Conservation in action: studying the fossa with Earthwatch

12 August 2011 | News story

For two weeks I was part of the expedition "Carnivores of Madagascar" organized by Earthwatch, an IUCN Member. My participation as a volunteer was supported by IUCN Headquarters and the Regional Office for Europe. 

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and part of the Madagascar and Indian Ocean Islands biodiversity hotspot. Separated from the main landmass about 80 million years ago, the country boasts a unique biodiversity exhibiting high levels of endemism. Forested land is in continuous decline threatening biodiversity.

The tropical dry deciduous forest of the National Park Ankarafantsika is one of the few areas where the unusual predator fossa can be found in Madagascar. Fossas are the largest carnivores of the island. These cat-like animals are related to the mongoose family. Prof. Luke Dollar and his research team have been monitoring the population of fossa in this area for the last 12 years with the support of dozens of Earthwatch volunteers. It is the first long-term study of carnivores in Madagascar.

Together with other 17 volunteers coming from all walks of life, I helped collect data and raise awareness among the local population on the need to protect nature. The project led by Prof. Dollar aims to gather information to improve the conservation measures for carnivore species in this part of Madagascar, while involving the local population and building capacity to ensure the project continues in the long-term. The main activities of the project were trapping surveys, measuring and processing captures, camera traps, species counts and local community engagement initiatives. As a volunteer, I took part in the various tasks given by the research staff.

The most exciting activity was to walk the trap trails to monitor captures. Together with a staff member and a couple of volunteers we would walk in the forest for a few hours to check the cages on the trail. What a thrill it was every time we would approach a cage! A fossa could be there! Unfortunately, no fossa was caught during the surveys I took part in. But other teams did catch two.

Madagascar’s biodiversity is amazing. Besides the fossa, the Ankarafantsika Park boasts seven lemur species, including the coquerel’s sifaka, the mongoose lemur, and the woolly, sportive, and mouse lemurs, and a variety of bird, reptile and amphibian species. The vegetation includes baobob trees, precious woods such as palisandre, and many species of terrestrial and epiphytic orchids. Although the best season to observe wildlife is the rainy season when species mate and breed, spotting animals was quite easy. The research camp where we were staying was surrounded by trees where you could see the tiny mouse lemurs every evening. Snakes, geckos and chameleons were usual guests at the camp, as well as some scorpions and spiders.

The expedition was organized by Earthwatch which has been a member of IUCN since 1990. Founded in 1971, Earthwatch is an international environmental charity which engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.

This trip has been a fantastic adventure and learning experience for me. I have had the chance to work closely with very knowledgeable and committed scientists whose work is so crucial for the conservation and even survival of the fossas. I very much liked the community aspect of this project too; what I have contributed to was not just environmental research, but the promotion of sustainable development among the local population. It has been a memorable experience!

In the following links you can find out more details about my participation in the expedition and the fossa:

Pictures with commentary

Larger selection of pictures

More information

Article by Liza Drius
Communications Officer
IUCN Europe