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Lemur conservation crisis

February 20, 2014
NIU husband-and-wife team Mitch Irwin and Karen Samond observe a lemur in Madagascar.

NIU husband-and-wife team Mitch Irwin and Karen Samond observe a lemur in Madagascar.

A group of the world’s top lemur conservationists and researchers, including NIU anthropology professor Mitch Irwin, has published a “Policy Forum” article in the Feb. 21 issue of Science, urging emergency action to prevent extinctions of these unique primate species, found naturally only in Madagascar.

The 19 article authors note that the country’s five endemic lemur families make up “the most threatened mammal group on Earth.” The situation has worsened following a 2009 political crisis that saw the ouster of the Malagasy president.

Led by Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at Bristol Zoo Gardens in the U.K., the researchers advocate for adoption of an emergency conservation action plan, detailed in a document published Aug. 1, 2013, on the website of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Schwitzer serves as vice-chair for Madagascar of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group.

Irwin had a hand in writing both the Policy Forum article and the IUCN document.

“With the Science publication, we want to draw people’s attention to the urgency of the plan and its funding goals,” Irwin says. “Since the 2009 political crisis, the situation on the ground has been grim for the Malagasy people, but also for the lemurs, especially in terms of habitat loss. If things don’t turn around, lemur extinctions will start happening.”

A mouse lemur trapped to collect data on population density and health.

A mouse lemur trapped to collect data on population density and health.

The lemurs’ habitat has been disappearing for the past 2,000 years, due to human activity, but the recent political turmoil has caused a flashpoint.

In its wake, international donors suspended funding for environmental programs. Conservation laws went unenforced. An illegal trade in precious hardwoods sprouted up, destroying lemur habitat. And as poverty increased, desperate Malagasy people burned more forests to grow crops; others turned to the poaching of lemurs for bushmeat. (Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 92 percent of its people living on less than $2 a day.)

According to the Policy Forum article in Science, remaining intact forest habitat was estimated to cover 92,200 kilometers in 2010, only 10 percent to 20 percent of Madagascar’s original forest cover and down from 106,600 kilometers in 1990. Much of this habitat is inadequately or not at all protected.

Of 101 lemur species, 94 percent are threatened. Irwin says that some have populations of fewer than 500. The ranks of one species, known as the Northern Sportive Lemur, has dwindled to fewer than 20 individuals.

“Extinctions could happen more quickly than you would think,” Irwin says.

The Policy Forum article notes lemurs play important ecological roles and are essential to maintaining the island’s unique forests, so their loss would likely trigger “extinction cascades.”

“That’s why we should be upset about the potential for any species to go extinct,” Irwin says. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. And they are linked ecologically to other species. For example, lemurs eat the fruits of hardwood trees and disperse their seeds. An extinction could reduce tree reproduction and impact other species that depend on those trees. One link in the chain leads to another.”

Husband-and-wife team Karen Samonds and Mitch Irwin helped found Sadabe, an NGO that is developing innovative ways to promote the healthy coexistence of humans and wildlife in Madagascar.Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and chair of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, co-authored the article in Science. He says there have been encouraging signs in Madagascar since the recent election of a new president, former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina.

“Lemurs, tortoises, rosewood and other natural resources in Madagascar have been collateral damage and victims of the political instability that has persisted for nearly five years,” Mittermeier said in a Bristol Zoo Gardens press release. “However, with the new democratically elected government of President Rajaonarimampianina, we have high hopes that this exploitation of natural resources will be curtailed in the near future.”

The emergency conservation plan proposes actions for 30 priority sites harboring endangered lemurs, including Irwin’s research site at Tsinjoarivo, and seeks foreign financial aid to achieve these goals.

The plan highlights three major strategies to prevent lemur extinctions:

  • community-based, protected-habitat management;
  • the promotion of ecotourism; and
  • a steady presence of researchers in the country, who in turn train the Malagasy in conservation and deter illegal activities.

Irwin sums it up succinctly. “Nothing will be secure,” he says, “unless you make life better for the people who rely on the forest.”