There’s something furry connecting the distant island of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa, with Oakland in the East Bay: lemurs.
These charismatic primates are the focus of conservation efforts at Centre ValBio, a state-of-the-art lemur research station in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park. The Oakland Zoo has partnered with the center to join their efforts.
On Thursday, zoological manager Margaret Rousser and lead keeper Elizabeth Abram presented “Action for Lemurs,” one of the talks in the zoo’s Conservation Speaker Series. An audiece of about 40 people gathered to learn about lemurs and hear about the researchers’ two-week trip to Madagascar. Rousser and Abram, who went to the island in November, shared their experience working with Centre ValBio’s founder, Patricia Wright, who has spent more than three decades studying these animals. She even discovered one species in 1986, the Golden Bamboo Lemur.
Contrary to what people might think, Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world—it’s even larger than California, Rousser said. Because of its size, many different ecosystems coexist there, from semi-arid deserts to rain forests, the lemurs’ home. Almost all the animals that live in Madagascar—some 90 percent—can only be found there, Rousser said.
Lemurs are primitive primates, with opposable thumbs, nails instead of claws, big eyes and a unique “tooth comb,” designed for grooming. They are unique to Madagascar, although they exist in captivity in other parts of the world, and there are 101 different species. Most of these species—60—are critically endangered, and 20 are categorized as endangered, according to a 2014 paper cited by Rousser. She explained that those categories are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (UICN) definitions, where “critically endangered,” the most serious category, indicates that those animals face a very high risk of extinction. “Endangered” means that the animal is likely to become extinct.
By helping to protect their existence in Madagascar, their only natural homeland, the Oakland Zoo’s lemur keepers can learn how to take better care of the lemurs that live here. “Understanding how their social environment works in the wild and how their groups are managed in the wild can help us to make the best decisions” for them, said Rousser. Making sure that the lemurs’ group size and composition are appropriate is important for the their welfare, “especially if they are in captivity, because they have fewer choices,” she added. Lemurs live in matriarchal groups, meaning that the “females are in charge,” said Rousser, and this kind of hierarchy needs to be considered.
So far, there are seven lemurs in Oakland—five Ring-tailed Lemurs and two Blue-eyed Lemurs. Both species face dangers. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) classifies the Ring-tailed Lemur as “near threatened”—meaning that they may be considered threatened with extinction in the near future and should be re-evaluated on regular intervals—and the Blue-eye Lemur as “endangered,” or likely to become extinct.
In fact, the Blue-Eyed lemur has been listed under the most serious category, critically endangered, for the last six years. The population of this subspecies of lemur, the only primate other than humans that has blue eyes, has been decreasing and it’s now considered one of the most threatened primates in the world. Although the exact number of these animals in the wild is unknown, a study published in the African Journal of Ecology in January, estimates that the Blue-Eyed lemur could become extinct in 11 years.
The Ring-tailed Lemurs face a similar situation. The UICN estimates that the population has been reduced by half over the last 36 years and the trend shows their population is still decreasing. Although the total wild population is also unknown, most of them live in small, fragmented forests. According to the UICN website, the Ring-tailed Lemur is not only the most common lemur in captivity, but the most common of all captive primates.
Slash-and-burn agriculture—a technique that involves cutting and burning plants in forests to create fields—and deforestation are the main environmental problems that lemurs face in Madagascar. However, they also deal with direct threats: the exotic pet trade, poaching and being hunted for bushmeat. Rousser said that in a poor country, poaching becomes a source of consistent income, and Madagascan families are setting traps in the forest to hunt lemurs to eat. Rousser said that for them it is “subsistence hunting” for their own survival, and emphasized how difficult it is to enforce environmental laws in this context.
An unstable government, military coups and extreme poverty—most Madagascans live with only $2 a day, according to data provided to Rousser—are bad news for lemurs and the rest of fauna and flora in the island. When a country has a political, social and economic unrest, “It doesn’t matter how good your conservation laws are, because they are not a priority,” Rousser said.
In Madagascar, the Oakland Zoo team brought supplies like radio collars to the Center ValBio, which are used to track the lemurs in their natural habits—for example, when they migrate to other places to avoid inbreeding. They helped the center’s team to capture the lemurs and replace the radio collars the animals were already wearing. The researchers also took measurements and biological samples such as hair and blood before releasing the lemurs back into the forest.
The zoo also partnered with a researcher based in Germany on a conservation plan for frogs in Madagascar, where a common fungus that affects these amphibians had been reported for the first time. Rousser said that the researcher from the University of Hamburg would use the Oakland Zoo’s frogs, which were bred in captivity but are from Madagascar, to study the effect of using certain probiotics on the frogs’ skin to fight the fungus.
At the event on Thursday, Don and Nancy Colberg, who are docents at the zoo, were in charge of providing information to the public. The couple was sitting at a table with stuffed lemurs, books about the animals and printed photos of Madagascar. They said that the small turnout was unusual for Conservation Speakers Series events, but they had a theory to explain it. Outside of Madagascar, lemurs are not as popular as animals like elephants, said Don Colberg, who has worked at the zoo for a year. He believes it’s because “Lemurs are not big, like elephants or chimpanzees.” But they are his favorite: “They are so friendly; they hug each other a lot.” His wife agreed, but said she was “more into baboons.”
But even if elephants are more popular, lemurs do attract more attention than other zoo animals. That is why the zoo uses lemurs as one of their “flagship species,” said Rousser. “People may think that lemurs are cute and therefore feel a certain kinship with them that they may not feel for an animal like a frog or a lizard,” she said. “However, the key to saving any species from extinction is save its natural habitat,” she added. “If people feel inspired to save lemur habitat, it benefits the frogs and lizards that also live in that habitat.”
The zoological manager also said that “the more people learn, the more they care.” For instance, some people might be buying ivory because they don’t know that elephants are endangered. “So if we let them know that, then they will stop buying ivory,” Rousser said, adding that “It’s just a matter of getting the word out there.”
Elephants will be the stars of next event at the zoo, on May 23. At these events, the zoo is collecting donations, as well as cards with attendees’ signatures to support a bill that would help stop the ivory trade in California, the second largest market in the US. More information about the event is available here.
As for the stars of Thursday’s event, by the time of the talk, the Oakland lemurs were already asleep. “They go to bed early,” said Rousser.
Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park. Source: Google Maps.