There is a touch of gold fever in the small western Madagascan town of Ankavandra and schoolgirls are being affected.
Rural poverty coupled with record world gold prices is proving an irresistible pull for young girls in and around Ankavandra who are being lured away from class and into the foothills of the central plateau area by the promise of a few flecks of gold.
Nearly every day a group of five girls, all related and aged 8-15, wake at dawn to begin a two-hour brisk walk up steep goat tracks to one of the many tributaries of the River Manambolo. As they draw closer to their destination their numbers swell to about 20 people, as parents with young children and other groups of girls, some appearing to be as young as five, join them.
On their heads - and to protect them from the scorching sun - they place the gold-panning bowls, which are made locally of wood and cost the equivalent of about US$5 each.
Cattle thieves ('Dahalo') in search of 'zebu', Madagascar's distinctive hump-backed cattle, frequent these hills, but so far there have been no reports of them switching into the gold-panning trade.
The girls, who asked not be named, told IRIN they were by no means the only ones from the district engaged in gold panning. "Girls do this because the boys usually have to look after the 'zebu'," they said.
The work is physically demanding. The sides of the river bank are hacked out with shovels and iron bars and the soil and rocks piled onto the wooden bowls, which are then taken to the nearby stream to be panned.
During the couple of hours IRIN spent with the girls, they probably dug out a couple of hundred kilograms of mud each, and never stopped for a break. They spend about six hours a day panning, and with the travelling time that makes for a more than 10-hour working day. They brought no food with them.
According to Madagascar's mining code, gold panners have to purchase an annual permit for a few dollars, while gold dealers collecting the gold pay about US$50 for an annual permit. These taxes are supposed to go into district coffers for the improvement of local services, but the girls IRIN spoke to said they had never paid any dues.
The website of Paris-based mineral exploration company Zamarat Mining, which has established a local subsidiary, Zamarat Mining Madagascar, estimates there are about 150,000 gold panners in the country, producing 3-4 tons of gold annually, although it acknowledged "gold smuggling is a major problem."
The UN Development Programme Human Development Index, which ranks Madagascar at 135 out of 169 countries, estimates nearly 70 percent of the island's 20 million people live on US$1.25 a day or less.
In their best week in the past few years the girls made about US$14 each, working a six day week - more than double what they could have earned doing other menial tasks like washing clothes.
The girls say they do the work with their parents' blessing and the proceeds are used to buy clothes and food.
A gold fragment half the size of a rice grain still arouses great excitement among the panners. The gold is sold at general trading stores in Ankavandra for 70,000 Malagasy ariary (US$36.50) a gram; the minimum quantity they can sell is one tenth of a gram.