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Researchers with rickshaws transform Madagascar lab

Madagascar WetlandsBiology students in Madagascar whose laboratory once had no furniture — much less internet access — now have access to laptops, GPS receivers and other equipment that will let them monitor and conserve the environment with satellite technology.

The equipment and training came from scientists at the University of Bath who helped transform a previously empty room at the University of Toliara into a Geographical Information Science (GIS) lab.

“It was an interesting challenge — the lab didn’t have any furniture, or even a door, let alone internet access,” said Tamás Székely with the University of Bath’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry. “We had to transport all the books, laptops, printers and field equipment using rickshaws!”

Székely and fellow researcher Peter Long also collaborated with Sama Zefania at the University of Toliara to run courses to train Madagascan biology graduates to analyse satellite images for projects ranging from environmental conservation to planning and forestry management.

Their efforts were supported by The Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Ralph Brown Expedition Award.

“We’ve been working with colleagues at the University of Toliara for several years, studying the use of wetlands in Madagascar for farming and fishing, and looking at how these activities will be affected by future climate change, deforestation and human population growth,” Long said. “We noticed that the local biology graduates have quite an old-fashioned education at university. So they don’t have the transferable skills they need to be able to work in environmental impact jobs such as park management, geographical planning and the mining industry. This means that companies employ foreign workers to do these jobs instead.”

“So we decided to set up a lab there and run workshops to teach these specialist skills to lecturers and students at the university. We’re hoping to continue running workshops and help the students into the careers they want to do.”

The collaboration has enabled Kafosay Felestin, a postgraduate student in geography at the University of Toliara, to spend two months doing fieldwork in the lower Mangoky region to understand how rural people use wetlands.

“I was really happy to be able to work with the Bath team,” Kafosay said. “This project was an opportunity for me to learn how to perform the latest GIS analysis, get into the field with all the equipment I needed, and improve my English by working closely with the British team.”

“It was great to work with some really enthusiastic Malagasy students in Toliara,” Long said. “I’m confident that this small project has given valuable training to the students we worked with and it was great to be able to leave the legacy of a small library, laptops and field equipment so that Toliara students in future will be able to do high-quality field research in their local environment.”

Kafosay hopes to continue to do a PhD on conservation of wetlands in Madagascar. He feels that working with scientists from both the University of Bath and Cardiff University has helped him towards this goal.

“I now know how to plan scientific research and compete for grant funding from international agencies,” he said.

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