24 January 2024

A rainbow every day: the Madagascar fieldwork experience

Explore the incredible colours behind a day in the life of a field researcher in Madagascar.

By Elliot Convery Fisher

A madagascar landscape with green fields and blue skies

Stepping into Madagascar offers an immersive sensory experience. 

Elliot Convery Fisher is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh and Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. He works with the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre to examine the relationship between fire and fire-tolerant plants. His work informs Kew’s conservation efforts in Madagascar’s endangered fire-driven ecosystems. 

In the summer of 2023, Elliot spent three months in Madagascar studying wildfires. We asked him to give us a sense of life on a fieldwork expedition to Madagascar. Here, Elliot chronicles a typical and colourful day for his team in the field.

Black - Embracing the charcoal symphony

In the early morning haze at 6am, we awoke to the intoxicating aroma of coffee mingling with the scent of smoky homes fueled by firewood and charcoal. 

We headed to nearby huts for mofo gasy, a sweet Madagascan bread made from rice flour, and coffee, where I also found the chance to practice my Malagasy language skills.

A collection of pieces of food being cooked in a stone oven
Mofo gasy being cooked © Elliot Convery Fisher

Red - The Earth's vibrant brushstrokes

At 7am, as the sun rises, the landscape unfolds in breathtaking earthy reds. 

Mud homes, crafted from the very soil that nurtures the land, provide shelter and meals that are generously offered to us by local villagers living near our research sites. 

Their kindness is invaluable to our work.

A large house made of concrete
A Malagasy home © Elliot Convery Fisher
A collection of researchers standing in front of a mud wall
Local villagers near the tapia tree research sites © Elliot Convery Fisher

Orange - The Earth's bumpy pathway

The roads of Madagascar: treacherous and unforgiving. They tested both our vehicles and our determination.

Improvisation became a necessity as we created makeshift paths to venture deeper into the countryside. 

A few unsuspecting tourists, who perhaps underestimated the road's power, might have questioned their choice of rental vehicles – even our 4x4s succumbed to the trials of these notorious paths.

Despite the challenges, we embraced the adventure, knowing that remote villages and their tales of resilience were waiting for us.

A large covered truck stuck in a muddy road
Rough roads in Madagascar © Elliot Convery Fisher

Green - The serenity of tapia trees

By 9am, seeking refuge from the equatorial heat, we found solace beneath the verdant canopy of tapia trees (Uapaca bojeri). These are the plants we’ve been looking for! 

Here, time slows down, allowing us to observe, measure, and unravel the role of fire in plant growth.

A person in a wide open landscape checking the height of a tree
Checking a tapia tree © Elliot Convery Fisher

White - Rice, the sustenance of life

In Madagascar, rice is a staple, and we ate mountains of it. 

At mealtimes, rice serves as the backbone of local cuisine, accompanied by cassava leaves (if you are far from the nearest town), protein (if you are lucky), and pasta (if you are desperate!). 

From breakfast to dinner, these white grains dominate the plate, providing the necessary calories for survival. 

But rice lacks essential nutrients, so relying solely on it as a food source poses challenges. It highlights the need to support improved nutrition for Malagasy people.

Since 2015, the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC) have been working to conserve wild yams in the Sofia and Diana Regions.

They have developed community cultivation alongside increased growing and marketing of the cultivated winged yam, not native to Madagascar, to improve livelihoods and food security.

A person standing over a pot of rice on an open campfire
Cooking rice © Elliot Convery Fisher

Silver - The invaluable language of tags

In our research arsenal, simple silver tags take on a profound significance. 

Each meticulously crafted label becomes a key that helps the team unlock the intricate world of fire-dependent ecosystems. 

With painstaking dedication, we attach them to trees as we measure their size, in an attempt to understand the interplay between fire and the growth rates of tapia trees. 

By the end of the fieldwork, we have tagged over 11,000 trees, which is a lot of metal! The tags are essential to allow us to find the same tree again, as we return year after year to see how the ecology of tapia differs with new disturbances like fire, a changing climate and human interactions.

The cracked brown grey bark of a tree with a small metal silver tag
A tapia tree with tag © Elliot Convery Fisher
A scientist tagging a tapia tree with a small metal tag
A scientist tagging a tapia tree © Elliot Convery Fisher

Grey - The significance of tapia trees

Tapia trees hold great importance both culturally and economically in Madagascar. 

Local communities harvest the cocoons of a caterpillar (Borocera cajani) found within tapia forests, providing an important income source. 

The fried caterpillars are consumed, while the cocoons are made into unique silk that can only be produced from this species. This silk is used during the annual turning of the bones, or Famadihana, where people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors and rewrap them in fresh silk cloth. 

Understanding how fire affects tapia trees will help us develop fire management plans to ensure the future of this important human-plant connection.

A silkworm and cocoon on the branch of a tapia tree
A tapia silkworm (Borocera cajani) and cocoon on the branch of a tapia tree © Elliot Convery Fisher
A person smiling and wearing a silk garment
The silk of the tapia tree is used to make garments and burial shrouds © Elliot Convery Fisher

Brown - Ranonapango's tantalizing revelation

At 3pm, still within the embrace of the field, we stumbled upon a surprising elixir, ranonapango, born from the remnants of boiled rice at the bottom of the pan. 

This earthy brown infusion, a testament to resourcefulness, becomes our trusted companion, quenching our thirst and nourishing our spirits. Its unique flavour serves as a reminder that even in the remotest corners of the world, there are always unexpected delights to discover.

A metal pot on a campfire with a brown liquid at the bottom
Ranonapango being prepared © Elliot Convery Fisher

Gold - The journey homeward, illuminated

As the sun bids farewell around 4pm, its golden rays transform the landscape into a breathtaking spectacle. The grasses and fields glisten as if adorned with nature's crown jewels. 

Guided by this ethereal light, we navigate the rugged paths that lead us back home, carrying with us the immeasurable wealth of experiences, knowledge, and a profound connection to the enchanting land we call our laboratory.

A line of people walking through a field of golden grass
Walking home © Elliot Convery Fisher

Yellow - The joy of fieldwork

Venturing into Madagascar's vibrant ecosystem as a field researcher is a journey of profound significance. 

Amidst the vivid hues, we discover not only the splendour of nature but also the delicate interplay between communities and traditions through science. 

The vivid colours of Madagascar's landscapes weave a tapestry that beckons us to explore, protect, and cherish the people and plants that make this awe-inspiring corner of our planet their home.

A person in a red coat standing in a golden field
Madagascar fieldwork © Elliot Convery Fisher

Elliot Convery Fisher's work is supported by: Feedback Madagascar, Ny-Tanintsika, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, RGS-IBG (Albert Reckitt Award)