential sites, acquisition of animals, design and construction of the exhibits, training of staff and determining educational direction. It was the unique location, in the end, that provided both challenges and inspiration.
In the beginning…
The beginnings of the project seemed innocent enough. As it happens, the Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), a consortium of zoos and conservation organizations, is headquartered at the Saint Louis Zoo. One of their admirable efforts is maintaining a zoo located roughly 12 km outside Tamatave (also called Toamasina), Madagascar. Several members of the MFG had been discussing for a few years the feasibility of establishing a small invertebrate themed exhibit at Parc Zoologique d’Ivoloina. Occasionally, while on business at the Saint Louis Zoo, personnel from Ivoloina Zoo would stop by our Insectarium to ask questions, probe problems, and ask for advice. But in the end, their invertebrate exhibit had yet to pan out.
This casual interest, however, became far more concrete after an offhand comment by the Saint Louis Zoo’s Curator of Primates in an informal conversation at a party. She happened to nonchalantly mention that that she was planning a project involving a Swiss veterinarian that had spent some time at the Saint Louis Zoo. Dr.
Angie Simai would be staying at Parc Zoologique d’Ivoloina for five months working on animal health and veterinary care issues. Since Dr. Simai spoke both French and English, this was a perfect opportunity to dovetail these projects together and ultimately save costs. The idea had suddenly evolved into having me travel to Ivoloina Zoo to bring supplies that were difficult to obtain in Madagascar and begin to set up the exhibits. As I proceeded, I would train staff, write graphics and keeper manuals and aid in their translation into French.
Advantageously, Dr. Simai would, by the time that I arrived, be known and trusted by the Ivoloina staff. Additionally, she would be at a stage in her project where she would be pulling away from daily duties to allow the staff that she had trained to take over. But, since she would be remaining at the zoo for several more weeks to help me with translation, she would still be available to consult with staff in difficult situations related to her project. Everything fit together very well.
All of the sudden, this casual idea turned into plans to finally construct an invertebrate exhibit at this zoo in the Eastern Coastal forests of Madagascar. So, I wrote a Field Conservation (FC) grant proposal for funding and about six months after the approval, I was off to the fourth largest island on the planet.
Trials and Tribulations: The bizarre and unique fauna of Madagascar is well known to most naturalists. As far as mammals are concerned around 93% are endemic only to this area the size of Texas. Experts guess that reptiles are nearly 96% endemic and nearly 100% of amphibians found there are found nowhere else on the planet.
Invertebrate-wise, things are a little less straightforward. There are a few famous invertebrate residents… the ubiquitous hissing cockroaches and the island’s stately invertebrate ambassador, the giraffe-necked weevil…immediately come to mind. But, in the end, very little is known regarding the variety of invertebrate endemism in Madagascar. The best reasonable estimates range between, 80 % and 90% of invertebrates are endemic.
Invertebrate field guides specifically for Madagascar are virtually non-existent. There are a few mammalcentric guides that lump Madagascar invertebrates in with Eastern African ones; this only confuses things further. I was able to find one French language guide listed from the early 1900’s, but this was more a collector’s item than practical field guide.
So, I arrived in the capital, Antananarivo with little more than my experience of collecting invertebrates in North America as my guide and a lot of naïve, wide-eyed hope. I spent a couple of days here, getting acclimated and waiting for the plane trip to the port city of Tamatave. My arrival in Tamatave was a whirlwind, Dr. Karen Freeman, MFG Programme Manager, took me for a quick run through the local market to pick up food and supplies, and then whisked to my home for the next five weeks, Parc Ivoloina.
The market itself was a jarring experience. I thought that I knew French well enough to translate prices, but immediately found out that I was sorely mistaken. Prices, as I anticipated, in the market are subject to negotiations. In fact, some bargaining is expected. I knew that going in…but it was the speed at which this took place that had my head spinning. Also to confuse matters, the prices were quoted in Malagasy Francs, a currency that was replaced with another in January, 2005. So prices quoted in French, first needed to be translated correctly into English, then converted to the newer currency, Ariary. Then if this was determined to be too costly, I needed to determine a new price in Ariary, convert that back to Malagasy Francs then properly translate this and correctly pronounce the suggested price in French. It was here that I realized that I was in way over my head, and looked to Dr. Freeman for help. She realized on my very first transaction that I would require assistance, and generously and patiently guided me through the market.
I looked forward to arriving at Parc Ivoloina, knowing that an acquaintance and translator, Dr. Angie Simai, would be there to help. The next blow, to say the least, was emotionally crushing. Immediately upon my arrival, I realized that something was wrong. As I was approaching to greet Angie, she hurried past, with barely a chance to exchange “hellos,” and jumped into truck and was carted away to the capital city for about a week.
She had been bitten by a feral dog that potentially had rabies. It appeared that he was exhibiting early symptoms, and the nearest appropriate medical care was about 213 km away on rough roads. The language barrier, which first sunk in at the market, created genuine isolation. Looking at a journal that I kept while I was there, I find recorded on the first few days that I was in the country, questions like, “What am I doing here?” and “How is this ever going to work?”
At this point, my enthusiasm for the project took a serious hit. Not speaking French or Malagasy, I immediately felt very isolated and lonely. Fortunately, a very enthusiastic Malagasy vet student was working on a project at the Zoo. He was also extremely interested in invertebrates and the future exhibit. Fidisoa Rasambainarivo worked side by side with me, collecting day and night for the first week, eager to learn as much about invertebrates as I could offer. He also speaks English, French and Malagasy. Fortune was smiling on me, and my outlook became even more positive after we received news that Angie was fine and would be returning by the end of the week.
My mood got even better, later that first day, when I first glimpsed the zoo that was to be my home away from home.
Ivoloina Zoo is tidy, scenic and serene; in a word, it’s charming. The four hectare (roughly 10 acres) facility has various lemurs, tortoises, birds, reptile and amphibian exhibits nestled into steep hills surrounding a picturesque lake.
To my surprise, a large portion of the staff was learning English, and we were able to communicate with little effort. Most impressive is the fact that this truly amazing staff at the zoo cared for the animals, as well as maintained the grounds and facilities without running water or electricity. And if things were, like the song says, “broken,” the staff fixed them in the most creative ways. Roofs were fashioned from palm leaves; brooms were created from bundles of sticks. Items that we might toss away were saved and refashioned for some other purpose. I was inspired.
The Nitty-Gritty: That inspiration greatly aided me with the project of setting up an invertebrate-themed walk at the Ivoloina Zoo – inspiration, and the help of Dr. Angie Simai, that served as a translator, guide and chum for the majority of time that I worked on the project. Together, we collected invertebrates from around the zoo grounds. Some were as rare and exotic as Giraffe-necked Weevils (Trachelophorus camelus) found on cinnamon leaves and some as common as cockroaches found in my sleeping quarters. In all, four vivaria with different local “bugs” and one large hoop with a resident, live orb-weaving spider, will await zoo visitors along a peacefully shaded, meandering path. Graphics will delve into these animals and the mysterious world of invertebrates. Again with considerable help, I also trained an enthusiastic zoo staff in the collection and husbandry of invertebrates, and wrote a keeper manual that details specifics for invertebrates that they would use for exhibit. And finally with the help of these newly-trained invertebrate keepers, we set up four “back-up” colonies of invertebrates to greet visitors to the zoo’s Visitor Centre and Education classrooms.
I also fully expected the staff to be a bit resentful of the new, strange work placed upon them. I realize that invertebrate care can be unusually intimidating for staff that has cared for primarily mammals. There is also, sometimes resistance met, because invertebrates are sometimes considered a group of animals that is somehow not as worthy as their vertebrate kin. So when I attended a meeting with the zoo staff to discuss who would be the primary invertebrate keeper, I expected the worse. I was not encouraged when a long, somewhat heated discussion took place between the director and the assembled staff. After this discussion, it was explained that a keeper that was not present that day was assigned the invertebrate routine. I was certain that this was the typical workplace tactic of assigning the undesirable tasks on people that are not present to speak up for themselves.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I enquired as to the animated discussion, the Parc director, Bernard Iambana, sheepishly explained that the entire staff was very interested in the project and asked if it would be too much trouble to train them all. I was overjoyed. There were even some members on vacation that would come in on their days off to be trained. Each and every person was enthusiastic and eager to learn and to show me what they already knew.
Another unexpected hitch was that collecting appropriate invertebrates was more of a challenge than I had expected. I was, by law, permitted only to collect invertebrates from within the boundaries of Parc Ivoloina. However the zoo is only part of a much larger parc that was once a forestry station.
At roughly 400 hectares (nearly 990 acres), I expected few problems finding appropriate display invertebrates. In fact, in my mind, I imagined a lush, tropical forest, literally dripping with jewel-like invertebrates, each one more unique and dazzling than the next. I was naïve.
As mentioned above, the previous landowner had been the ministry of forestry for the country. During their occupancy, the government had in effect, cleared the area and used the site for testing various exotic plants for all sorts of purposes, ranging from agriculture to combating soil erosion caused by the planting of exotic plants and short-sighted agricultural methods. So, this was not the pristine Primary tropical rainforest that I was expecting, but rather a somewhat degraded habitat with mostly an introduced fern and various sprinkles of non-native trees.
It was also at the end of the dry season, so there were very few flowers and very few insects. Rains reluctantly began while I was there and certain fruit trees were starting to flower toward the end of my stay, so invertebrates became easier to find, but the first couple of weeks were tough going in regards to collecting.
I was encouraged by a week-long side trip to another area that MFG oversees, Betampona Natural Reserve. This visit to a Primary forest site was designed to be a cursory assessment of the invertebrate fauna of the reserve. It also coincided with a spate of rainfall. The details of the epic journey of just about 12 miles to and from the area could constitute a book in and of themselves, but the area was rife with invertebrate life and midway through my project, encouraged me that, with the rains, things would be changing back at the Zoo…and they were.
The three things I learned that I already knew
Upon reflection, I realized that this project was, in essence, a conservation-education project. And, after realizing this, I became conscious of the fact that I had learned three things that I already knew about conservation on a broader scale. I know that it sounds counterintuitive to learn things that one already knows, but the actual experience gave me firsthand knowledge of what I already understood intellectually.
The first thing that I learned that I already knew was that the areas of conservation concern, that is the wild places that people are trying to save, are some of the most remote, hard-to-get to places on the planet. It only serves to reason, that if it is easy for people to exploit, they will exploit it. If it is not, it still may be wild. The implication is that these are not only difficult places for researchers to get to, but they are difficult areas to get around in. Logistics are a nightmare in many of these places. Betampona, for example, is no exception.
The 12 mile journey to Betampona, for instance, took roughly 12 hours. First we traveled in Parc Ivoloina’s pickup truck, over the most unbelievable bridge. This bridge, was not only on the verge of collapse, but did not have enough metal planks to cover the span, so as the vehicle progressed, sections of the bridge were carefully removed and placed in front of the vehicle to allow it to move forward. All passengers left the vehicle and walked across in case the structure should give and the truck should fall through. The second bridge we came upon had collapsed a few years back; so we needed to hire a boat to carry us and our supplies across. On the other side of this river, we waited quite a while for a “taxi brousse” or bush taxi to arrive for transport. This precarious ride was followed by an immensely more precarious hike/climb of approximately 5 km. Simply put, it’s just unbelievably hard to get around.
Following on this point is the second thing that I learned that I already knew. It is that conservation really is a very difficult task. Language barriers and cultural incongruities are a couple that I had first-hand experience with. But logistics and availability of materials also hampered this project’s progression. Materials, that cost very little from my vantage point, could be a month’s salary from the vantage point of a person that makes on average about $1.00 U.S. a day. Also certain things are just not available in certain places. For instance, the plastic vivaria, that we used for the exhibits are just not readily available in Madagascar. The easiest solution was for me to pack them as luggage in the United States and carry them with me.
Third on the list is, that as bad as things can look at times, and as hard as conservation is, there is still a great deal of hope. Firsthand, I saw the concrete, cyclone-proof education center and dorms that the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute had funded, and I experienced their impact at Parc Ivoloina. I also dealt with selfless people from all over the world working from all different fields working to conserve and teach in just one small area. In fact helping on this small project were a two British employees of MFG, a Swiss veterinarian, a Portuguese amphibian researcher, and a large group of Malagasy, both at the zoo and outside the zoo. It is easy to fall into the doom and gloom trap, and to be blunt, ecologically, things are bad in Madagascar. It is obvious after just a brief visit. But it is also obvious that there is tremendous hope and the majority of that comes from the residents of Madagascar that I met that are not only concerned, but are, more importantly, highly motivated, imaginative, resourceful and committed.
When I left, the trail was blazed, exhibits were set up, staff was trained, graphics were written in English, but there was still a lot of work to be done. The trail had yet to be cleared, concrete needed to be poured, exhibits set-up and graphics translated into French and Malagasy. However, progress is measured differently when you have a small staff no electricity or running water and limited access to power tools. And confounding the progress was the cyclone season that arrived shortly after I departed, and it turned out to the worst tropical storm season that the island has seen. Six major hurricane-like storms hit Madagascar. These caused severe flooding all around the island and considerable tree damage to Ivoloina Zoo. For months, the small staff’s focus was on clean-up and recovery after the storms. Only in May, 2007 was work able to proceed. Since that time, more exhibits have been sent over, husbandry issues have been worked out and the concrete trail has been laid over very rough terrain and graphics are being produced now. Parc Ivoloina hopes to unveil the new, outdoor, invertebrate-themed exhibit this year.
Thanks to: Ingrid Porton, MFG Vice-Chair; Angelika Simai, med.vet. ; Fidisoa T. Rasambainarivo; Dr. Karen Freeman, Programme Manager and Gareth Kett, Ivoloina Forest Manager; Bernard Iambana, Chef du Parc, Parc Ivoloina; Rakotoarison “Rakot”, keeper Parc Ivoloina; Pascal, Zookeeper and Guardian, Parc Ivoloina; Gonçalo Rosa for the wonderful photographs.