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University lifts Madagascar travel ban

Junior Kara Leimberger embarked Monday on an uncommon journey to Madagascar, a country which until last Thursday was on the Restricted Regions List.

The International Travel Oversight Committee put Madagascar on its list of restricted regions Jan. 29 due to political unrest and did not rescind it from the list until Sep. 3, after the Department of State removed its travel alert. Leimberger is the only Duke student taking part in the study abroad opportunity this semester offered through Stony Brook University in New York, a program that only three other Duke students have taken part in since Fall 2005.

“The decision to place Madagascar on the Restricted Regions List was taken because of massive demonstrations and unrest during a power struggle between the then president of Madagascar and the mayor of the capital Antananarivo,” Gilbert Merkx, vice provost for international affairs, wrote in an e-mail. “The president resigned, was replaced by the mayor, and there is now a power-sharing arrangement that will end in new elections. Public unrest has died down, and the situation is again peaceful.”

The ITOC said in a statement Thursday that although safety concerns still exist, the threat to foreigners has decreased. Still, travelers are urged to take precautions by informing themselves of the situation in Madagascar prior to their departure.

“The ITOC reviews changes in the world situation and determines what areas will be restricted, and when restrictions will be lifted,” Margaret Riley, associate dean and director of the Global Education Office for Undergraduates, wrote in an e-mail. “This is done in consultation, as appropriate, with regional experts, and referring to U.S. Department of State recommendations, as well as those from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, and with input from International SOS, who provides our safety and security insurance.”

Patricia Wright, professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments at Stony Brook, founded the Madagascar study abroad program at Stony Brook in 1993. A group of approximately 30 students earn 15 credits distributed among three courses—Biodiversity Methods, Comparative Ecosystems and Primate Behavior and Ecology—taught in English by doctoral-level research scientists from the U.S., Madagascar and Europe, in addition to participating in an independent study research project.

Students spend part of their trip living and studying in the rainforest at Ranomafana National Park where they share the Centre ValBio, a research and training center, with scientists and staff doing biodiversity research. During other parts of the trip, students have shorter stays in other areas of the country for the purpose of introducing them to a variety of cultures, environments and biodiversity in Madagascar.

Wright said she was inspired to create the program at Stony Brook after her research experience in Madagascar in 1990.

“This experience jump-starts people into their lives, whether it be at Stony Brook, Duke or somewhere else,” Wright said. “We have an extraordinary list of alumni of the program all working in conservation and accomplishing incredible things. I want these students to choose something that they’re intensely passionate about and going for it and this program provides that.”

Liemberger said she heard about the program from a fellow Project WILD participant Emily Ice, a senior, who studied in Madagascar last Fall.

“The program really gives you the experience of doing research in a jungle by yourself,” Ice said. “It never hit me how important conservation work is until I saw the jungle burning in front of me.”

Alumni of the program include Martin Kratt, Trinity ’89, and Mark Erdmann, Trinity ’90. Kratt works on the PBS children’s television shows Zoboomafoo, Kratt’s Creatures and Meet the Creatures. Erdmann earned a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley studying the conservation of coral reefs in Indonesia and discovered the first coelacanth, a primitive deep water sea fish, in Asian waters.

“This program provides an incredible opportunity to learn about tropical biology and see these extraordinary plants and animals in this pristine rainforest,” Wright said. “They get to do all of this from a beautiful building built right into the rainforest where they get to see lemurs eye to eye.”

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