Friday, February 8, 2008

Major progress, just in time

Sorry that it's been so long since my last post, believe it or not, I've been getting lots of work done. So, the Forestry Service came to my rescue, and this week I was able to do lots of good collecting, including some populations that are pretty far off the beaten track. All in all, I've been able to sample several populations of all three Coffea species here in Mauritius. But the big payoff came today when I went to a locality known as Mt. Brise in the East that is known to have Coffea myrtifolia. It's really just a big hill in the middle of sugar cane fields. But to my amazement, the slopes and top of this hill are absolutely covered in C. myrtifolia, AND (this is the deal-sealer) the population was in full flower! This was exactly what I was hoping for on this trip, to get one good flowering population of Coffea sampled. So, I spent about 4 hours collecting styles and preserving them in RNALater, as well as collecting a DNA voucher for each individual sampled. This was slow, tedious work with a tweezer in one hand, and an open vial of RNALater in the other. The whole process was made more difficult because it was absolutely still in that forest, and the mosquitoes were absolutely horrendous. Of course, I am out of DEET because much of it leaked out in my bag one day and dissolved some plastic on the back of the lab GPS (don't worry, the damage is only cosmetic, it is still in perfect working order). My arms and back were covered in them, and I could feel myself getting bitten constantly, but I was too excited about the flowers to flail about (my standard strategy), so I just took it. Although, I think I've developed an immunity to the mosquito toxins because the bites are pretty small and don't itch much.
Anyway, this last day in the field (perhaps not last, I may try to go out tomorrow), has really made the Mauritius leg of the trip an all out success. Things didn't go perfectly, but they went well enough. I fly to London on Monday, and I will be at Kew working win Aaron Davis for one day before heading back to Durham (via Charlotte). I'm really looking forward to being home.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

a little work done, but mostly waiting, frustrated

Yesterday morning as the entire island was bracing for a direct hit from Tropical Cyclone Gula, the warnings were called off, and Gula decided to take a different route through the Indian Ocean. Instead, we've just been pelted with tons of rain in the last two days, which is very good as there is a bit of a drought here lately.
My work is still coming along quite slowly. I did manage to get out with a National Park officer on Wednesday, and he took me to a locality that I was not interested in going to. We spent a total of 2 hours in the forest, and we found a very small (11 individuals) population of Coffea myrtifolia. It was about 12:00pm when we got out of the forest, and I was keen to go to a different site, but was told that I would have to discuss that with his supervisor and make arrangements for another day. Needless to say, kind of disappointing.
My Mauritian colleague, Yasmina, has also been very disappointed with the way the Park Service is treating our research, so she contacted the Forestry Service yesterday and arranged a meeting with someone there. I met with a big-shot with a large office, and he was very helpful, indicating that he understood that I had little time remaining in Mauritius, and that he would make sure to get me out to the field as soon as Saturday with an agent. This sounded great, and I was nearly giddy with how helpful he was being, and the prospect that I could actually visit some localities before next week. After this meeting, I was handed off to the next official down in the hierarchy for a brief meeting where I gave my song-and-dance again. Then I was handed down to the next official in the hierarchy (offices getting smaller each time), and gave my song-and-dance once again. It should be noted here that each time I met with another guy, they were visibly less interested in actually trying to understand the goals of my research in their beloved forests, or even in wanting to hear how my research could positively impact their conservation efforts (one of the primary objectives of the Mauritian Forestry Service). After I provided this man with a partial list of localities I need to visit (he interrupted me as I was attempting to provide him with the full list), he says he can take me out on Tuesday (?!). It should be noted that he very helpfully arranged someone to take me out to a locality that I know from first hand accounts is in flower right now, but not until Wednesday. Such is the problem with government agencies, be it in Mauritius or the USA.
I have been in Mauritius 2 weeks now, and I've collected a grand total of 1 population consisting of 11 individuals. I have mapped 2 other populations, and they will be simple to return to and sample. But still, in 2 weeks in Madagascar (a poor country with much less infrastructure), I collected more than 20 populations.
Perhaps much of this is my fault for not being more hands-on in the preparation for work in Mauritius. I assumed (naively) that since the government agencies were aware of our work and the timing of my visit, that they would be prepared and willing to help in any way they can. It turns out that any help from these agencies must instead be coerced and begged for with extreme persistence.
I think the lesson I'm taking away from this trip is that next year I need to be self-sufficient, and I need to make arrangements with the relevant government agencies such that they know that I will need to work in the forest on my own timetable (and therefore alone).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tropical Cyclone Gula

It looks like we are in for a mild/moderate cyclone in the next couple of days. Cyclone Gula is projected to make landfall in Mauritius the morning of January 31st. Hopefully, it will just bring lots of rain, and not too much wind damage. Although, with wind gusts of 75 mph, I don't know what to expect.
A lot of rain could be really good for me, it should "inspire" the Coffee trees to flower.
Since my last post, I've been able to get a bit of work done. The last two days I've been hiking in Black River Gorges National Park, and I found two big populations of Coffee. I mapped the populations, but our permit stipulates that I need an officer of the Park Service with me to collect samples, so that's as far as I could go. Hopefully I will have an officer tomorrow, but if they keep dragging their feet, I'm just going to start collecting. I can't wait forever, I only have about 2 weeks left in Mauritius.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I've been in Mauritius more than a week now, and have accomplished absolutely nothing. This fact is really starting to grate on me, and my boredom is now being served up with a healthy dose of anxiety.
The day after my last post, I went down to Black River Gorges National Park, and had a hike and looked for some Coffee trees. I may have found one, but didn't have much time because I had hired a taxi to take me to the park. It was quite expensive, but there is no other way to get to the park, unless I have a car or motorcycle.
I have three more days before I can get any work done. A stipulation of the permit that Yasmina has for collecting Coffee trees is that an office of the National Parks Service be with us when we collect. All of the officers are in a workshop until Tuesday.
Although Mauritius is a pretty cool place, I'm feeling lonely, and really missing home. I've been trying to keep myself busy with computer work, but one can only do so much of that in a day, and I don't want to sit in my hotel room all day long. Very few cafes have available power outlets, so that limits the time I can spend there.
Ok, hope everyone is well. Sorry for my bummer of a post. Things are bound to improve soon.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lots of waiting, but at least I'm in Mauritius

I'm going on 4 days in Mauritius now, and I haven't gotten much of anything done. I did go to the University today with Yasmina, and she introduced me to some faculty, and students working in the lab. The University of Mauritius is situated a nice little campus with regular bus service, so I should have no trouble getting to and from campus when I actually have some specimens to do some work on. Tomorrow is a public holiday, for some religious celebration, but I don't know what it is. This means that everything except the busses will be closed (maybe not the restaurants, I hope), so I have yet another day to kill before any real work can get done. The good news is that I'm in Mauritius, and killing time is relatively easy. I took the bus back from the university today, so now I've been introduced to the way it works. There are like 4 or 5 different companies running busses, and the fare is different on every bus (but not by that much). Anyway, it is really quite cheap (maybe 12 rupees for a short ride, where ~30 rupees equals a dollar), and very simple (routes are labeled on the bus like in the states). Tomorrow, I'm thinking of taking he bus to the SW corner of the island, where there is a small mountain called La Mornes. There are supposed to be Coffea growing on the slopes of this mountain, and I thought it would be a nice day to hike around and look for it, then when I'm finished for the day, perhaps make my way down to the beach, which is walking distance from the foot of the mountain. Ok, I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


I made it to Mauritius Friday evening, and Yasmina (a professor at the University of Mauritius and my collaborator here) graciously picked me up at the airport. Since Mauritius is so small, I'm staying at the same hotel the entire time I'm here. It's called the Hotel Raj Mahal, and it is not nearly as glamorous as the website would have believe. With that said, it is a good value, and very clean and comfortable. But check out the view from my balcony (see attached picture).

I'm pretty sure that every hotel in Mauritius has a good view, this island is full of mountains (but not giant mountains, for that you have to go to Reunion, Mauritius's younger sister to the SW).
Mauritius is nothing like Madagascar. It is completely westernized, and I feel very comfortable walking around, even alone at night, but perhaps not in some of the more seedy neighborhoods of Port Louis (the capital). Kentucky Fried Chicken is a particularly popular fast food restaurant, and I am within easy walking distance of at least two from my hotel.
Due to a storied history, the population of Mauritius has elements of Indian (the majority), Chinese, French, and Creole (the descendants of slaves).
Mauritius was uninhabited until the late 1600s, when it was discovered by trading ships in the indian ocean. The island is the original home of the Dodo bird, but within 100 years of human settlement, the Dodo had been driven to extinction. The first colonists started huge sugar plantations, and brought slaves from Africa and Madagascar to work them. Emancipation came in the 1800s, and when that happened, the plantation owners needed more laborers. This brought an influx of Indian and Chinese workers to Mauritius, and the culture here has thrived from their influence.
All educated mauritians speak at least three languages, French, English, and Creole. Of these, english is the least used, but I haven't run into a single person that doesn't speak it and understand it well.
I have internet in my room, so I will be able to update my blog much more often. I haven't started any collecting yet, as I arrived on a weekend, but things should start happening in the next couple of days. Hope everyone is well, and I hope the packers beat the giants and make it to the superbowl.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I'm back online!

Hi everyone, sorry for the major lag in my posts. I've been in Tana for the last three days, but I've been really busy getting things ready for my departure from Madagascar.
Ok, back to the beginning of the trip. I went to Diego Suarez on December 28th, and stayed at a nice hotel for 5 days. I spent my days hiking around on Montagne Des Francais looking for Coffee trees. I didn't have any luck, but enjoyed staying at a nice hotel, and I did a lot of computer work (programming stuff) in those 5 days that I had been putting off for months. On January 2nd, my partner/paid guide and professional Malagasy botanist Franck Rakotanasolo arrived in Diego, and the craziness began. On January 3rd and 4th, Franck and I camped in a forest about 50 km SE of Diego called the Foret De Sahafary. With franck's expert help, we were able to find several populations of at least 3 species of Coffee. We returned to Diego on the 5th of January and worked at Montagne Des Francais again, and I am embarassed to say there are many coffee trees there, but I just could not find them alone. It's pretty amazing how good franck is at finding Coffee trees, certainly my work would not have been possible without his help. OK, on January 7th, Franck and I traveled to Amber Mountain National park, and started work in the high elevation cloud forest on the 8th of January. Lots of coffee trees, of at least 4 species were collected. On January 9th (my birthday) we went even higher, to find one species we did not find lower on the mountain. For about 5 hours that day, we hiked in the rain and mud, and hundreds of terrestrial leaches (they go through your socks, so there is no stopping them). I was very stressed out by the leaches, and did not enjoy it very much. Thanks to all of the birthday emails folks sent. On the 10th of January we left amber mountain and headed back to diego for the night. The following day, we traveled to Ankarana National Park, about 3 hours by taxi, and stopped in some small forest patches on the way to collect. We spent one big day at Ankarana, and collected many populations of about 4 species of Coffee. And we got to see the amazing tsingy limestone formations (check out the wikipedia page linked above for more info). I will post pictures when I get back, and the connection is faster. THe next day, Franck and I took a taxi-brousse (a rural bus service that is really a 15 seater van, but usually packed with more than 22 people) for 3 hours to a small fishing village called Ankify. From this village, we caught a ferry (just a 15 foot long canoe with a big motor) to the island of Nosy Be. I had the best mango I've ever tasted at Ankify while we waited for the ferry to fill up. We managed to find a decent hotel for pretty cheap in Hellville (Nosy Be's only real city). The following day, we went to the Lokobe Forest reserve, about 20 km west of Hellville on an extinct volcano. This is a wild forest, with black lemurs everywhere, and few trails to speak of. We didn't find any coffee trees, but only spent half the day in the forest. Then, the next day we just hung out in Hellville, and I did some touristy shopping. THen back to tana to get specimens ready for exportation, and complete paperwork.
That brings me to the here an now. I'm leaving for mauritius a few days early, because I am finished here in Madagascar. Heading out today at 4pm. So, I will update you on Mauritius when I get there. Should have an easier time with internet there, and I can probably find a phone card to make some calls. OK, hope every is well. Please comment or email me and let me know whats been up.