IN THE FIELD
In new memoir, lemur expert revisits adventure in Madagascar that ‘didn’t go exactly as planned’
There are a certain number of challenges and complications to be expected when you travel to a remote part of the world.
That’s what makes it an adventure.
But even by those standards, Keriann Mcgoogan’s 2006 trip to northwest Madagascar to study the behaviour of lemurs had some unusual hiccups. As the Calgary native diplomatically describes it 14 years later, it “didn’t exactly go as planned.”
“We spent months and months planning this expedition because we were travelling to a really remote field site in the northwest of Madagascar,” says Mcgoogan, who now lives and works in Guelph, Ont. “This would be the first time that my field supervisor had been, which meant trying to set up a new field site that I would then go back to after that first trip to spend over a year studying the lemurs there. So this was the pilot research project for that longer PHD project. We were going to stake out this new research site and get it set up and running and collect some preliminary data.”
“But that’s not what happened,” she adds with a laugh.
While this clearly caused no shortage of anxiety for Mcgoogan and the small group that accompanied her on the excursion, it proved to be good fodder for storytelling. Chasing Lemurs: My Journey Into the Heart of Madagascar is her new memoir that chronicles that journey as a 25-year-old student. It’s part adventure tale, part journal of self-discovery and part love letter to the island country and its famous primate residents. There are more than 100 species of lemurs but they are native only to Madagascar. They are also one of the world’s most endangered species.
But before we meet any lemurs in Mcgoogan’s book, she tells a tale of what was meant to be a “simple reconnaissance outing” but instead became a strange journey that included food poisoning, impassable roads, unco-operative locals, a “roaming band of thieves” and even a frantic rescue mission out of the wilderness after a field assistant contracted malaria.
Mcgoogan began her academic career as an English-lit major at the University of Calgary before taking an elective in anthropology, which included an introduction to primatology. She eventually switched her focus, thanks in part to early instruction by renowned
Calgary wildlife expert Brian Keating, and got an undergraduate degree in primatology. Her studies had taken her on challenging trips before. Previous field research in Belize, for instance, often found her in hip-deep water filled with poisonous snakes while studying the behaviour of howler monkeys. So Madagascar seemed like it might be comparatively tame.
“Madagascar is great because there wasn’t anything poisonous there because it’s an island,” she says. “Everything there evolved in a microcosm, so there are no poisonous snakes, which was a relief. But in Madagascar, it was far more remote than anywhere I had ever been. It was a new field site. So that was an added challenge because neither my field supervisor or I knew what we had in store in trying to get there. Plus, there was the language barrier and the culture is so different. So it was navigating all that.”
The challenges of trekking 30 kilometres into the wilds of Madagascar started from the get-go when the team had difficulty hiring trail cutters and porters to help them lug three months worth of equipment to the remote location.
“We don’t really know exactly why it was such a challenge to find people to work and carry out stuff,” Mcgoogan says. “We have some theories. It’s hot and it’s not a nice job. Also, the local authorities were worried about our safety because there are known to be cattle thieves who range through the area, which might have been a factor for why they didn’t want to come.”
Mcgoogan cannot say for sure if they did meet actual cattle thieves, although says they did come across some “random strangers” who initially seemed quite curious about her group. Luckily, her group had three members of the Madagascar military armed with AK-47S with them, so the encounter was brief and civil. When the party did reach their destination and set up for what was to be a three-month stay, the field supervisor, soldiers and a number of the trail cutters eventually departed, leaving only Mcgoogan, a cook, some guides and a Madagascar field assistant named Andry.
Roughly a month in, Mcgoogan was awoken in the middle of the night by the cook who had some grave concerns about Andry.
“Andry was shivering and had a really bad fever,” Mcgoogan says. “I rushed over to my tent and got my medical supplies, which was just a basic first-aid kit, and a medical book that my supervisor had left with me that had the title Where There is No Doctor, which was pretty telling.”
Eventually, the decision was made to cut the trip short, which meant they would have to trek back out of the wilderness two months early, carrying Andry on a hastily made hammock. He recovered after they made it back to Tana, and Mcgoogan would eventually find an alternate site to study lemurs. She returned in 2007 and spent 14 months in a tent studying four different groups of lemurs, spending 12 to 14 hours a day “chasing them through the forest” to record how habitat loss impacted their behaviour.
The trip had a lasting impact on her. Mcgoogan’s husband, Travis Steffens, was also studying lemurs at the same field site. He founded Planet Madagascar, a non-profit that promotes conservation and education about the plight of lemurs. Mcgoogan, who works as a research communications officer at the University of Guelph, spends her weekends working on projects associated with the organization.
“I hope (the book) shines a light on lemurs and conservation and Madagascar,” she says. “A lot of people have heard of Madagascar because of the Disney cartoon. So I’d like to amp that up a little bit and share what I know about the country. I also hope it can inspire the next generation of interested researchers. Anyone who wants to do fieldwork or wished they had done fieldwork can hopefully travel along on this adventure with me.”
In Madagascar, it was far more remote than anywhere I had ever been. It was a new field site. So that was an added challenge.
Learning about lemurs is only part of the story Keriann Mcgoogan tells in her new memoir.
Mcgoogan first travelled to Madagascar in 2006 to do PHD research.