The lemur — Madagascar's most famous primate — is on the brink of extinction. The nocturnal animals, known for their pointed snouts and long tails, have been decimated by deforestation, poaching, and the pet trade, but conservationists have a new plan to keep the creatures from vanishing.
Lemurs are unique to Madagascar and there are around 100 different species, but a 2014 report by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that nearly 95 percent of those were at risk of extinction, making them one of the most endangered groups of vertebrates on Earth.
Lemurs face threats on several fronts. While it is illegal in Madagascar to keep them as pets, a recent study by researchers from Temple University found that an estimated 28,000 lemurs have been held in captive in the country since 2012. According to the study, some of the lemurs are kept in the island's hotels for the benefit of tourists, while others are domesticated by locals, who believe they bring good luck. Scientists on the island recently urged locals to release any lemurs kept in captivity.
Deforestation has contributed to the dwindling lemur population. "Lemurs are arboreal," said Jonah Ratsimbazafy, director of Madagascar's Study and Research Group on Primates. "Just like fish, who cannot live without water, lemurs cannot live without a forest."
Less than 10 percent of Madagascar's original forest remains today, Ratsimbazafy said, adding that 10 percent of the island's lemur species have already been lost to extinction. Forests on the island are routinely burned down to make space for farmland, and the illegal logging of precious rosewood — known to locals as "bolabola" — is also an issue.
Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of the IUCN's Species Program and the founder of the SOS Lemurs initiative, described rosewood logging as a "colossal" drain on the island's resources that deprives lemurs of their natural habitat. He said the valuable wood is typically exported to Asia.
According to Vié, the outlook for lemurs has grown steadily worse over the past decade. Conservation efforts continue to be hampered by Madagascar's ongoing political crisis, triggered by the ouster of President Marc Ravalomanana, who was forced to flee the country in the wake of bloody riots and clashes in 2009. "Parks and natural reserves were set up, but poor management and corruption have made things complicated," Vié explained.
Hundreds of schoolchildren and environmentalists took to the streets of Madagascar's capital Antananarivo on Friday to celebrate the country's annual World Lemur Festival. In conjunction with the event, the IUCN launched nine new initiatives to protect lemurs. Save Our Species (SOS), a global conservation fund initiated by IUCN, the Global Environment Facility, and the World Bank, will oversee the effort.
The new projects are part of a three-year action plan, which includes promoting ecotourism, environmental research, reforestation, and anti-poaching initiatives, since the animals are sometimes hunted as a cheap source of meat. The plan calls for patrols on nature reserves and more clearly defined protected areas. The local conservation group Madagasikara Voakajy also plans to work with the island's younger residents to develop alternative subsistence methods to hunting and poaching.
These UICN announced that it will fund the projects to the tune of $500,000. Another component involves educating the island's residents about the conservation crisis facing lemurs. One project, led by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, will seek to raise awareness among those living around lake Alaotra, Madagascar's biggest lake. The wetlands around the lake are home to bamboo lemurs, one of the world's most endangered primate species.
Bamboo lemurs — also known as Hapalemurs or gentle lemurs — are threatened by the continued loss of the lake's marshland habitat, as humans continue to convert areas around the lake to rice fields.
While the situation is dire for lemurs, there was one positive development for the creatures recently. Two months ago, scientists discovered a new species of dwarf lemur on the island, bringing the total number of known lemur species to 107.
"It's very good news," Ratsimbazafy said. "But if the forest vanishes tomorrow, this new species will also vanish."
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Photo via William Warby/Flickr