Features Climate

March of the Lemurs

Story by Haley Stupasky

Photos by Mecca Ray-Rouse

Illustration by Brett Higgins

Cicadas screech from the forest trees above and below a girl armed with pencil and notebook is intently focused on the troop in front of her. Like kindergarteners on a field trip, the lemurs move in single file after their fearless leader, a ring-tailed lemur called Zoie. She asserts her dominance by occasionally biting or lunging at the males in the group, and is always first in line, with lemurs Biggie Smalls and Olga following closely. Though it’s hard to tell these lemurs apart (lemurs look pretty similar with their curious orange eyes and tall tails), each can be identified by their charisma and habits. It’s mating season, tensions are running high, and the males are becoming more aggressive to impress the females of the group — the ones who run the show. Near the back of the line stands Camille Kaynor, a researcher along for the forest journey through Madagascar’s Berenty Reserve. As the sun reaches its height in the middle of the day, Kaynor grows hungry and snags a bag of crackers out of her pack. She then crouches on the ground, trying to balance her notebook and food on her knees while keeping an eye on the group. She tucks her head to jot in her notebook; an observation of the lemurs is made every five minutes. Moments later Zoie sneaks over to snatch a cracker from Kaynor’s lap. The tiny human-like hand is swift and deliberate like that of a pickpocket. Noticing this, the other lemurs swarm Kaynor in search of food. As a scientist she was stunned, knowing direct contact with the subjects could compromise her research. As an animal lover, she couldn’t help but smile. She was becoming one of the troop.

Camille Kaynor visited Madagascar as a student studying lemur populations.
Camille Kaynor visited Madagascar as a student studying lemur populations.

 After traveling from the United States to Madagascar, Kaynor saw the wildly diverse landscape of what some authors and scientists call “the eighth continent.” During her time on the island, Kaynor also witnessed the social and economic struggle of the Malagasy people as they clashed against the natural environment. Kaynor was originally going to observe a different troop of lemurs, but had to change plans because the group she had been assigned no longer existed. It’s possible the group expanded its boundaries to find more resources. However, there is also the possibility that they were simply dead.

In Madagascar, as many as 90 percent of lemur populations are now at risk of extinction due to heavy deforestation and poaching. Scientists like Kaynor and her mentor in Madagascar, Dr. Anne Millhollen, study lemur troop progressions and communication to learn more about the primate’s status in the Malagasy ecosystem. Millhollen says that their research aims to understand lemur responses to their changing habitats. Research projects like Millhollen and Kaynor’s as well as conservation efforts through environmental organizations play a vital role in the preservation of lemur populations. As the trees of the Malagasy forests are chopped and burned, lemurs lose their homes and the people and the wildlife of the island must learn to coexist.

 Since Madagascar separated from an ancient continent named Gondwanaland 165 million years ago, its wildlife has evolved in near isolation. Now  90 percent of the animals on the island, lemurs included, cannot be found natively anywhere else on Earth. Lemurs are prosimian primates, which means that they are considered to have more primitive characteristics than simian primates such as monkeys and apes. After probably floating to Madagascar on detritus across the Mozambique Channel, lemurs flourished because they didn’t have to contend with African mainland predators or their primate cousins. Prosimians such as bushbabies and lorises on the African continent evolved to avoid direct competition with monkeys and as a result are small and nocturnal.

 “The prosimians that made it to Madagascar had no other primates and few other competitors, so a great variety evolved to fill all the open niches,” Millhollen says. It is possible however for lemurs to survive elsewhere. Brown lemurs were introduced to the Comoro Islands by early Malagasy residents, and they’re thriving. This, however, does not diminish the importance of preserving current lemur habitat in Madagascar, because even in captivity, some lemurs can’t survive. “There are colonies and thriving zoo populations of some species,” Millhollen says. “There are other species that do not thrive in captivity. Research continues to try to figure out dietary and other needs that might explain this.”

In Madagascar as many as 90 percent are at risk of extinction due to deforestation and poaching.
In Madagascar as many as 90 percent are at risk of extinction due to deforestation and poaching.

With many Malagasy living at just over $1 a day, the basics are difficult to come by. Sometimes the Malagasy depend on selling and processing these resources to survive. Agricultural income in Madagascar currently accounts for 30 percent of GDP and accounts for 70 percent of the labor force. Many of these farmers subsist on agriculture, which means they grow just enough food to survive.

After witnessing the poor conditions in the village near the reserve, Kaynor began to understand the true face of rural Madagascar — the face of malnourished people, especially children, who roamed the village with tattered clothes and played around the one classroom school shack with a teacher that can barely read and write. Despite the language barrier between Kaynor and the people, the Malagasy communicated their situation without words — the obvious signs of poverty were enough. Her grocery trips to the village put her privileged life in perspective. Although it was difficult for her to see, Kaynor helped in small ways. She came to Madagascar with a backpack full of clothes and on the way home she carried none because she had given her worn field clothes to people in the village. “The living conditions there were like nothing I had ever experienced. I was living off of about $3.50 a day and I thought I was living modestly and humbly,” says Kaynor. “The hardest part of coming home was coming back to such wealth and realizing that there are so many people that just could never fathom a life like this. It was hard.”

 Without access to a consistent income, some residents take to the forests in hopes of utilizing resources and finding food. Current laws concerning logging are a product of a recent transition in government power. In 2009, Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of the capital city Antananarivo, stirred a political movement that aimed to oust the president at the time, Marc Ravalomanana. After many violent protests in criticism of Ravalomana’s leadership and a fight for power between Ravalomana and Rajoelina, the president reluctantly resigned and the office was transferred to Rajoelina. As the power dynamic in Madagascar changed, so did the laws. Legislation that outlawed the export of rosewood trees was repealed, which led to an increase in illegal logging in national parks and other conservation areas, which are key to lemur survival. However, logging isn’t the only thing putting lemurs in danger.

“Currently, the high demand for forest products such as rosewood has resulted in the destruction of large swatches of the lemurs’ habitat,” Kaynor says. “Extreme poverty in Madagascar also causes lemurs to be hunted for their meat and to be captured and sold into the pet trade for profit.”

Eating wild meat is a cheap alternative to other meats such as chicken, the most desired meat among the Malagasy, but chicken on the island can sometimes transmit diseases (the most common being Newcastle Disease, which manifests in flu-like symptoms). Dr. Chris Golden, a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society and 2014’s National Geographic “Emerging Explorer” title holder, is working with his research team to make Newcastle Disease vaccines available to the people and improve chicken husbandry practices in the Maroantsetra region of Madagascar. “We will set up programs to teach improved husbandry practices, biosecurity measures and nutritional delivery to chickens,” Golden says. “By increasing the productivity of local chickens, we hope to wean reliance on wildlife food sources.”

 Many people who live in more urban areas may never even see a lemur in their lifetime. There are roughly 20 different ethnic groups on in Madagascar. Kaynor says that some ethnic groups in Madagascar view lemurs like people in the Pacific Northwest view squirrels — as pests, while others relate lemurs to humans and believe that harming them is evil. In Malagasy mythology, the tales of Indri directly connect the lemur with humanity and declare the primate to be sacred. For this reason, some ethnic groups will not hunt lemurs for their meat, so other resources on the landscape must be used to survive.

The landscape of the Berenty Reserve in Madagascar.
The landscape of the Berenty Reserve in Madagascar.

 Due to the desperate economic situation of much of the Malagasy population, exploiting the natural resources of the island is the cheapest way for them to get by. However, these practices come at a cost. Many Malagasy farmers use slash-and-burn, the practice of cutting and burning plants and trees to form fields. In a PBS article written by Dr. Claire Kremen, professor at UC Berkeley and conservation biologist, she writes that “much of Madagascar has been destroyed by the gradual action of small farmers and herdsmen. Human populations have grown long beyond the point at which these activities can be practiced without permanent destruction.” Kreman partially attributes this continued degradation of Malagasy landscape to Madagascar’s cultural and financial environment. “At the moment, however, many farmers continue to practice traditional slash and burn agriculture because it is their culture,” she writes, “and because they know no other way and have no other means to survive.”

 This method is easy and low-cost, but its benefits are short-lived. Although the slash-and-burn method is illegal on the island, its use is still prevalent. The various ethnic groups in Madagascar practice this to grow different crops, usually rice, but the soil only survives one of two cultivation cycles. At best, after the soil is exhausted, the area becomes a field for domesticated cows.

Because their natural habitat is being destroyed, lemurs are running out of space to occupy and are increasingly reliant

on humans for survival. There are many protected national parks in Madagascar and laws in place that protect lemurs from capture, exportation and hunting, but these distant areas are difficult to police. The focus of Kaynor’s research was to observe the specific troops that rely on the protected areas of the Berenty Reserve that humans frequent. On some occasions, Kaynor saw tourists baiting lemurs with food in an effort to get them to come closer so they could pet them. This can prove deadly for lemurs, however, as poachers use the same tactics to catch them.

“If poaching by humans is a danger to these lemurs, then habituation to humans can, by extension, pose a significant risk to them as well,” says Kaynor.

 As the Malagasy residents and tourists further integrate themselves into the habitat of lemurs, some lemurs must adjust to the loss of their habitat. According to Millhollen, they are highly adaptive and adjust their boundaries to incorporate more resources, but this has implications as well. The population density of ring-tailed lemurs has declined along with the forest, but they have responded flexibly by expanding troop boundaries to find new resources. “Some troops enlarged their ranges to include a greater variety of foods that are more sparsely distributed,” says Millhollen. “Others moved into tourist areas where there was a high density of exotic plants that had been introduced. They also try to take food from the tourists.”

Millhollen mirrors Kaynor’s concern that these behaviors make lemurs more vulnerable to poachers, but reserves like Berenty have protection measures to prevent illegal hunting. There is a database of all lemur troops and facial photographs of female leaders as well as a map of their territories. Forest guards follow the groups for protection on a regular basis and tour guides will soon have access to identification cards and photo albums to show tourists in hopes of ensuring further commitment to the safety of the lemurs on the reserve. But many lemurs are not so lucky to live in protected space, and are threatened by deforestation.

 More than 80 percent of the original forest landscape in Madagascar is gone, and more land is being cleared every year. Fundamentally, a solution is needed that will combat poverty so the Malagasy aren’t as reliant on the natural resources of the island. Projects such as Dr. Golden’s chicken husbandry initiative and the SAVA Project created by the Duke Lemur Center work directly with people in mostly rural communities to break the cycle of poverty.

As conservation coordinator at the Duke Lemur Center, Dr. Charles Welch oversees

projects in Madagascar from the United States and secures funding for them. He believes that conservation efforts by foreign organizations and the growing contingent of Malagasy nationals in these organizations are extremely important in protecting the unique environment of Madagascar. “To protect forests and lemurs, we cannot ignore the needs of the communities, which is why we take that approach. Our activities such as fish farming, sustainable agriculture, reforestation, family planning, etc. are all very community oriented,” Welch says. “The people must see the value of the forest and it is they who must want to see it protected.”

While emphasizing the importance and value of nature in the one-of-a-kind scenery that defines Madagascar, ecotourism can bring more money to the island nation. The Malagasy people need a growing economy, and money from tourism brings jobs and wealth to the country. More money in the pockets of the Malagasy people in turn will protect lemur populations because of decreased dependence on unsustainable agricultural practices and lemurs as a food source. “People have come to see the importance of protecting their wildlife, and there is a much better understanding of the uniqueness of Malagasy flora and fauna than when we started in the ‘80s,” Welch says. “Ecotourism is a growing industry, and the government wants to promote that. No forests or lemurs and there will be no ecotourism.”

After twenty days of following her troop from sunrise to sunset, Kaynor was a seasoned veteran of the Malagasy forest. She knew how to navigate the thick prickly brush and dodge a wasp nest while avoiding spider webs at the same time. This tremendously active group of lemurs may be more resilient than previously thought, finding new alternatives to old navigation routes and settling scores with gruesome stink fights (a battle tactic where lemurs rub their long tails on their scent glands and launch the stench at their opponent). Even so, the land outside of the preserves is a dangerous landscape — the product of unrelenting economic, political and social struggles. Keeping a pulse on the lemur population is essential in this unstable time for Madagascar, and Kaynor is proud to have contributed to that. Her towering stack of notes is testament to her work and the detailed scribbles remind her of her troop scampering through the forest and sneaking moments for lunch. She left the beautiful island nation with a greater desire to protect the lemurs, and in studying them, she felt a connection to the troop. Like she earned her place in line behind Zoie.

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