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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lemur Experiment

Air Date: Week of

Lemurs are some of the most endangered primates in the world. Found only in Madagascar and one group of neighboring islands, these creatures have lost fully 90 percent of their habitat since humans first landed on Madagascar two millennium ago. But, now researchers at Duke University's Primate Center hope to give lemus a chance at survival. This fall they plan to introduce some captive born lemurs into the wild, the first such experiment ever attempted. Diane Toomey has our report.


CURWOOD: Lemurs are some of the most endangered primates in the world. Found only in Madagascar, and one group of neighboring islands, these creatures have lost fully 90% of their habitat, since humans first landed on Madagascar, 2 millennia ago. But now researchers at Duke University's Primate Center hope to give lemurs a chance at survival. This fall, they plan to introduce some captive-born lemurs into the wild. Diane Toomey has our report.

[Cage opening]

BREWER: All right, you guys. What you waited all winter for.

TOOMEY: Dave Brewer is about to make some Black-and-White Ruffed lemurs very happy. The Primate Center technician is releasing 5 of these bushy-tailed creatures from their indoor winter cage into a 10-acre forest habitat.

BREWER: Ok, here goes.

[Technician clucks encouragement. Bird sounds]

TOOMEY: Once outside, these 8-pound primates, with fox-like black snouts and Bozo-the-Clown hairstyles, mark their territory. They eagerly rub their bellies on fallen tree branches, the ground, and even on a couple of relatives, who've been wintering in another cage.

[Trills and booming calls. Bird cries.]

TOOMEY: But soon it's off to the place that they love the best: the tree tops.

BREWER: There they go up. That's where you'd find them in Madagascar. They stay on the ground a lot here just because here they have no fear. They spend most of their time up in the tops of the trees in the wild.

TOOMEY: And to the wild is where at least 3 of them will go in a few months, back to a homeland off the east coast of Africa, where they have never been, to a place where most lemurs are regarded more like squirrels than primates. So this forest is actually a pre-release boot camp. Ken Glander is the director of the Primate Center.

GLANDER: They're learning how to live under natural conditions, because there are natural predators here. We have great horned owls here. We have foxes here. We don't, know that they've ever taken a lemur, but they could, potentially, so they, the lemurs are still responding to them as they would a, a natural predator.

[Cackling calls and crying roars]

TOOMEY: Responding to predators and finding food, will be critical to the black-and-whites' survival, as the dismal record of captive-born primate reintroduction shows. For instance, several years ago, a set of orangutangs in Borneo had to be recaptured, because they were in danger of starving. But Dr. Glander thinks his primates will do better. Here in this fenced-off section of the forest, lemurs are quickly becoming expert foragers, choosing berries, flowers, and leaves as they should. Ken Glander:

GLANDER: In most cases, they have all of these behaviors, hard-wired, or instinctive. They don't have to learn them. So we are, yes, we are training them, but we're really just allowing them to develop their natural instincts. I'm much more confident that, we will be successful with the, black-and-white ruffed lemurs than other people have been with monkeys.

TOOMEY: The lemurs' new home will be the Betampon Reserve, in eastern Madagascar. Until a couple of years ago, poaching was a serious problem in the reserve, and the lemur population plummeted.

[Lemur cries and laughing sounds]

TOOMEY: But then government control of the area was transferred from a natural resource development agency, to one more inclined and better equipped to protect wildlife. And the scientists themselves plan to hire their own guards as well. Dr. Glander hopes this reintroduction attempt will be a model for future efforts, so there's a lot riding on it.

GLANDER: If our project is successful, the reintroduction is successful, that means that we can take, animals, from captivity, with their different genetic diversity, and reintroduce them into the wild and re-establish populations or rebuild populations of these animals, that are only found in Madagascar. And once they're extinct in Madagascar, and they're not in captivity, they're gone from the world.

TOOMEY: It will take a lot of hard work, luck, and education to avoid this fate. The biggest hurdle of all is the loss of the lemurs' rain forest habitat. Andrea Katzand Charlie Welch have been the Primate Center's husband and wife science team in Madagascar for the last decade. As a bunch of curious--

[mewing lemur cry]

TOOMEY:--and vocal ring-tail lemurs gathered around them, they say that loss of habitat is a problem the children of Madagascar will have to address, because today's adults just don't understand.

WELCH: They see an area that's, that's forested, that still has wildlife in it, you know, much as, much as we, used to see forest here in the United States. We can't be too self-righteous about, about it at all. But they see the forest as something for them to use. And once it's used up, it's used up.

KATZ: They'll say, "Why, why don't you study lemurs in your own country?" Well, we don't have lemurs native in our own country."

[Sputtering lemur call, then mewing lemur cry]

TOOMEY: Madagascar is also one of the poorest countries in the world. Although some species of lemurs are regarded as sacred, the grandfathers of the forest, local people are usually more concerned with their next meal than the future of lemurs

[Mewing lemur cry]

KATZ: The Malagasy, especially rurally, are very, very poor. They don't have money to buy food, and so they will hunt lemurs in certain areas. Often it's opportunistic. If they're in the forest anyway, to cut wood, or to get materials for their houses, or charcoal, they might set a lemur trap. The black-and-white ruffed lemur is also known to be one of the, the lemurs with the best meat.

TOOMEY: There's even one lemur species whose Malagasy name means,
"It takes two days to eat."

[Bicycle horn honking, lemur cry]

BREWER: You know what this is. Come on, you guys.

[Bicycle horn honks]

TOOMEY: A honking horn signals "tree time" at the Primate Center. As technician Dave Brewer doles out grapes, lemurs climb down from trees and bounce through the forest, looking like furry sprites. The grape trick lures the lemurs back to their cages for things like medical checkups.

[Grape-munching sounds]

TOOMEY: In Madagascar, researcher will track the released lemurs with radio collars for at least 3 years, longer if they can raise
the money.

[Mewing lemur cry]

TOOMEY: While the lemurs learn to forage in their new home, they'll get some food handouts to help them along. But scientists say they'd be naive to believe all the animals they reintroduce will flourish. Researchers Katz and Welch say the reintroduction effort is a race against extinction for the black-and-whites--and what the lemurs really need is probably lost forever: large expanses of primary forest, on Madagascar, like the one French naturalist Philipp du Commerso wrote of, in 1771.

[Lemur calls, lemur whoops]

TOOMEY: Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she had used elsewhere. There you meet bizarre and marvelous forms at every step. What an admirable country, this Madagascar. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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