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Giving Back to Madagascar

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the spread of infections diseases to humans through bats consumed as bushmeat.  —- During my senior year of undergrad at Stanford University, a close friend called me up one Friday afternoon to ask if she could borrow “any safari clothes you might have on hand.” She was...

Sunrise over a charred landscape. Ambakoana Pteropus rufus roost, District of Moramanga, Madagascar. Photo by Cara Brook.

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the spread of infections diseases to humans through bats consumed as bushmeat. 


During my senior year of undergrad at Stanford University, a close friend called me up one Friday afternoon to ask if she could borrow “any safari clothes you might have on hand.” She was attending a themed party—as is the college student fomba américan—and needed to dress, from the perspective of her childhood, as “the person you wanted to be when you grew up.”

“I wanted to be Jane Goodall,” said Tiffany, now halfway through her third year of med school, “and you were the closest thing I could think of.”


It is true that I had QuickDry khakis enough to satisfy Tiff’s costume demands, but at the time, I felt a long ways from the person I have always wanted to be. Not for lack of trying, of course—I’ve always wanted to make a difference for the world around me, but up to a certain point in life, you usually gain more from life experience than you can contribute. But graduate school is an amazing thing because, for the first time ever, I feel that I am truly giving back.

Team Work

I write to you once again returned to Tana after a week of netting Pteropus rufus in the Mangoro River Valley of the District of Moramanga, Madagascar. I spent the week camped in a desolate moonscape—a swath of deforestation, doro-tanetry charcoal, and blazing sunlight.

At night, I sat on a ridgetop and watched our bat nets flutter in the wind, lit by the flickering mitselatra (lightning of the sort that does not touch the ground) on the horizon mingled with the warm glow of many tavy fires. Once more, I worked with Christian and with Ando the bat hunter, but also with Rabetso the coal maker and his daughter, Malala, who—though not yet sixteen—can turned downed eucalypts into boiling water and a sack of dried rice, beans, and carrots into food upon a moment’s notice.

Our work is going exceedingly well, and our sample size for Pteropus is now over the magical number of thirty—a somewhat arbitrary baseline by which the scientific world deems that you can suddenly say something about something. I breathe a little easier to think that I may yet convince my research committee that I can pull this all off. And I feel justified in turning my attention to netting the cave-roosting Eidolon dupreanum when I head to the field once again tomorrow…

Something Meaningful 

For the moment, though, I marvel at how wonderful it feels to be doing something meaningful—for science, for conservation, and for people, too. Watching Ando scale a tree to hang a bat net from a fishing line, I can’t help but sometimes think I am rather unessential to my own work, but then again, he would not be paid to do this at all if I were not here—and I’d rather see him netting bats for conservation than consumption.

And when Rabetso explains that we need a slingshot to shoot Ando’s fishing line over the mouth of the valley, I stun everyone because I have brought one along from America—you never know. Perhaps I have a better idea of what this all takes than even I realize…

I mentioned last week that I’ve been in discussions with several local NGOs about initiating a community bat monitoring project in the Mangoro Valley—coupled with disease data collection, too. It’s exciting to consider doing something real—for so long I have talked about the person I wish to become, the things I wish to do, and the time is finally here to be that person and do those things.

Living Simply 

I was lucky enough to have vazaha visitors this past week sur terrain, and it was wonderful to bring together two very different lives—my Malagasy field team and my ex-pat Tana friends—and talk sustainable development and community conservation and hatch plans for real-world interventions. And it was touching, too, to watch Ando gesticulating wildly over the campfire in an effort to make himself understood to our still-developing Malagasy language skills.

I welcomed my generous friends’ gifts of fruits and vegetables and treats from the city, but could not help but notice how our plastic waste trash bag doubled in size with the arrival of these new, foreign products. My habitual life sur terrain is so exceedingly simple, and it astonishes me how with a mere gony (rice sack) of grain, beans, root vegetables, and salt, we can feed a team for weeks on end.

My western life so complicates my diet—and all other aspects of life, too! I stunned myself yesterday when I counted back the number of showers I have taken since returning to Madagascar on October 27, and I realized they can be totaled with only my two hands—nine.

Time in the city is welcome every now and again—and I am sure those around me appreciate the diminished stench—but I am eager to get back to the ambanivohitra once more. Life is more authentic in rural Madagascar, and I feel I am a truer version of myself when camped in a coal field with only a bat net and the Milky Way for company.

I find, too, that I have more time to think and reflect out there in the middle of nowhere—and it is sur terrain that my Malagasy language skills have really begun to take off. Somehow, I just never seem to find the time to study those vocab words in Tana—let alone at Princeton. In the busyness of developed world life, I always seem to find too many important things to do—though, really, on so many levels, speaking Malagasy is the most important thing I could ever do.

But, as ever, I am glad to lead so many lives at once—and to be reminded now and again of why I choose to lose myself in the Malagasy countryside. Like Steinbeck into the Sea of Cortez, I go out there to “become..truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.”

Read the entire blog series

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Meet the Author

Cara Brook
My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.