As primates, lemurs are some of our closest living relatives and yet, for many people, they are something of a mystery, with their eyes a bit too large to be normal, and a cartoon character letting everybody know they like to move it in a kid’s movie.
Plan A and Net Positive Impact are raising the funds to help lemurs, humans and ecosystems to live more harmoniously, for the benefit of all. Read all about the Lemurs of Love on our academy and website.
Endemic only to Madagascar (two species have made their way to the nearby Comoro Islands, and Richard Branson, in a risky conservation stunt, introduced them to his private Caribbean island), all species of lemur are threatened by habitat destruction. This threat applies across their differing ranges, from tropical rainforests to deserts. They also face a growing threat from the bushmeat trade, due to degrading living conditions on the island (and despite a solid 5% GDP growth).
Where are lemurs from?
The world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar, once heavily forested is now severely affected by slash and burn deforestation. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, around 80% of the Malagasy population is dependent solely on their island’s natural resources for their day-to-day needs.
This is reflected in the ongoing clearance of land for subsistence farming, cattle-grazing, rice paddies and the collection of fuel for cooking fires. There is also a growing problem with illegal logging in pursuit of tropical hardwoods. Since humans colonised it, approximately 2,000 years ago, the island has lost around 80% of its original forests, with deforestation having accelerated since the turn of the twentieth century. Only around 12% of it is now covered by primary forest, which is why its Atsinanana rainforests have taken up an unhappy place in the World Heritage list of threatened species. It is also why many species of lemurs are struggling to retain even a toehold in their natural habitats. Add to this evolving global climate patterns and you have a very sticky situation for the little primates (and all those species depending on it).
Who are these guys?
Lemurs are hugely diverse and Madagascar would be much poorer without them. They range in size from the pygmy mouse lemur, weighing in at only 28 grams, to the heavyweight Indri and Sifaki lemurs, which can weight almost 7 kilograms. Filling many different ecological niches, the various species are active at different times: some are diurnal, some nocturnal and others crepuscular (which means they favour dawn or dusk).
There is also plenty of mythology surrounding them: the aye-aye, for instance, a nocturnal species with an elongated middle finger that it uses for winkling out grubs from tree bark, is often thought to be a harbinger of death. Thankfully, particularly from the perspective of the aye-aye, these myths are beginning to collapse. However, even this is a bit of a double-edged sword because the erosion of long-standing cultural taboos may go some way to explaining the enthusiastic inclusion of some species of lemur in the (illegal) bushmeat trade.
Preserving sustainable wild lemur populations will inevitably also involve preserving their habitat. The benefits of this extend far beyond the lemurs themselves, affecting the overall biodiversity of Madagascar and the economic health of the country.
What is the current conservation status of lemurs?
Lemur taxonomy is confusing and experts do not agree on the exact number of species. As a ballpark, there are around 100 different listed species and sub-species. All of them are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), despite being kept as illegal pets in numerous parts of the world. This includes the ring-tailed lemur, one of the most familiar – and popular – species, which is now on the IUCN red list, after its population declined by as much as 95% since the year 2000. It is more than overdue we take this matter into our own hands.
Why are lemurs important to conservation?
Lemurs can be seen as a barometer for the ecological health of their environment. Reduced lemur populations affect a forest’s ability to rejuvenate itself. Several studies emphasise the role lemurs play in seed dispersal via their faeces (read all about it from our guest contributor Lyndsey from Duke University Lemur Center). Seeds dispersed in this way are 300% more likely to germinate and develop than those that either remain close to the parent tree or are dispersed in other ways.
Healthy and extensive forests provide a habitat not only for lemurs but for other forest-dwelling animals, including their main predator, the fossa (the circle of life, eh). Last but not least, trees are a crucial bulwark against soil degradation and erosion, a huge problem in Madagascar where you can see from space the red rivers flowing in the Indian ocean with Malagasy fertile soil.
Why does it matter if lemurs are endemic to Madagascar?
Apart from the small populations on the Comoros Islands, lemurs are found nowhere else in the world other than Madagascar. Captive breeding programmes in zoos around the world do not – and likely cannot – encompass every species of lemur. Besides, lemurs are enormously important for the biological health of Madagascar. As already noted, attempts to reverse some of the deforestation already suffered on the island are hampered by reduced lemur populations. Tree-planting by hand is time and labour-intensive – and relying on lemurs to do some of the work via faecal seed dispersal makes a great deal of sense. If the lemurs are no longer present in the wild in sufficient numbers, it may be difficult or impossible to restore the forests to a habitat suitable for them.
The financial benefits of lemurs to Madagascar should not be underestimated either, with ecotourism having the potential to be a growing source of revenue. Although its tourist infrastructure is as yet fairly undeveloped, the country is already attracting more adventurous travellers. The advent of kitesurfing and ecotourism has given a new breath to an industry that represents 6% of the island’s GDP. Others are likely to follow, provided there are lemurs – Madagascar’s totemic wildlife species – for them to look at. If the Malagasy can be convinced that tourism provides a real and sustainable alternative to agriculture, they may yet turn away from slash and burn agriculture and embrace lemur conservation.
What happens if we fail to save lemurs?
To paraphrase the conservationist Gerald Durrell, the loss of lemurs would be another axe-stroke to the metaphorical tree branch on which all of us, humans included, sit on. Wildlife preservation is a responsibility that belongs to all of us. We cannot lose any species, including lemurs, with impunity. We cannot afford to lose them at all.
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