MAPA in Madagascar

Posted on November 18th, 2010 in MAPA expeditions by Administrator

Hi Everyone, greetings from Cape Town.

As Alta, Kath, Jelle and Norbert battle with floods in Nigeria and Benin, Eric Nathan and I have just got back from five weeks in Madagascar.

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I’ve spent most of my life waiting for the chance to go to Madagascar and finally it was made possible by being involved with this project! IMG_2407

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Madagascar has about 55 protected areas (the number is changing for the better all the time).  They are all on the  Google Earth layer or soon will be.  MAPA followers will know that we then take a subset of all the protected areas in a country and try to actually map the infrastructure with GPS equipment.  Like West Africa – where our focus is this year – there are very few roads inside Madagascan parks and that is usually the bulk of the GPS work we do in protected areas. However, there are several parks which do have tourist and wildlife infrastructure, so we decided to give it a go.

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WWF Madagascar were incredibly helpful in identifying the best parks for site visits and they also rented us a Land Rover for our time in the country.  Sincere thanks to Niall O’Connor (now in Nairobi), Martina Lippuner and Hilda Andriamandimbiarisoa.  Special thanks also to Fidele Rasoloarivelo who did all the driving and made the trip so successful.

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We did over 8,000km and travelled the length and breadth of this enormous island (it’s nearly 2,000km from top to bottom) during our month in Madagascar. We visited 14 parks or reserves, marking up park HQs, campsites, trailheads and the like.  We also did quite a few short hikes and a few longer ones.  Hiking is not really part of the MAPA remit but it does help us illustrate the parks and you can’t visit places like this and not see what they offer!

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Strictly from a MAPA perspective, we did not gather a huge amount of GPS data.  We did record roads, tracks, hikes andwaypoints but nothing like the amount we get in Southern and East Africa.  We are finding the same in West Africa though for slightly different reasons. Many protected areas in West Africa have fallen into disuse over time but most of Madagascar’s parks are relatively new – they are just set up to be walking parks.

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We did come away with conflicting feelings about Madagascar.  A month is not long but it is a lot longer than most tourists spend there.  On Discovery Channel, and in the annual reports of conservation NGOs, you see wonderful images of outlandish chameleons and dancing sifakas.  They are indeed there and they are fabulous.  But if you drive all over the island, as we did, you also see the other side of the equation; Madagascar is suffering dreadfully under a huge agricultural burden.  There is very little forest left in the  country (it was once almost completely forested) and conservationists  are scrambling to protect the tiny fragments that are left.

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The country is cripplingly poor and the vast majority of people are farmers to some extent.  The agricultural economy is based on cattle and rice, neither of which are compatible with forests and everywhere you go you go you see trees being cut down and (in the dry season) huge swathes of the countryside on fire.  The burning is to clear land for crops and to stimulate new grass for grazing but it is done too widely and too often.  I can’t remember the figures for how much topsoil is being lost every year but the land is being impoverished in front of your eyes; where the hills are forested the rivers run as clear as trout streams, where they are cleared (most places), the rivers run thick with orange silt, off to fertilise the Indian Ocean.  It’s no wonder that professional conservationists are pedalling so hard to protect the  last scraps of indigenous forest.

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Of course that indigenous landscape is the astonishing thing about Madagascar.   Because it has been an island for long, its plant and animal communities are largely found nowhere else on earth.  Almost every chameleon you find, every gecko you see on the ceiling, and every lemur is found nowhere else.  We saw 24 different species of lemur (out of about 33?), the carnivorous fossa and an endemic mongoose.   We saw chameleons as long as your forearm and heard geckos that sounded like birds.

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It is all remarkable and I hope that many more people go to look for these things – the country needs the money and the wildlife needs your undivided attention.  But don’t leave it too long.

Notes on Nigeria: nice people, nasty bugs, and non-navigable tracks

Posted on November 17th, 2010 in MAPA expeditions by Alta

“You are welcome!” When we leave Nigeria this week this phrase – one that is uttered as often as hooters are used in downtown Lagos – is certainly one of the things I’ll miss the most.

For the last two and a half weeks two of the three members that make up the MAPA rich content team have navigated our way from virtual to on-the ground to experience the “other” side of the project, joining a team of volunteer mappers in Nigeria and swapping desks and laptops for Cruisers, tents and GPSes.

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Our mission in Nigeria was to map all the national parks – a mission we were very excited about. Nigeria does not exactly make any “countries you most want to visit” lists, but it boasts rainforest, savannah, and wetlands hosting an amazing diversity of animals, including the lovable Mandrills and the world’s most threatened great ape: the Cross River gorilla.

On top of that we were in for a cultural treat: Nigeria is home to more than 300 tribes, with a remarkable history of ancient kingdoms and beautiful present day crafts and cloth. From a rich content point of view, we were very excited to learn more about the work that Nigerians put into preserving their own natural heritage – they certainly have their fair share of challenges to deal with –the troubled Niger delta, for example, has seen more than 7,000 oil spills in the last 40 years.

But in Africa everything is determined by the rains, and the weather gods were not smiling upon us this time around. We had arrived a little too early to start with and this has been an unusually wet year. By the time we got to Old Oyo – the first national park on our list, we were told that we weren’t going to experience much of the Nigerians parks. And we would soon confirm that for ourselves.

Having already resigned ourselves to the few dirt tracks that were doable (would you cross this river?) in Old Oyo’s northernmost corner, we mapped exactly 320m of one such track before we found ourselves stuck door deep in sticky mud.

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What followed probably epitomizes our Nigerian experience so far: wet parks, hungry insects (a good ration of our blood is flying around Old Oyo and Kanji Lake national parks as I write this) – and incredibly helpful and hospitable people.

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Within minutes of getting stuck the entire field staff of Old Oyo was there to help us dig, winch, dig, tow, jack, drain, dig, chop dry wood and dig some more. They would stay with us the whole day, desperately unhappy that this was our experience of their park (despite warning us about the wet roads before) and feeling as despondent and defeated as we were when, by 4pm, we still had not managed to get the old Cruiser out. Well, not all of us showed despondency. To our great amusement one staff member was chopping and scurrying left, right and centre. “He’s new” his colleague explained. “To the park?” we asked. He shaked his head and smiled: “To today”.

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As “today” drew to a close, the cruiser still stuck up to her snorkel in fine, sticky sediment, we awaited the arrival of some truckers from a nearby village, who would eventually get us out with a “manual” high-lift jacking system (we had no high lift jack of our own and are definitely NOT fans of air jacks in mud) comprising tree trunks and multiple bottle jacks.

Despite our disappointment at not being able to map Nigeria’s national park system – we’ve already made the decision to head for the (drier) parks of Northern Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso – the kind of helpfulness we had experienced in Old Oyo is exactly what has made this trip a thoroughly enjoyable one.

When we came to Nigeria, many of our friends and family were somewhat concerned. Several foreign embassies warn against travelling here, kidnappings are common in parts, none of our banks will allow us to use our bank cards here, and we have been told horror stories about police roadblocks.

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Our experience of Nigeria has been nothing like we were warned it might be. Sure, maybe we won’t go for a paddle on the Niger delta or hang out under the flyovers at Lagos Island at night, but we haven’t felt unsafe and have been assisted by everyone from the folks from the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, to strangers on bikes who gave directions, to park officials to hotel managers to new friends made in Abuja who invited us into their homes for lunch.

I have never heard “You are welcome” so many times. After nearly three weeks here, we certainly feel it.

A new way to see national parks

Posted on November 4th, 2010 in General,New Content by Alta

One of the exciting new features of Google Earth 5.2 (the newest version of Google Earth released in May) is the ability to turn any GPS track into a quick tour.

This was great news for us! Over the last year, dozens of MAPA volunteers have crossed the African continent to map national parks and other protected areas, taking pictures and logging waypoints and tracks as they went along. Up until now we haven’t really had a good way to share these experiences with you, but thanks to the ability to turn tracks into tours almost with the click of a button, we can now fly you along our adventures through selected National parks.

To give you a feel for this, we’ve added the first of these quick tours to the layer – for Iona National Park in south-western Angola.  Iona is definitely not Africa’s most accessible or charismatic park – save for a few Gemsbok, Ostrich and – if you’re lucky – Springbok, you’re unlikely to find any big game here.  But with Olive Ridley turtles surfing the crocodile-infested Foz de Kunene, ancient Welwitchia mirabilis littering the lunar-like landscapes that make up the north of the Park and the rugged “striped” mountains and nomadic Himba villages of the east, it still has plenty of charm.

To play the tour, simply click on the “click here to see more” button at the top of the Google Earth bubble, and then click on the track icon in the side panel (as shown below). We’ve included photographs of our visits to the north-eastern stretch to Iona, so as you drive along the landscape, feel free to stop the tour and have a look for yourself. Want to create a tour with your own GPS-tracks? See here for more, or have a look at our step-by-step guidefor the the Iona track.

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We’d like to hear your feedback on this feature – do you find it helpful and interactive? And which parks would you like us to add next? Please let us know!