Researcher as a political animal

Lords and Lemurs
April 22, 2005

The characteristics most of us would associate with a good "field biologist" might include adventurousness, a fascination with unusual organisms, a willingness to work long, hard hours, to get dirty, bathe out of buckets, and perhaps the ability to "MacGyver" solutions to difficult situations, such as when the Jeep breaks down three hours from the nearest small town in the desert region of a foreign country. But it turns out that working in the "field" requires a much more impressive skill set. The successful field biologist, we learn from Alison Jolly's enjoyable Lords and Lemurs , must also be a supreme diplomat to negotiate the sometimes tricky politics that can be characteristic of even the tiniest and most isolated of places.

Such is the case for Berenty, a small forest preserve in southern Madagascar that remains a holdout for a half-dozen or so species of lemurs and many other fascinating creatures. Berenty is an island forest in a sea of sisal. It is the preserve in which Jolly has spent 40 years studying the ecology and social behaviour of the ring-tailed lemur, a gregarious primate that looks like a cross between the domestic cat and a raccoon.

Berenty is owned by a colonial aristocratic French family, the de Heaulmes, who have managed it and the surrounding sisal plantation in the manner of feudal lords since 1928. It is also the home of the Tandroy tribespeople, many of whom still live in traditional villages and work the de Heaulmes's sisal fields.

The island is routinely visited by large groups of tourists, many of whom like nothing better than to encourage conflicts among the habituated lemurs by feeding them bananas as a prelude to a French meal in the preserve's single restaurant. One also sees coiffed French film crews who smudge dirt on the faces of their "journalist-actors" for effect before interviewing Alison and the Berenty biologists in the little stand of forest beside the parking lot of the restaurant.

It is a remarkably comfortable research site. Researchers rise with the sun to begin data collection, take siesta with the lemurs for three hours in the heat of the day, collect more data through the afternoon and early evening, prepare dinner communally, then perhaps read for a bit before retiring to bed.

Only two types of events interrupt this simple pattern. The more predictable of these is the periodic trip to Fort Dauphin, a relatively large city on the coast of southern Madagascar, where supplies are replenished and researchers weary of routine recharge through visits to the disco or the beach. The less predictable interruptions manifest in the form of small-town politics -regarding, for example, Monsieur de Heaulme's rules for how researchers and the Tandroy may interact on his "estate".

In 1996, between my undergraduate studies and graduate school, I worked at Berenty as a student of Jolly. I was studying the social behaviour of male ring-tailed lemurs as they migrated out of their natal social groups and attempted to join new groups. This is, for them, a difficult task because it involves fighting with the resident males and gaining the friendship and support of the resident females. (Interestingly, females are dominant and often beat up males during conflicts.) I found the preserve, with its spiny desert and its troops of lemurs, fantastic. But having enjoyed more "egalitarian" relationships with local folk during an semester in Tanzania a year before, I found the politics of Berenty, and the behaviour of the de Heaulmes towards the student researchers and the Tandroy, oppressive. At the time I did, however, have some sense that the power politics underlying the running of a place that is simultaneously research station, preserve and plantation, French colonial and indigenous Tandroy, was more complex than I could grasp in a two-month visit.

The situation is well illustrated by an affectionate comment by one of the Tandroy that Jolly relates:"Monsieur de Heaulme asked my grandfather for land (pausing to laugh). My grandfather said, 'Of course! You may take whatever you need.' We all thought he wanted a cornfield! Just a half-hectare to cut and burn like anybody else. Later he asked for more. It was a long, long time before we understood he wanted the whole forest." I wish I could have read Lords and Lemurs before my stay in Berenty. It would have enriched my experience and, perhaps, made me less quick to judge the decisions and actions of the personalities there, though I am not suggesting that its history justifies the questionable behaviour of the de Heaulmes, or of the researchers for that matter.

Jolly captures the complexity of Berenty and the diplomatic life of an itinerant field biologist remarkably well. Her book is an engaging read that provides insights into lemur behaviour, the labyrinthine muddle of conservation politics and the importance of understanding local history - Ja history that has shaped, and has been shaped by, Berenty's unique forest ecology, economics, the de Heaulmes, the Tandroy, and our oldest primate ancestors and their researchers.

Jessica Flack is a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, US.

Lords and Lemurs: Mad Scientists, Kings with Spears, and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar

Author - Alison Jolly
Publisher - Houghton Mifflin
Pages - 310
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 618 36751 9

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