Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Tracking Lemurs in a Lost Rainforest

SHARE

Tracking and darting an elusive ringtail lemur might help save a secret rainforest in Madagascar, but it also invites unexpected feelings of homesickness and self-reflection. Immerse yourself in the sounds and story of this magical place while I share one of my favorite tales from the field.

CLICK TO LISTEN:

For more episodes: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/podcasts/going-wild/

New episodes of “Going Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant” are released on Tuesdays. Want a season 2 or a story about a specific animal or location? Contact us at naturepod@wnet.org

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant:

Okay. So I am holding, I’m sitting on my bed and I’m holding this journal that is really special, and on the first page, if I open it up, the first entry is from Tuesday, December 6th, 2016. And the first two sentences say, “I’m writing this from the lost rainforest in Southeastern Madagascar, just writing that sentence is mind flowing, I left New York City on Monday, November 28th, and it took us two days…”

Lost forest, isn’t that such a mysterious-sounding title? We call it lost because no one knew about it because it was a secret from the world until just a couple of years ago when the rumors about this place surfaced and the rainforest quite literally had to be found. And by some incredible miracle in life, I was one of the first people ever to be on a team to go into it and to figure out what secrets it held. “He shoved me in my shoulder and he said, shoot it.”

 

I’m Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant and this is a different kind of nature show, a podcast all about the human drama of saving animals. I want to tell you my story and what it’s actually like to track bears in the Sierras, chase Lemurs in Madagascar, live with lions in Tanzania and do all of that as a Black female scientist. This is Going Wild.

It is actually so rare for a rainforest to be discovered like this, a rainforest that scientists haven’t been through and local people haven’t been using for resources. I mean, and not just in Madagascar, I can’t imagine many places on earth for which this is true, let alone a place like Madagascar where so much conservation attention has been placed on Madagascar, that it seems like the conservation world, the science world knows the place through and through. So it’s almost unbelievable that this could be, and yet in this case, this rain forest was recently discovered.

And it was discovered by a young Malagasy woman who was in school to study ecotourism. Apparently, in one village, if I remember the story correctly, folks were telling her about a rainforest that was nearby and she knew the area pretty well and she was saying, no, there’s no rainforest. And people were saying, oh yeah, we don’t know much about it, but there’s this rainforest here, maybe that could be an ecotourism spot. So after hearing about this rainforest, a number of times, the young woman thought that she might as well actually check it out herself. And so she, and I guess some villagers just took a brief hike up to the place, looks over the edge and she sees a massive dark green expanse of forest that plummets into a canyon. This immediately explained why this forest wasn’t showing up on any maps because from an airplane and flying above it, it would’ve just looked like a skinny line, almost like how a small river, stream bisects a landscape.

But in actuality, it was this tremendous 200 square kilometers of rainforest in this super unexpected place. This also explained why a lot of the people who lived closest to the rainforest had never explored it before and that’s because it wasn’t super useful to them. The people living nearest to it were pastoralists, which means they herded livestock in grassy areas and so because the grassy area ended where the canyon began, they really had no interest in entering the rainforest. She sees the forest for the first time, realizes that it’s there and it’s so different than anyone could have imagined. She immediately goes back to some of her professors at her university to ask what to do next. They connected her with one of the primary conservation scientists in Madagascar who happened to be an American woman and a lemur expert. And honestly, scientific discovery is so rare, so the excitement that they felt was palpable, it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if that, most people don’t get those kinds of opportunities.

So swiftly the lead researcher got a team of literally about 50 people from all over the world, many from Madagascar to come in and explore this rainforest, and I was one of them. So it was super important for us to move as quickly as possible because now that the word was out about the existence of this rainforest, we were worried that people, and in particular, folks from the logging industry would start using the rainforest for resources. And that’s because it had already happened so many times across Madagascar and caused a lot of destruction. Our goal was to get this forest protected so that it would always be safe from this type of destruction. Our camp was big, our team at its largest was about 50 people and we each had a role because there were botanists and there were small mammal biologists. And, oh my gosh, I mean, all kinds of archeologists, all kinds of people. My job, along with the small team, was to get some evidence of ringtail lemurs,

Ringtail lemurs are a large lemur species, so as far as primates go, they’re average size, so I would say they’re about the size of a house cat and they have this long fairly thin tale, but really bushy with fur. And the tail is distinct because it has a pattern of black and white stripes repeating over and over. I am one of the few Americans who has not seen the movie Madagascar, which is an animated movie and one of the main characters of that film is a ringtail Lemur. So when I go around talking to people about ringtail lemur, usually they have a better sense of what they are than I did when I first entered Madagascar and was looking for them. I don’t want anyone to lose confidence in me here, but I had never, in my life, been in the tropics, let alone studied primates. I had done tracking and trapping of African lions, and so I was used to that.

And then I had done tons of work with tracking and trapping black bears, which again is super different than a ringtail lemur and so I was almost completely out of my element. Oh my gosh, I tried to play it cool, but for most of the time I was freaking out on the inside. I was so worried that I would be the reason that the park did not get protected area status. All of the organisms we were looking for were important, but it was really clear that the ringtail Lemur was probably the most important. Ringtail lemurs are critically endangered and there are some estimates that suggest there’s only 2000 of them left in the wild. So finding lemurs in this forest would mean that this forest is indeed super important and needed to be protected. So for me, it felt like I had two options, find lemurs, save the forest, or don’t find lemurs, lose this forest to logging and see the entire lemur community crumble.

A little over a year before this trip, I had given birth to my first child, that’s its own emotional journey and it was almost entirely wonderful, but I did feel for quite some time that there were these unspoken rules. Well, if you’re a mom, then certainly you don’t go on expeditions for weeks at a time with wildlife and parts of the world and be unconnected. And I’m really over this now, but at the time I felt so much shame because I wanted to, I wanted both things, I wanted to be a mother to a child or children and I also wanted to be an explorer who traveled all over the world, working to save endangered species from going extinct. And then on top of those things, I was not even able to do my job, I was failing miserably, and after three weeks of working really hard and sacrificing a lot, I had nothing to show.

I’ll never forget the day that we chased these lemur calls and we thought that we had just lost them completely. And I was catching my breath and there was that family of lemurs that we had been chasing, and they were absolutely silent, instead of chattering away and doing all their calls, they were totally silent peering down at us. And then as soon as they saw us, boom, they were out of there running. And so, although that seems like a success, it was still another failure because we needed to get that DNA evidence, we needed to get it somehow. And as time went on, it was becoming less and less clear that we would be successful and I was getting more and more stressed out. But then there was this one day that completely changed the entire expedition. About three weeks in, three weeks into being tired, being stressed, we finally found something.

So I’d go to meet my team, and my team was me, a guy named Velu, a guy named Siri and then finally, Joseph, they were all super experienced lemur trackers from Madagascar. We hiked into the rainforest through the path that we had started and at this point, the path wasn’t as dense as before, because we had hacked our way through it so many times. And we got far enough into the rainforest that we stopped and we listened for sounds of ringtail lemurs, and we heard some, and so that’s when, as usual, the chase was on and so I took a deep breath and ran after my team. We were running after these lemurs, who were running away from us and they were making their screeching sounds, their alarm calls to each other, running for quite some time. And I absolutely did not expect that my lemur tracking adventure would be lemur running, they were so fast and they would be at the tops like in the tree canopy and so they would not be running, they would be leaping from tree to tree, to tree.

But for me and my team all the way down on the ground, would be running, not necessarily to catch them this time, but in order to not lose track of them, because that would be a dead-end for our project. So eventually, unfortunately, we lose them, which was a drag, but it allowed us to take a little bit of a break and to crack open our backpacks and have a little snack or even lunch. And we usually sat there very quietly because it allowed us to hear if the lemurs had come back. Then, not many minutes into it, we hear another lemur call and I heard it first, which basically had not happened until that day. I had actually thought that maybe I didn’t even have the ability to identify a lemur call from any of the other noises that were going on in the rainforest. But I heard her first and I looked around, I looked, I locked eyes with Velu and I said, “Maki,” which is the Malagasy word for lemur.

He started listening, he heard it too, and got up and started running towards the sound. And we saw a couple of lemurs, but one, in particular, that was on a branch relatively low. And I was just staring and Velu pushed me, he shoved me in my shoulder and he said, “Shoot it,” and I realized, oh yeah, this is the best shot we’ve ever had at a lemur. Only myself and Velu were equipped with dart guns and these dart guns shot, little tranquilizers, little teeny tiny little darts. I mean baby darts, full of just a tiny bit of medicine that would sedate the animal for a few minutes so we could get a DNA sample. So I unstrapped the dart gun from my back, loaded it up really quietly and I took the shot and I missed, and I watched this bright pink dart, just sore through the air and then fall back down. It jumped up and started running away, of course, as it would.

This could have been the moment that changed the whole trajectory of the expedition and yet I just missed the shot and I lost the dart, which are two things that are completely embarrassing. I was thinking to myself, am I going to keep failing throughout this whole thing? Did they hire the wrong person for this job? So we kept running and usually, I’m trying not to lose track of my team at least, so that I don’t get lost in the rainforest. And I was able to catch up really quickly and I found Velu almost immediately crouched behind a bush, but he pointed to another branch, another really low branch. And there was, I’m pretty sure that same lemur, again, sitting on the branch, I got my gun out again, I aimed it at the lemur and positioned it so that it would go right again, right at the hip of the animal. And I pressed the trigger and I took the shot, and it hit it, it hit.

I couldn’t believe it, I stood up, in fact, I think I was supposed to continue to hide behind that bush, but I stood up and I think I put my arms up and I was silent, but it was like, I was cheering for myself. I think my inner cheerleader came out in that moment because I got it, I took the shot and it worked. And after three weeks of trying with all my might and with this incredible team, finally, I’d done it. And at the same time, we didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate. We had to keep hiding and make sure that the lemur didn’t run away and it didn’t, it stayed put, it just kept looking around and almost making circles, like it was trying to figure out, what hit me? What bit me? What was that? Velu went into his backpack, where he had a small tarp that was all folded up and he pulled it out and he gave me one side of it. He motioned for Joseph and Siri to come over to where we were, and we each took a corner of the tarp.

And the idea is that eventually, I mean actually pretty quickly, the lemur was going to get a little woozy from the medication and would probably fall from the tree. It’s our job to catch that lemur so that it has a nice soft landing, almost like how firefighters would catch someone jumping from a burning building. This is something that I had done with bears and in particular small bear cubs, a number of times and so for once I felt like, oh, I know what I’m doing here. Probably the only moment I had had, where I knew exactly what the tarp was for and exactly how to work with the team on it. We could see that its eyes were closing and doing slow blanks and we rushed over to get under it so we could catch it properly. And as we rushed over and got much closer, I was able to get a really good look at the lemur and I saw that it had a little, something on its back that made it look extra fluffy and big.

I was staring at it and staring at it and so was Velu, and at the same time, we both realized that’s a baby and that means, it’s a mother. And even more than that, it means that the population of lemurs that we had found was a breeding population. It wasn’t just a random group passing through or all adults, it was a breeding population that was increasing in size. I mean, this is tremendous information in itself and maybe it spelled out a new future for ringtail lemurs in Madagascar. Right at that moment, her baby hopped off her back and we were really able to see that the baby lemur wasn’t a newborn, it wasn’t this super young, really vulnerable baby. It was actually mature enough to be on its own and not necessarily attached to its mother. And it jumped off the mama’s back almost knowing like, hey mom, what’s going on? And then she fell asleep and she fell not from a very far distance and we caught her super gently in the tarp.

For just a few moments, we all just looked at it, we all just looked at it partially to make sure that she had fallen softly enough and she was okay, which was the case. And we put her down on the ground and Joseph, who was the one who had the heaviest backpack full of stuff, pulled out just a soft little towel and how we managed to have a towel that was clean and soft after three weeks in the rainforest, I really don’t know. I think about that sometimes like, wow, was it just in his backpack and never came out? But we wrapped her up in this little towel and I really, it’s so funny, I just kept looking at her. Achieving something that fact was like whiplash, so being able to focus on her and seeing her little face, and then just all the personal, emotional stuff was really surfacing in my mind. And it’s almost embarrassing to say, but I was connecting with the lemur, she was a mama, she was wild, she was doing her job and she was doing it well.

I think I was, honestly in a trance looking at her and I remember that Velu touched my shoulder, grabbed a hold of my shoulder, and shook me a bit. And he said go and he pointed. And it was like, in that instant, I came back into my body and I remembered, oh yeah, all my processing stuff, all the lemur processing, we set up a whole animal processing area at camp. And so that meant that for the very first time in this whole expedition, I had to make my way through this rainforest by myself, without depending on anyone else to guide or have a sense of the way, off-trail all the way back to camp. And it’s because it was important for my team to stay behind, at the site where we caught the lemur to keep an eye on the baby and to make sure that we knew exactly where to re-release her safely when we were done processing.

The other part of this was the haste in which I had to do it because she’s such a small animal because she’s nursing a baby, we didn’t want to have to administer additional sedatives to her. So that meant that we had about an hour to take her all the way back to the camp, process her, meaning gather the data and then bring her all the way back and release her to her baby without her fully waking up and then being pretty stressed out. And so I bent down and I wrap her up in the blanket, honestly, she was bundled like I would bundle a baby. And I was running again, running through the rainforest up the incline of the canyon, holding onto her. And I was just going in the right direction because I knew I needed to get there. But all of these anxieties started to come out in me where I started almost panicking with the load of responsibility that I had. I gave myself the mother of all pep talks.

I remember saying out loud, for the entire rainforest to hear, “Rae, you’ve got to do this, you’re going to do a great job. You’re going to process her, it’s going to be fine. She’ll be safe and healthy, you’ll find your way there, you’ll find your way back. It’s just like a bear. It’s just like a bear, you’ve done a million bears, it’s just like a small bear.” And it was giving me exactly what I needed at that moment, I was giving myself exactly what I needed at that moment. And I was carrying this little mama lemur and it was like these two primates, these two mother primates, me and her running through this rainforest and having success. And I remember I arrived at the camp, like Lemur, Lemur, screaming it, pointing at people. And there’s an individual named Herman and he is a biologist and he’s a Malagasy man, he was laying down all these different blankets, he had this big tackle box full of the materials and the tools we would need to process her.

And I laid her down on her back, almost like she was still this baby, and I unwrapped her. And the first thing I did was take these tiny little scissors, little nail scissors from the tackle box and I sniped a bit of her fur, just a tiny bit of her fur from her tail, and put it in this little Ziploc bag. And I had Herman label it ringtail Lemur female number one. And that was the main thing we needed, we needed some type of genetic evidence for DNA analysis and we had it. And at this point, one of the other team members who were photo-documenting as much of it as possible had his camera out. And so there are these click sounds of the shutter of the camera going because this was a big deal, this was actually one of the biggest goals of the expedition, was to prove that ringtail Lemurs were in this rainforest and have one in our hands. The way I remember it, the focus, and the intensity that I remember actually shows up in these pictures when I look back at them.

And then the final thing I did was slip this neon green fabric collar that you would get from a pet store, we put it on her in order to know exactly who she was, which individual she was moving forward if we ever saw her again. And after that, I was gone and she had started to, not open her eyes, but she started to start moving on her own. At the end of her exam, she started opening and closing her fingers and moving her legs a little bit, that was a signal that the sedative was wearing off. So when I tell you that I was hustling, I knew that I was going to make this successful, there was nothing that was going to stop me from getting her back to her baby before she fully woke up. I ran through that forest, I tore through it, I have a couple of scars actually on my chest, still from where I got scratched so bad that it started bleeding because I didn’t care at all about my body or what was going on with me. I just had to get her back.

And I think that my team heard me before I saw them before I realized where I was going. And I remember that Velu did his whistle sound to call out to me to say, “Hey, we’re over here and also be quiet.” I was tearing through this rainforest and they didn’t want me to surprise the little baby that was still waiting for its mama. And I got back, completely out of breath, there was nothing I could say. I didn’t have the bandwidth in my mind to try to communicate in broken Malagasy, I wasn’t able to say anything, but I was able to give them a thumbs up that she’s okay, she’s in this towel, she’s okay. We put her back down on the tarp, we got behind the nearest bush, so we were probably about five feet from her, very close. And we just watched her revive herself and then she scrambled up the tree. The baby jumped back on her back and she darted off and she was gone.

We never saw her again, we saw many more lemurs, we didn’t capture another single one. And so I think of her and I think of that success and I think of all of the amazing things that had to happen in order for that moment to have occurred. That night back at camp, we ate and we ended up sitting by the fire, celebrating, everyone on the team, botanists, herpetologists, the whole team was so excited for our accomplishment that day. And there’s a lot of chatter and there’s a lot of celebratory drinking and fun and songs and music, but I found myself sneaking away early and I wrote in my journal, this is what I wrote about how I felt that night after catching the Lemur. I feel like such a badass like I am the shit, I am so cool and unstoppable, I’m doing something new and adventurous and it’s awesome and it’s for the betterment of the planet, today was a good feeling day, smiley face.

Before I finish, I want to express my gratitude to the universe for today’s success for this opportunity and for the upwards momentum of my life. I am so amazingly fortunate. Years later, looking back, I know for a fact that that success that day with that mama lemur helped me to permanently see myself as a badass. I have not changed that perception of myself ever since and it has made a world of difference in terms of the risks I take, the value that I think that I have, the imposter syndrome that I’m able to tame. And I had this knowledge that I had done something brand new, something that not only I had ever done before, but something that no one had ever done before in that place, something really important. I can honestly say that starting at that very moment, I started betting on myself almost all the time and it changed my career path. I mean, I wouldn’t even be recording a podcast today if I hadn’t started thinking outside of the box and believing that I have good ideas and I’m competent.

I have heard a couple of tidbits of information about this mother lemur since I left Madagascar years ago now, and there has been a small team of graduate students that have braved this rainforest and set up camp for several months in order to monitor the lemur population and try to understand their behavior a little bit more. And because this lemur has a bright neon-colored collar around her neck, she’s easily identifiable. And I have heard that she’s doing great. As for the secret rainforest, I wish I could say that it is protected and it’s a new national park, but these things take so many years to formalize and a lot of cooperation at the government level, which is tough. But I am happy to say, it’s still there, it’s still intact, it’s still thriving with life and most importantly, it hasn’t been pillaged for resources. It’s well on its way to receiving protected area status and it’s going to become an icon for conservation in the country.

You just listened to Going Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant. If you want to support us, you can follow Going Wild on your favorite podcast listening app, while you’re there, please leave us a review, it really helps. You can also get updates and bonus content by following me, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, and PBS Nature on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook. You can catch new episodes of Nature Wednesdays at 8/7c on PBS, pbs.org/nature, and the PBS video app. This episode of Going Wild was hosted and written by me, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, production by Rachel Aronoff, Danielle Broza, Nathan Tobey, and Great Feeling Studios. Editing and sound design by Jakob Lewis. Danielle Broza is the digital lead and Fred Kaufman is the executive producer for Nature. Art for this podcast was created by Arianna Bollers and Karen Brazell. Special thanks to Amanda Schmidt, Blanche Robertson, Jane Lisi, Chelsey Saatkamp, Natasha Padilla, and Karen Ho.

Going Wild is a new podcast by PBS Nature. Nature is an award-winning series created by the WNET Group and made possible by all of you. Funding for this podcast was provided by grants from the Anderson Family Charitable Fund and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Nature Podcasts

© 2022 WNET. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.