Madagascar Memories: Yuri Fraser

Our next installment of Madagascar Memories comes from Yuri Fraser. Yuri spent several months in Madagascar, living and working as a field researcher for a project on habitat fragmentation in Ankarafantsika National Park.

Yuri In Madagascar

Yuri In Madagascar

Here is one of Yuri’s favourite memories from his time in Madagascar: 

Mornings in Madagascar were some of my favourite times. While staying in Ankarafantsika National Park, I would start my day by making my way to the nearby restaurant. I’d exchange smiles and “salamas” with those I passed--children and guides. 

The morning mist lifted, revealing the forms of exotic palms and hardwoods. Oftentimes, I would see some of the young women braiding each others hair while gossiping or singing. I am still shocked by the fact that so many people in Madagascar seem to be innately lovely singers!

The homey smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen greeted my arrival at the restaurant. I’d take my seat and order coffee, fruit, yoghurt and Malagasy fritters (mofo, in the local Malagasy). Then, settling in, I’d dunk a fritter in my coffee and survey my surroundings. Occasionally, if I was lucky, I would see the local troop of sifaka lemurs, leaping and bounding from tree to tree. Going about their morning ritual, clearly, the lemurs were enjoying the morning as much as I was! 

I remember once a nearby guide lit his cigarette, and I observed the sinuous curls of rising smoke, warm beams of sunlight streaking through. That moment was one of deep satisfaction, as Madagascar’s charms impressed upon all my senses.

Madagascar Memories: Kim Valenta Founder of Mad Dog Initiative

Planet Madagascar is excited to bring you the next installation in our blog series, Madagascar Memories. This one comes from Kim Valenta, a wildlife biologist who works in Madagascar and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.


My name is Kim, and I am a wildlife biologist who works in Madagascar. What that mostly means is that I spend a lot of time chasing lemurs around the forest.

Kim Valenta, Photo by Travis Steffens

Kim Valenta, Photo by Travis Steffens

Most of the forests in Madagascar are gone, and the ones that are left are heavily disturbed. Madagascar is a poor country—a lot of the population is still rural and make their living as best as they can from what’s left of the forest.  Because most of the forests are gone, many of the animals are gone—or soon to be—unless something changes pretty quickly. Which is terrible, because most of the animals in Madagascar only found in Madagascar and nowhere else on earth. These animals are also unimaginably strange and magnificent—beetles with necks like giraffes, primates that look more like great leaping Muppets than monkeys. And all of the strange magnificence that is barely clinging to life on this island is just a fraction of what used to exist not too long ago. In the last few hundred years, the world lost a grass eating crocodile, enormous elephant birds, and all kinds of crazy giant lemurs.

Giraffe necked weevil (beetle). Photo by Travis Steffens

Giraffe necked weevil (beetle). Photo by Travis Steffens

I had dreamt of working in Madagascar for years. Watching the city wake up on my first morning there was surreal. One thing I remember about that first morning was hearing the dogs. They start barking just before dawn and they’re everywhere. Occasionally, I would see dogs with a family herding their cows or working in the rice fields, but overwhelmingly the dogs in Madagascar are strays.

And these strays roam into what remains of the forest, eating what they can find. And unfortunately, what they find are incredibly rare species that are barely clinging to survival and are found nowhere else on earth.  In addition to being devastating to wildlife, these dogs are also incredibly intelligent, and have an amazing capacity for loyalty and love. This is what I learned firsthand when I met Matavy.

One day I was out, as usual, following some lemurs around the forest. And out of nowhere a dog came bounding through the forest, heading straight for me. Since my study lemurs were resting, I was sitting on the ground at the time. Now, like most feral dogs anywhere on earth, stray dogs in Madagascar tend to be shy around humans. So at first I was sure he was going to attack me. I froze. What happened next is a moment I will never forget. As I sat there, frozen, waiting for this powerful animal to start ripping me apart and trying to figure out how I was going to survive it, the dog came right up to me and put his head in my lap.

After the shock wore off I realized that he was gazing up at me. His body was in bad condition—he was emaciated, covered in bites and scars, and missing an eye. Perhaps it was the relief I felt. Perhaps it was the old human-dog connection that is hard-wired into us. Whatever it was, I knew in that moment that there was no way this dog was being left behind to fend for his life with his one good eye.

Kim and Matavy in Madagascar, Photo Credit Mad Dog Initiative

Kim and Matavy in Madagascar, Photo Credit Mad Dog Initiative

So we took him in and we named him Matavy. And when I left the country seven months later he was on the plane back to Canada with me, where he now shares a house and a yard with the amazing woman who adopted him, and charms every dog and person he meets.

This amazing animal, and all the other dogs like him inspired me to start a project called the Mad Dog Initiative. MDI aims to protect local wildlife populations through the spaying and neutering of strays while also providing medical care and rescue to them when necessary. I am currently raising funds to embark on the first MDI expedition this June.

To learn more about the Mad Dog Initiative, visit




Madagascar Memories: Dr. Keriann McGoogan

Madagascar Memories

Planet Madagascar is excited to present our new blog series, “Madagascar Memories.” We have asked people from all walks of life who have visited Madagascar to share with us some of their most memorable Madagascar moments and to remind us why it is so important to work to conserve the biodiversity to help the people living in this amazing country.

This week’s installment comes from Dr. Keriann McGoogan who completed her PhD studying edge effects on the behaviour and ecology of an endangered lemur species in NW Madagascar.


Lunching with Lemurs by Keriann McGoogan

In 2008, I embarked on what would be a 14-month trip to Madagascar to conduct my PhD research. I was there to study the impact of habitat loss, and particularly of edges (areas between forest and clearings) on an endangered lemur species in Ankarafantsika National Park in Northwest of Madagascar. Some of you may recognize my study species as “Zooboomafoo” (go ahead…google that name), but its real name is Coquerel’s sifaka, or Propithecus coquereli if you want to get scientific.

The fourteen months that I spent in Madagascar were some of the best in my life and there are so many highlights that I could share. But, if I had to choose one particular memory, it would be the day I “lunched with the lemurs.”

It was a hot, humid day in September and I was trekking through the sandy soils of the dry forest, following one of my study groups. Three times a week, I would wake up before dawn, locate a group of sifakas in the forest with the help of handheld radios and my research team, and follow the group until dusk. It had been a particularly active day for this group of seven (three females, two males, and two juveniles)—they had engaged in a lot of feeding and moving from tree to tree early in the day. By about 11am, though, the group settled down to rest and digest in a particularly dense area of forest, far removed from the trail system.


All had quieted down in the forest except for the sound of the birds chirping and the wind blowing through the forest canopy. I continued to watch the lemur group in their state of inactivity. As I stood there, my stomach grumbled. It was nearing lunch hour, so I pulled out my sandwich and took a seat in a shady area on the forest floor, the group about 2-meters away in a tree, still in full view. The sun was beating down—it was hot.

As I sat munching on my lunch, the group members began to move lower in the tree, presumably to take advantage of some of the shade lower down.

Slowly, slowly, the sifakas moved lower.

And lower still.

Soon, three of the adults were sitting directly on the forest floor, arms and legs wrapped loosely around a tree trunk, a mere 2-meters away from where I was sitting! Chills went down my spine and I laughed out loud. There I was in Madagascar, having a picnic with a group of sifakas. Unforgettable.

Community-Led Total Sanitation in Madagascar

Lying on my back, the hot Madagascar sun beating down on me. Waiting. Waiting for the water to be ready to drink. 

So. Thirsty.

Madagascar, October 2011. I was volunteering for my husband Travis Steffens’ PhD research project on the impacts of habitat fragmentation on lemur species in northwest Madagascar. We had set up camp nearby some patches of forest where Travis was conducting his research. Although we were close to forest, and potentially lemurs, we were not close to a water source—the nearest water source was approximately 5 kilometers away, in a small village called Andranahobaka.

Clearly, to live and work near these fragments, we needed a water solution. Travis ultimately arranged to have our water brought in via a zebu cart (zebu are domesticated, humpbacked cattle). Every three days, one of three different men from the village would fill our jerry cans with 200 liters of water, and drive the zebu cart full of water to our camp. 

Great, problem solved, right? Well, almost.

The catch was, that water was not potable. Our “water delivery man” would fill up our containers from their village water source, yes, but if we were to drink that water as is, we would almost certainly become very ill because the village, like many of its kind in Madagascar, has no central toilet, and open defecation is common.

To make that water ready to drink, we had to run it through a gravity filter, add a purification solution, and then wait a half hour (sometimes on our backs in the hot, hot sun). We never got sick from our treated the water, but unfortunately we witnessed many of the local villagers who drink that same, but untreated water, on a daily basis suffer from very preventable diseases, a consequence of a lack of  effective sanitation.

In 2008, at the Stockholm World Water Week the President of Madagascar announced that 63.2% of the population of Madagascar lacked access to potable water, and 73.7% of the population lacked access to sanitation. According to, over 4000 children in Madagascar die every year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. It is clear that something needs to be done.

Traditional investments in sanitation have been targeted at individual households, and often involve installing toilets and implementing education programs that highlight the importance of using those toilets (Robinson 2006). However, these types of conventional hygiene interventions are often too formal, and take a more negative “this is what you are doing wrong” approach, that can be ineffective (Robinson 2006). That’s why organizations like Azafady in Madagascar are turning to Community-Led Total sanitation (CLTS).

CLTS is an innovative method that is designed to inspire communities to take action to become “open defecation free.” Robinson (2006) highlights several ways in which CLTS differs from traditional sanitation projects:

  1. It focuses on stopping open defecation, rather than simply building toilets.
  2. It highlights the need for collective action from the community.
  3. There is no toilet subsidy—each household finances their own toilets.
  4. It promotes low-cost homemade toilets constructed using local materials.

These techniques help communities feel ownership for their facilities (Robinson 2006), and pride in the work that they did to implement their own sanitation program.

In Madagascar, Azafady, an award-winning British registered charity partnered with an independent Malagasy NGO, is piloting a CLTS program. With “Project Magnampy,” Azafady is mobilizing communities to eliminate open defecation through participatory and interactive tools. The goal of this project is to eliminate open defecation, increase access to potable water, and thus facilitate a long-term behavioural change in sanitation practices within several Malagasy communities.

Today, I sit in my Toronto apartment, where I can walk over and fill up my glass with pristine water any time I want. However, after my experience in Madagascar, now every time I walk over to the tap, I appreciate the clean water, and I think about the villagers in Madagascar who continue to drink water that is making them ill.

This October, Travis Steffens will return to Madagascar, where he and other Planet Madagascar team members will visit the Azafady CLTS project. In the near future, we hope to implement a similar project in communities in northwest Madagascar.

Learn more about our projects by liking us on Facebook @ and following us on Twitter @PlanetMada

Can Lemurs Tell Us Why Males Die Younger?

Male mammals typically die sooner than females. Why is that? Researchers in Madagascar are asking this very question. Recently published in the Journal of Behavioral Ecology a team of researchers studying Milne Edwards sifaka may have discovered why males of this species die so much younger than females. 

Milne-Edwards’ sifaka are a large dark lemur that lives in the tropical wet forests of eastern Madagascar. This large lemur spends much of its day consuming leaves and resting. However, they are no slouch when it comes to moving. These species employ a fantastic form of locomotion called vertical clinging and leaping. To move through the forest they spring off a large tree with powerful and especially long legs. As they fly through the air they turn to land on the next tree. As the make contact their body compresses and they shoot off that tree to the next - like a pinball they bounce through the forest. Some sifaka species can breach horizontal gaps between trees as large as 8m (26 feet)!

There are many hypothesis as to why males tend to die off quicker than females. Tecot et al. (2013) describe a few which include the "high risk, high gain" hypothesis which states that males engage in more risky behaviours such as competition for mates or dispersal which increase mortality than females. Imagine lemurs in a bar fight!  There is the "fragile male" hypothesis which suggests that males and females have different developmental strategies with males having for example faster growth rates leading to higher mortality as juveniles - especially in times of resource scarcity. This evokes images of male teenagers growing like sky scrapers all while trying to keep up through incredible consumption of food. While females may employ their own strategies like the "live slow, die old" hypothesis which predicts that females actually slow down development in response to increase resource unpredictability and in some cases females may not even reproduce during times of resource scarcity.

Male and female Milne-Edwards' sifaka are roughly the same size and weight, which is particularly unusual for group living primates - but not so for lemurs as many lemur species show little to no sexual dimorphism (differences in size between sexes). Like many lemur species females are dominant. Both sexes leave their natal group (disperse). However, males in this species continue to secondarily disperse long after maturity. Growth rates between the sexes of this species are very similar as are levels of testosterone. Based on their life history one might expect that males and females have the same mortality based on the above hypotheses.

Tecot et al. (2013), determined that male and female mortality were virtually the same until 18 years of age. At this point males became very likely to die while females of this age were more likely to live into their 30's. They suggest that because males engage in "risky" behaviour through adulthood by continuing to disperse while females remained within their group resulted in higher males mortality. It seems that for this species the most likely reason for increased mortality is that males perform more risky behaviour through adulthood than females. 

Research like this is fundamental to our understanding of many fascinating aspects of evolution and opens doors to more questions such as why do males disperse more during adulthood than females? 

To find out more check out the original article referenced below and stay tuned for more interesting reads on the Planet Madagascar blog. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Tecot, Stacey R., et al. "Risky business: sex differences in mortality and dispersal in a polygynous, monomorphic lemur." 
Behavioral Ecology


A trip to Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar

Jumping sifaka in Ankarafantsika National Park. Photo by Travis Steffens

Jumping sifaka in Ankarafantsika National Park. Photo by Travis Steffens

Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar -- "With their white hair and their black faces, they look like little old men wearing masks," says primate-researcher Keriann McGoogan. "When they're clinging to a tree and staring back at you, they are so cute! But then you see them move . . . and wow!"

She gestures towards a group of lemurs leaping, twisting and bounding across an open space in Madagascar's largest national park. About ten sifaka lemurs, an animal that can be found nowhere else in the world, are bouncing around an area that serves as a parking lot, looking for a place to rest or feed. "They look like kangaroos practicing kung fu," says McGoogan, a PhD researcher from the University of Toronto. "But if they want, they will be gone in a flash. And just try to follow them in the forest. There, they can really move."

Welcome to northwestern Madagascar, home to some of the most extraordinary creatures in the world. Here you can find colour-changing chameleons, spiky tenrecs, birds sporting Mohawk haircuts, and eight species of lemurs, among them the Coquerel’s sifaka that McGoogan is studying.

She is spending a year in the park, which is essentially a tropical dry forest extending over 1300 square kilometres. Most visitors come for two or three days -- just enough time to see dozens of birds, most of the lemur species, and the always entertaining chameleons.

Crested drongo. Photo by Travis Steffens

The typical tour begins near the parking lot at reception, where visitors can find Malagasy guides, whom speak French and English. They lead the way past the leaping lemurs and birds that will put you in mind of 1985. The Madagascar hoopoe, for example, has a colour scheme similar to that of a Bengal tiger and shows off a massive Mohawk of feathers that would make any punk rocker proud; while the crested drongo, a robin-sized black bird with a forked tail, has bangs that would embarrass Cindy Lauper.

An encounter with a chameleon might evoke a scene in a pub back home in Canada. Picture this: a large male panther chameleon, entirely black, walks with a robot-like gait -- and rather quickly, for a chameleon -- toward a much smaller female. Normally, males are brownish in colour, but when on the prowl for a female they put on their black suit.

If interested, the female will show off some bright, come-hither colours – or else, as in this situation, change colour rapidly from a bright green to a more subdued green with huge white splotches, indicating her lack of interest in this male's intentions.

Like many guys at a bar, the male chameleon is undeterred and keeps coming, probably thinking that if he is able to reach her and buy her a drink, she will change her mind. As the male approaches, the female leaves – and so begins the slowest high-speed chase in the world. In this instance, the male realizes that he has been snubbed and gives up, turning elsewhere in search of another potential mate.

From the parking lot, the guide will take you into the forest, where you will probably be greeted by another group of sifakas. These lemurs are named after the sound they utter when excitement is at hand – something like "shee fawk!" If you hear this call, look around, because maybe a group of common brown lemurs is near. These are easily found as they make a lot of noise barking and screaming, and they wag their tails to warn their fellows that you are nearby. Probably they will come down from the canopy to look you over, and leave you wondering wonder who is watching whom.

Another bizarre creature found in the forest is the common tenrec, a spiny creature that resembles a fat hedgehog. During the wet season (December to March), literally hundreds of these tenrecs rustle around in the forest, with many moms taking thirty-odd kids out for a snort through the leaf-litter in search of tasty insects. Fortunately for those keen on observing them, tenrecs have poor eyesight and, well, a certain lack of wit. If you stay quiet and still, a tenrec may walk right into you. According to McGoogan, "they sometimes run into my boot when I am trying to watch the lemurs."

A stroll through the park at night is a must. The sounds of the forest will make you feel like a kid going out for your first Halloween. This is when you will understand why lemurs are named after Roman "spirits of the dead," as their haunting yells fill the air.

There is a boat tour on the sacred Lake Ravelobe which allows visitors to see even more birds and numerous crocodiles, and then there is a stroll to some beautiful baobab trees, or to a beautiful canyon. Not to be missed.


Ankarafantsika National Park protects one of the last remaining patches of tropical dry forest in Madagascar. It is situated on a main highway (Rue de National 4) that allows easy access from either the capital city, Antananarivo, or nearby Mahajunga, which also has an airport.

The park is open year round for ecotourism. Within the park, there are well-constructed cabins, tent platforms, a restaurant, washroom facilities, and a fantastic network of trails.

Permits and guides are required to visit the park, but these can be purchased and hired on location. If you are interested in spotting birds, the best time to visit is October to December, when bird life is at its most active. The heaviest rains come from December through March. After March there are fewer visitors, the forest is much greener, and you may have the park largely to yourself. From Toronto, return airfare to Madagascar (usually via Paris) starts at around $2,200.

Travis Steffens leads active-travel tours for Backroads Inc. through Belize, Costa Rica, South Africa and Botswana, as well as in the Canadian Rockies and with Civilized Adventures in Madagascar. Travis is married to Keriann McGoogan. 

Originally published in the Nashwaak Review Vol. 22-23