Rediscovering Malagasy wildlife

by Sophie Benbow, Southwest Regional Coordinator, Madagascar

I have become a city girl again. My move to Toliara, the capital of the southwest region after two years in Andavadoaka, a small fishing village has dramatically reduced my exposure to nature and enhanced my reaction to it. Toliara wildlife consists of your friendly neighbourhood rats, cockroaches and various other bugs which appear and disappear throughout the year in seasonal blooms.

I have just returned from a five day participatory mapping and data verification trip to 15 villages south of Toliara aka ‘the deep south’. I had heard many stories about the state of the roads and the journey ahead of me – and was even warned against it by my boss. However, it turned out to be both a truly wonderful experience personally for me, and a hugely important verification trip for the regional octopus stock assessment Blue Ventures is currently managing. This project employs a network of local data collectors in 30 villages throughout the southwest region and monitors the daily octopus catch landed in the sample villages.

Daniel Raberinary checking the data collectors methods in Ambohibola

The road was remarkably good for most of the 8 hour journey from Toliara to Soalara, although it was a little disheartening to say the least to arrive in Soalara and be able to make out the lights of Toliara across St. Augustin Bay a mere 2 hour boat ride away! Having said that, the hours of bumping along were well compensated for by frequent flashes of colour as a Madagascar Fody (Foudia madagascariensis) startled from its roadside perch, or an abrupt swerve from the driver to avoid a chameleon slowly making its way across the single track road.

At one point we were confronted by a literal flood of locusts on the road in front of us which slowly hopped out of the way, or not. Having been immersed in the marine problems of the southwest for the last four years it was interesting to learn more about the terrestrial issues facing inland communities in southern Madagascar. There is a government project dedicated to locust eradication and control based in Betioky, so we contributed as much as we could by squashing as many madly hopping locusts as possible. The depth of the problem was clearly highlighted to us as, on more than one occasion, we were literally surrounded by flying insects, bouncing off the windscreen and bonnet in all directions and sounding like a hailstorm was engulfing us.

Carpet of locusts covering the road

One plus point of this plague is the resulting increase in availability of food for both human and avian predators. We drove by a group of ‘forest seiners’ skimming the low vegetation with a tarpaulin to catch the locusts and they seemed to have got themselves quite a haul. We also drove past flocks of up to 50 yellow billed kites (Milvus aegyptius) hanging around on the edges of the swarms and feasting on the frantically leaping bugs.

Flocks of predatory birds resting after a big locust meal

And then the true sign that we were in the deep south, a radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) attempting a road crossing. These endemic and highly endangered tortoises are one of four species of land tortoise found in Madagascar. They were once prevalent throughout the region and are naturally protected from hunting by local tribes in some areas as it is taboo or ‘fady’. Unfortunately this fady does not spread across the whole southern region and today the tortoises exist in small, isolated populations due to their place on the festive menu of the Antanosy tribe.

Radiatated tortoise in a close encounter with the BV car

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Sophie Benbow

Sustainable Fisheries Programme Manager
Sophie currently manages all aspects of the first regional stock assessment for Octopus cyanea in southwest Madagascar including logistics and financial reporting, staff and data management and final report production. She also works with the Field Scientist team on site to ensure data collection and analysis for the coral reef monitoring programme is of a high standard and to facilitate report production. "The octopus research projects have progressed from strength to strength and represent a truly innovative approach to conservation with impressive and measurable outputs which directly improve the lives of local communities" Sophie was awarded an honours degree in Zoology from Durham University, UK and then went on to complete her Masters in Conservation at University College London. She joined Blue Ventures as a Science Intern in the London Office in 2006 before her first vist to Madagascar as a Field Scientist in February 2007. She re joined the Madagascar team as Marine Science Coordinator in Andavadoaka in May 2009 after a brief stint working as a coral reef biologist in the Philippines. Sophie has held her current position as Manager of the first regional stock assessment for octopus since August 2010
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About Sophie Benbow

Sophie currently manages all aspects of the first regional stock assessment for Octopus cyanea in southwest Madagascar including logistics and financial reporting, staff and data management and final report production. She also works with the Field Scientist team on site to ensure data collection and analysis for the coral reef monitoring programme is of a high standard and to facilitate report production. "The octopus research projects have progressed from strength to strength and represent a truly innovative approach to conservation with impressive and measurable outputs which directly improve the lives of local communities" Sophie was awarded an honours degree in Zoology from Durham University, UK and then went on to complete her Masters in Conservation at University College London. She joined Blue Ventures as a Science Intern in the London Office in 2006 before her first vist to Madagascar as a Field Scientist in February 2007. She re joined the Madagascar team as Marine Science Coordinator in Andavadoaka in May 2009 after a brief stint working as a coral reef biologist in the Philippines. Sophie has held her current position as Manager of the first regional stock assessment for octopus since August 2010