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C3 Internship Review – Victoria Taylor – Madagascar 2011

January 25, 2012

My affection for this magnificently biodiverse island and its people began earlier this year during the one month I spent in the south west carrying out research for my MSc thesis.  Eager to develop a greater understanding of the challenges facing conservation in Madagascar, and to obtain an insight into the socio-economic and cultural drivers fuelling the degradation of the country’s marine environment, I jumped at the chance to spend 3 months in the north with C3 following the completion of my Masters degree.  Having applied for and accepted the role of Conservation Programme Assistant, my hope was to gain experience of the workings of a small, community-based NGO in a developing country context, in addition to the logistical and administrative aspects of conservation programme management.  Considering myself an early career researcher, perhaps the most exciting aspect for me was the opportunity to broaden my socio-economic and ecological research skills; in a region where information on the health of marine ecosystems, and the communities dependent upon them for food and livelihoods, is often insufficient to guide effective conservation action.

The 3 months I spent working with C3 in Diego Suarez have to a large degree fulfilled and, in many cases, exceeded my expectations.  From the outset, I was given responsibility for preparing a report on a project to prioritise areas for the conservation of nesting marine turtles in northern Madagascar, with considerable opportunity to shape the data analysis process and freedom in how to approach the write-up of the report.  After spending the first week or so becoming versed in the health and safety aspects of the organisation, as well as previous research undertaken by C3 in the Western Indian Ocean, I set to work pouring through around 200 publications on marine turtles to provide the academic basis for the report.  I relished the opportunity to develop an in-depth knowledge of marine turtle ecology and behaviour; in particular, how the life cycle characteristics of turtles, including their large-scale migrations, can confound attempts at conserving populations of these species.

Just two weeks into my 3-month placement, the chance arose to participate in a field trip to collect nesting site data in the Ambilobe Bay region for the turtle report.  I could not wait to experience first-hand the data collection process, to provide me with both a contextual frame of reference for my write-up and an awareness of any limitations associated with the standard survey methodologies being employed.  Seeing numerous poached turtle carapaces littered along the beach at the island of Nosy Mitsio, not to mention the multiple rows of shark fins drying on the roofs of houses at Port St Louis, I began to comprehend the sheer magnitude of anthropogenic pressure being exerted upon northern Madagascar’s marine environment.  At the same time, however, I was gaining an appreciation of the lack of alternative livelihood options for these communities and the importance of ensuring that their everyday needs and longer-term aspirations are adequately integrated into future conservation programmes.

Upon returning from this four day field trip, I went straight back to work on the turtle report, preparing the introduction and methodology sections while the final nesting site surveys were being completed by the field team.  After a month I was feeling very settled and loving life in Diego, with all of the wonderful sights, smells and tastes this colourful and bustling market town has to offer.  What for me was the real highlight was getting the chance to experience this fascinating new culture and place with the local staff and interns at C3, with whom I visited the nearby fishing village of Ramena, including a day trip to the beautiful and aptly named Emerald Bay, in addition to making painfully average attempts at playing basketball with students from the local university.  An especially memorable weekend was spent by us at Montagne d’Ambre National Park, where the plethora of endemic wildlife provided more than ample opportunity for a group of budding wildlife photographers to hone their photography skills.

Perhaps the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, stage of my placement was the two weeks I spent in the remote region of Irodo, to the south east of Diego Suarez, collecting baseline data for C3’s newly established Environmental Mortgages project.  The aim was to assess the status of local seagrass and mangrove habitats through the use of internationally-recognised survey methodologies and to gather information on the artisanal fisheries in the area.  With just four people to complete a considerable amount of fieldwork, not to mention the numerous household tasks associated with daily life in a rural village, days were long and physically demanding and we would collapse into bed each night exhausted.  The small nature of the team, however, meant we were able to gain experience in all aspects of the fieldwork, from leading interviews with local fishermen about their catches and fishing gear, to identifying mangrove and seagrass species and mapping habitat boundaries.  Now, looking back, I struggle to believe the many amazing things I saw and experienced in Irodo: a Madagascar paradise-flycatcher ensconced in her nest deep in the mangroves; a trade between fisherman and collector of ornate spiny lobster, a creature of unimaginable beauty; the haunting sight of a green turtle being butchered on the beach at Antafianpatsa.  I certainly feel very fortunate and I am grateful to C3 for providing me with such an opportunity.

My final two weeks in Diego were spent carrying out the data analysis for the turtle nesting project and drafting the final sections of the report.  I was very pleased to see the report through to its final stages and hope it will prove a valuable tool in the conservation of marine turtle populations in theWestern Indian Ocean region.  I leave Diego and C3 with the practical conservation experience I was hoping for, a host of wonderful memories, and what I hope will be a number of lifelong friends.  The main negative is that the past three months have not quelled my appetite for working in marine conservation in Madagascar.  Instead, I depart from these shores for a second time craving more.

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