Phoebe Mottram and Helen Cunnold discover that Madagascar is so much more than just a biodiversity survey


The natives


After nine months of planning it was with over-riding excitement that we landed between the tropical mountains on the runway in Fort Dauphin, a small town in the south of Madagascar, 6337 miles away from Scotland. After all 18 of our expedition group; three from St Andrews, the other 15 from different universities around the UK, US and Canada, climbed aboard the Taxi-Brousse, a Malagasy transport speciality, and we began our six hour drive to the middle of the spiny forest in the search of the village of Ifotaka. Up to this point all we knew about the spiny forest was that which we’d seen on a BBC David Attenborough programme earlier in the year. We knew enough or so we thought. It would take first-hand experience to realise that we were going to discover an ecosystem utterly unique to the already incredible Madagascar.

Our aim over the next four weeks was to conduct a biodiversity survey of a particular area of the spiny forest in order for the WWF to make a plan for the future conservation of the Ifotaka North region. This biodiversity surveying involved assessing five areas of the spiny forest, which consisted of vegetation, invasive plants, birds, reptiles and lemurs. We spent four days on each of these sections with guidance from experts in the section. These experts varied from two PhD students from Hamburg University, to a Maths graduate from Newcastle University, to Malagasy scientists who were specialists in the endemism of their country.

We learnt about and found many endemic species over our four weeks in the forest. The Radiated Tortoise, that is critically endangered on the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, compiled in 2008, Tenrecs, which are often eaten by the Malagasyand, and four different species of lemur including the adorable Mouse Lemurs and the remarkable Sifaka Lemurs. In comparison to all the volunteers’ scratched and cut legs from walking through the forest, these animals seem to be perfectly at ease in this forest of spines. It baffles many – how can these creatures jump between the barbed Alaudia trees without damaging themselves? This is only one of the many wonders of Madagascar.

When work was done for the day a lone guitar and some drums that were kept at the camp meant that we would spend the evenings listening to music from Malagasy dissertation research students working with us. This was an addition to the expedition which I loved – we all learnt how to play the drums and speak a little Malagasy, and ended up greeting each other with ‘Salama, inovaovao?’ Every night we all sang along to renditions of the Malagasy favourite AmpyHeky ‘Zay and Ronan Keating’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, a song which we’ll never be able to hear in the same way again.

This trip was first and foremost a biodiversity survey, which taught us a great deal about how special Madagascar is due to its endemism and unique place in the world. Yet, this expedition allowed us to discover more than that. It allowed us to visit an incredible country which had such a lasting impact that we are now endeavouring to return next summer. And  we suggest you do the same.


Phoebe Mottram and Helen Cunnold


Photography – Phoebe Mottram and Helen Cunnold