NSW resident Deanna Rowe, was recently awarded Earthwatch's 2009 Volunteer of the Year. Below is a tale of her volunteering experience, showing clearly the enthusiasm and determination that saw her win the award.
Cramped into the back seat of a 16-seat mini bus, with seats that were far more appropriately sized for the petite Malagasy, I excitedly peered out the window into the lush rainforests of Ranomafana National Park.
It was hot, humid and steamy, and I’m pretty sure it was raining. It is almost always raining at Ranomafana. I was hoping to see a lemur bounding out of the forest, or perhaps one of their colourful, vibrant lizards, but instead we came across a broken down truck.
The last time I had been here was four years ago, on the same Madagascar’s Lemurs Earthwatch project, and I was excited about being back and seeing "my" lemurs again. The Milne-Edwards Sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi) was the subject of Earthwatch Scientist Dr Patricia Wright's 25 year study.
Dr Wright first came to Madagascar well before the rest of us had seen the animated movie, and instantly recognised the ecological importance of the world’s fourth largest island.
Throughout the years, she has worked tirelessly with the Malagasy to help conserve their extraordinary natural world, discovered a species of lemur that had been thought to be extinct (the Golden Bamboo Lemur) and played a huge part in the establishment of Ranomafana National Park and the ongoing scientific research in the park.
I had read so much about her achievements before I went, and was nervous about meeting her for the first time. Surely such an accomplished scientist and “leading lemur expert” (Wikipedia-speak) wouldn’t have time to talk to us minions? But she was pleasantly unaffected – she welcomed us warmly, and her enthusiasm for her work was infectious. She was personable, inspiring and generous, and an ideal Earthwatch Scientist.
We pulled into the Centre ValBio (short for the International Centre for Research and Training in the Valorization of Biodiversity), and my fellow volunteers and I spilled out, stretching our cramped muscles and gasping at the extreme humidity.
The Centre ValBio was a constant hub of activity; a hot bed of academics and passionate conservationists; a melting pot of university students from around the globe.
There were constantly scientists, students, researchers, administration staff, cleaning and cooking staff, visitors, and Earthwatchers (as we were known), milling everywhere. It had a lovely, familiar, welcoming feel to it.
Stacey, who was to be our teacher, minder, guide, boss, interpreter, escort and guardian for the next two weeks, showed us the lab, the dining room, our campsites and the lockers that were coveted with fervour.
We were fortunate enough to arrive just as a group of 70 American students were departing, and while we enjoyed their farewell party – under an enormous tarp outside the ValBio – it was a matter of seconds before the swarm for their vacant lockers began!
Some nights there were a couple of people with butterfly nets and cameras, looking very intense and lurking around the verandas at the ValBio. I thought they were trying to catch an Aye-aye which is a native Malagasy lemur that looks like a witch. It has rodent-like teeth and a long, thin middle finger which it uses to extract its food from trees with.
It is the world's largest nocturnal primate and it was always a celebration when someone spotted one: “Did you hear Eric saw an Aye-aye last night?”, “No. Where?!”, “Right outside this window!” “No WAY!”
Instead the group were studying the many brightly coloured moths and insects that were always buzzing around the centre. These were most vividly coloured, strange looking insects I’d ever seen. Some of them looked like cartoons – it was a constant learning experience, finding creatures I’d never known existed.
I work in finance, so coming from a non-scientific background, I found it interesting to learn about the way data was gathered and reported; how funding and grants were obtained; and the significance of seemingly "small" observations, like our Sifakas leaping across territorial borders, and in what order they went.
On my first trip in 2005, I concentrated on one focal lemur. Her name was Green-Orange and my task was to record her behaviour.
Females are dominant in lemur society, and I thought Green-Orange was the coolest, the way she’d recline on a tree branch while her subservient male companions groomed her and fussed around her.
In 2008, I was looking forward to seeing how she was getting on, and how many of the females had given birth that year. I was devastated when I was told that most of our studied lemurs were gone, eaten by the fossa.
The fossa is a fascinating animal that looks like a cross between a dog and a cat, but is actually closely related to the mongoose. This cunning carnivore had been working its way through the lemurs in Ranomafana, and as our "Propes" are the largest lemurs in the area, must have found them a very attractive target.
My 'old-girl' Green-Orange had been killed by a fossa, but was found before she was fully eaten. Dr Wright and her team brought her back to the Centre ValBio for studying – the first specimen of her species to be studied this way. So perhaps I can tell myself that she did not die in vain.
The fossa is also an endangered species, so I can't stay mad. They have to eat to survive, and the animal world is a tough one.
Ranomafana is a gorgeous place, lush green rainforest and teeming with wildlife. The lemurs bound from tree to tree effortlessly – in my mind they were taunting me to try and keep up.
The first time I visited Ranomafana four years earlier, I had worked hard at getting fit, hiring a personal trainer and going to the gym most days. Oh, how I wish I had done that in 2008!
The trails are steep and hard going, you need stamina and fitness and good humour. About half of our group were uber-fit and healthy and seemed to enjoy the hiking, whereas I, and a few like minded fellow volunteers, opted to stay in the library and enter data on the computers.
But when the others came back at the end of the day, exhausted but happy and full of stories about the lemurs they'd seen, I would feel very jealous and tell myself I would muster up the energy tomorrow.
Falling asleep in my tent at night, to the sound of rain, crickets, frogs, lemurs and grasshoppers, is one of my favourite memories. But no matter how hard I wished, I never saw an Aye-aye. Maybe next time…
Deanna Rowe is Earthwatch's 2009 Volunteer of the Year. Visit our expeditions pages for more information on Earthwatch's African research projects.