With more than 90 per cent of species threatened with extinction, lemurs are the most threatened mammal group on earth.
Native to the shrinking and fragmented tropical and subtropical forests of Madagascar, off Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, lemurs are facing grave extinction risks driven by human disturbance of their habitats. Combined with increasing rates of poaching and the loss of funding for environmental programs by most international donors in the wake of the political crisis in Madagascar, challenges to lemur conservation are immense.
An article published on 21 February in the journal Science explains that there is still hope for lemurs despite the profound problems. Primatologist Dr Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at Bristol Zoo Gardens and vice-chair for Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) SSC Primate Specialist Group, was lead author of the article, which was co-authored by 19 lemur conservationists and researchers, many of which are from Madagascar or have been working there for decades.
The research stresses the importance of implementing a new emergency three year IUCN lemur action plan — recently published by Dr Schwitzer and other lemur experts from around the world — which outlines a way forward for saving Madagascar’s 101 lemur species. The action plan contains strategies for 30 different priority sites for lemur conservation and aims to help fundraise for individual projects.
“Fact is that if we don’t act now, we risk losing a species of lemur for the first time since our records began,” Schwitzer explains. ” Their loss would likely trigger extinction cascades. The importance of the action plan cannot be overstated.”
Vital steps outlined in the action plan include:
stabilizing the immediate crisis in priority areas.
laying the groundwork for longer-term actions in all habitats that are crucial for preventing lemur extinctions.
the promotion and expansion of ecotourism; lemurs represent Madagascar’s most distinctive ‘brand’ for tourism, providing livelihoods for the rural poor in environmentally sensitive regions and often fostering local valuation of primates and ecosystems.
sustaining and expanding the long-term research presence in critical lemur sites; field stations that support a permanent presence of local and international field workers can serve as training grounds for Malagasy scientists while deterring illegal hunting and logging.
Endangered lemur species of Madagascar:
(Source: Ryan M. Bolton YouTube Channel)
Currently , alongside other European zoos, manages one of the few long-term research stations for monitoring lemurs in Madagascar’s forests. Working on grassroots projects with local communities and promoting and expanding ecotourism — one of the country’s most important foreign exchange earners — are other important components of the action plan.
Dr Schwitzer said: “Despite profound threats to lemurs, which have been exacerbated by the five-year political crisis, we believe there is still hope. Past successes demonstrate that collaboration between local communities, non-governmental organisations and researchers can protect imperilled primate species. Madagascar recently held their first post-crisis presidential elections. There are encouraging signs that the new president, former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina, will set the conditions for a return to effective governance and, very importantly, resumption of international aid.”
He added: “We urgently invite all stakeholders to join our efforts to meet the action plan’s goals and to ensure the continued existence of lemurs and the considerable biological, cultural and economic richness they represent. Madagascar — and the world — would undoubtedly be much poorer without them.”
Dr Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and Chair of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, co-authored the article in Science and the IUCN lemur action plan. He said: “The actions needed to prevent further lemur extinctions, as outlined in the Lemur Conservation Strategy, are ambitious but attainable. 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. 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. Indeed, during a recent meeting with President Rajaonarimampianina, we discussed lemur conservation and ecotourism, the rosewood trade, and the importance of Madagascar’s biodiversity as its most visible and important global brand and key element in long-term human well-being and poverty alleviation. These were all issues about which he was already well-informed. As a result, I am feeling optimistic about Madagascar for the first time since early 2009.”
Of the 101 surviving lemur species, 22 are now classified Critically Endangered, 48 are Endangered, and 20 are Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, equating to 94 percent of the world’s lemur species for which sufficient data were available to enable their assessment against the Red List criteria.