How Democracy Can Save Madagascar's Endangered Lemurs

According to a new study, 94 percent of all lemur species are threatened, and many of them are critically endangered.

(Photo: Nora Schwitzer)

Feb 20, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Sahamalaza National Park in northwestern Madagascar is home to the strikingly beautiful blue-eyed black lemur—or, to translate its French name, “the lemur with the turquoise eyes.”

It’s a small, tree-dwelling creature, not even four pounds in weight, with a luxuriant tail that can be half as long as its body. It’s svelte and striking enough to appear on the cover of Vogue and exotic enough for a music video with Lady Gaga. Yet this lemur remains almost unknown to the outside world. As a result, it is not just critically endangered but one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. With luck, a few thousand individuals may survive in the wild, almost all of them in three or four patches of forest in Sahamalaza National Park.

What’s happening to the blue-eyed black lemur is typical of the plight of the entire family of lemurs, 101 of the most colorful animal species on the planet. According to a new study published today in Science, 94 percent of all lemur species are now threatened, and many of them are endangered or critically endangered. Their chances of survival have fallen dramatically in the five years of political and economic chaos in Madagascar since a 2009 coup installed a government widely regarded by the world as illegitimate.

In the immediate aftermath of that coup, thousands of illegal loggers swarmed into national parks and other protected areas, hacking down precious rosewood, palisander, and ebony trees, almost all of it for export to furniture makers in China. (See an undercover video by the Environmental Investigation Agency here. It features a $1 million canopy bed made from Madagascar rosewood and allegations of bribery at the highest levels of the Malagasy government.) Bush meat hunting for lemurs, previously rare in Madagascar, became widespread as the economy dropped out from under people who were already getting by on less than $2 a day.

But the new article, penned by 19 scientists in the primate specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, also finds cause for hope. It proposes a $7.6 million emergency three-year plan to protect lemurs at 30 sites around Madagascar, a Texas-size island off the southeastern coast of Africa.

Like a lot of plans, it could just gather dust on a shelf. But Madagascar last month inaugurated a new democratically elected president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina. Outside observers were originally uneasy because he’d served as finance minister in the previous administration. But Rajaonarimampianina, a former accountant educated at the University of Quebec, appears to be steering his new government in a more positive direction, according to Russ Mittermeier, a coauthor of the new article and president of Conservation International.

Mittermeier met at length with Rajaonarimampianina last week to discuss the emergency plan for lemurs and also to emphasize the economic significance of lemurs as “Madagascar’s salient brand” for tourism, still a mainstay of the economy. (About 250,000 tourists visit annually, down from 350,000 before the coup.) If this optimistic assessment proves accurate—and much still hangs on Rajaonarimampianina’s choice for prime minister—international aid organizations could soon release tens of millions of dollars in conservation funding on hold since the 2009 coup.

The emergency lemur plan calls for four key elements at each of the 30 proposed sites, according to Mittermeier, who chairs the IUCN primate specialist group: a park director or protected area manager “who is not corrupt”; a permanent, full-time research presence “because researchers are your best protection”; ecotourism facilities because outside eyes also help; and the combination of a local guide association and a community conservancy program so the local people have a stake in protecting the land.

“Madagascar seems to have a political crisis every 10 years, almost on schedule,” says coauthor Christoph Schwitzer of the Bristol Zoo in Bristol, U.K. “We need mechanisms that can help protect the biodiversity of the country in the absence of political institutions.”

But nothing comes easy in Madagascar, one of the poorest nations on Earth. Just traveling the few hundred miles to Sahamalaza National Park from the capital city of Antananarivo takes him three days, says Schwitzer, who runs a research program in the park that’s funded by 30 European zoos. You can get there much faster by plane and speedboat via Nosy Be, Madagascar’s largest tourist resort, but it’s expensive.

The eventual ambition for Sahamalaza, says Schwitzer, is to piggyback on Nosy Be, so people who go there for the beach or to dive on the coral reefs could also easily take a side trip to see the blue-eyed black lemurs (and a half dozen other lemur species). Over the past few years, Schwitzer’s group has established Sahamalaza’s first tourist camp, with two solar-powered showers (arranged with considerable effort), walking trails, and a group of trained guides.

That’s the sort of effort that the new emergency plan envisions at each of the 30 sites, if it can raise the $7.6 million.

To put that amount in perspective, DreamWorks Animation has released three Madagascar animated movies since 2005 that capitalize on the charismatic appeal of lemurs. These films have so far earned about $1.9 billion worldwide. But almost none of that money has come back to Madagascar, and the lemur community doesn’t expect that to change any time soon.

Instead, Schwitzer says ordinary people interested in helping lemurs should donate their $5 or $25 to the organizations working at the 30 sites included in the plan. Among them: Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Duke Lemur Center, and the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments at Stony Brook University.

In a sad but related note, news came out this week about the death from cancer of Alison Jolly. She was the pioneering primatologist who first described the importance of social networking and also discovered female dominance in ring-tailed lemurs. Then she persuaded the government of Madagascar to set aside land to protect lemurs. Her legacy of fellow primate species saved from extinction is one in which the rest of us now have the opportunity to share.