IN THE FIELD

In new mem­oir, lemur ex­pert re­vis­its ad­ven­ture in Mada­gas­car that ‘didn’t go ex­actly as planned’

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

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.

TRAVIS ST­EF­FENS

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.

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