Reflections and Thanks
So what did I learn from my trip to Madagascar?
Well, I learned a lot before I even left home. I read some great books about the wildlife, history, and culture of Madagascar (see Bibliography). I certainly learned a lot about the fossa, an animal I'd never even heard of before. That's all stuff I could learn from books; the trip just gave me the motivation to study the subject.
But once I arrived in Madagascar, I had a chance to put all that book learning in context. The things that I really learned from my trip, the things that will stay with me, are more impressions and feelings than facts. I had a chance to experience field work, and realized that I'd much rather drop into an established project than be in charge of all the logistics of planning one. I had the chance to see firsthand some of the wildlife I'd read about, and found that it's one thing to read about an animal, it's quite another more amazing thing to see it a few feet away, to observe it in its natural habitat.
I think more than anything though I gained an appreciation for Madagascar - not only its wildlife, but also its people and their culture, and the state of conservation there. While I am still not optimistic about the future of Madagascar's wildlife, it was very encouraging to see the efforts made by people like Luke to integrate local people into conservation plans. I learned something seemingly obvious, yet so important - a conservation plan is destined to fail unless it has real economic benefits for the people who live there. We cannot separate the people from the environment - they are an integral part of that community, and a successful conservation plan must have their cooperation. In a country as desperately poor as Madagascar, that means conservation must help put food on the table.
I also feel I gained a new appreciation not only for how much we in our incredibly wealthy country have and take for granted, but also a reminder of what's really important in life. At the risk of romanticizing what I'm sure is in some respects a harsh life - medical care for example seems very substandard in Madagascar - I was struck by how happy most of the rural people seemed, although by our standards they had very little in the way of mterial goods. They lived in thatch homes, slept on dirt floors, ate rice three meals a day, had not TV, no car, no refrigerator...but they seemed to have incredibly strong ties to family and community and to their land. And their warmth and sincerity extende even to us wealthy vazaha who just came for a short visit.
I'd like to thank everyone who helped make this trip possible. Thanks to Luke Dollar for taking on Earthwatch volunteers. Thanks to Menlo School, Earthwatch, and the Klingenstein Foundation for helping to pay for my trip. Thanks to all my fellow volunteers for making the trip such an interesting and enjoyable one - I enjoyed working with all of you and making some new friends. And thanks to my family and friends for all their support, and for listening to all my stories!