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A Talk on the Wild Side.

In the Words of Marty the Zebra: This lemur project in Madagascar is crackalackin’!

Madagasar Madagascar, “Lemur Land.” Photo by Son of Groucho, creative commons license

Betsy Painter of our International Affairs team tells us about some important work in Madagascar.

When the motley crew of African animals in the animated movie, Madagascar, encounters King Julien, “self-proclaimed Lord of the Lemurs” and “Robot King of the Monkey Things” for the first time, they are baffled by his bright, beady eyes, long nose, lean, furry body and big bushy tail, not to mention the bizarre crown of leaves on his head.

“He’s got style.”-Marty the Zebra. “What is he, like, king of the guinea pigs?”-Alex the Lion. “I think it’s a squirrel.”-Melman the Giraffe. “Definitely a squirrel.”-Alex the Lion.

 lemur Ring-tailed Lemur, King Julien’s species. Photo by Tambako The Jaguar,creative commons license

Inspired by nature’s actual lemur species, King Julien and his lively, lovable subjects are not far off from the real thing when it comes to location and looks. Just as in the film, lemurs live on Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, and are found nowhere else in the wild.

The island was once a part of a massive supercontinent known as Gondwana, until it broke away from Africa and India millions of years ago. It drifted off on its own like a boat driven by plate tectonics, brimming with numerous plants and animals onboard. Years of isolation allowed Madagascar to evolve into its own magical world with a unique richness of species spread over jungles, plateaus, mountains, rivers and coastlines.

Over time, lemurs adapted to fit specific spots around the island, which is why they came to have different facial attributes, coat markings and body types, as seen in the movie. Peculiar at first glance, they are not monkeys or guinea pigs or squirrels, but a primate species of their own accord, part of a group called “promisimians.” They are delightfully different from any other mammal on earth, with their constantly curious dispositions and life rhythms reflecting their deep connection to nature’s seasons. For instance, they hibernate when vegetation and insects become too scarce during dry seasons of the year. Their only nemesis in nature, like in the film, is the fossa (pronounced “foosa”), a cat-like predator also endemic to the island. However, not mentioned in the cartoon, are the other, perhaps more preeminent threats: habitat destruction and hunting by humans. To battle the human threats, we partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to protect a critically endangered species of lemur, the silky sifaka, in Madagascar’s Makira Natural Park. 

 lemur Black-and-white ruffed lemur. Photo by Mathias Appel, creative commons license 

Although it’s not clear on what part of the island the lemurs live in the film Madagascar, by the variety of lemur species represented on the screen, it’s not a stretch to say it would be somewhere like Makira Natural Park, which is home to 20 lemur species, including the silky sifaka, giving it the highest lemur diversity of any protected area in the country. There are only a few hundred silky sifakas alive in the wild today, and they are critically endangered and threatened by illegal hunting and deforestation by a commonly unsustainable agricultural technique known as slash-and-burn.

To improve law enforcement monitoring, the conservation project with WCS allowed rangers, with help from the community, to monitor and record these illegal activities as well as the lemur populations themselves, using an innovative system called SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool).  Starting in August 2014, thanks to the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-administered Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund, 28 groups led 70 participatory community patrols throughout the park using SMART. The team identified locations of the most intense illegal activities and organized patrols to efficiently respond to the threats. To raise awareness with local communities, the teams held meetings to educate about forestry regulations relating to hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. Finally, a conservation action plan was developed for future monitoring and patrols. 

 lemur Silky sifaka lemur. Photo by muzzanese, creative commons license 

"The support of USFWS made all the difference to our efforts to monitor the populations of the elusive silky sifaka lemur in Makira,” says Alison Clausen, the country director for the WCS Madagascar Program. “This species is one of the rarest primates on earth, yet I think it is one of the most stunning with its all white fur and its whistling call. The local communities that live around the habitat of the silky sifaka were active and engaged partners in the monitoring work, and thanks to their commitment to conserve this magnificent primate we are confident that our conservation efforts for this species in Makira will succeed. We will use the information gathered during this study not only to implement actions to improve conservation but to develop ecotourism activities in the park so that others can come and see the silky sifaka in the wild."

As a result of the hard work of Alison and her team, park managers and the neighboring community, 31 lemur snares were removed from silky sifaka habitat and peripheral areas, and 33 offenders practicing slash-and-burn agriculture were discovered. Fifteen were arrested and 18 were stopped and evicted from the park. Diligent in protecting the silky sifaka lemurs, the team came together to let the law breakers threatening the beloved lemurs know that, in the words of King Julien, they’ve got to “move it, move it” out of the park to make room for healthy habitat and sustainable practices for the lemur populations and the people of Madagascar.                                                                                         

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