Can Madagascar's lemurs be spared from extinction?

Friday, 21 February 2014

Propithecus verreauxi (credit Marco Campera)

An emergency action plan, co-authored by a Oxford Brookes University lecturer, is aiming to help save the lemurs of Madagascar in the middle of the country's current political and economic crisis.

With almost 94 per cent of lemur species threatened with extinction, this unique group of primates is the most threatened mammal group on earth.  

Exclusively found in the forests of the island of Madagascar, lemurs are facing an unprecedented extinction risk due to the dramatic loss and fragmentation of their habitats.  Recent illegal exportation of precious wood is placing further pressure on the island forests. 

Hunting, though prohibited and traditionally considered a taboo, is also escalating as the demand for subsistence and luxury meat items raised. Political turmoil during the last years and corruption have facilitated the exploitation of Madagascar's resources by national and foreign actors.  

In an article published this week in the journal Science, a multi-national team of lemur conservationists and researchers including Dr Giuseppe Donati from Oxford Brookes University, stressed the importance of implementing an emergency IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) action plan. This outlines a way forward for saving Madagascar’s 103 lemur species. 

Dr Giuseppe Donati, an expert on lemur behaviour and ecology who has been working in the African island since 1995, said: “After decades of research only recently we began to realize what we may lose by losing lemurs.  

“The paucity of other mammal and bird families in Madagascar means that lemurs have a crucial role within the island’s ecological chains, thus making their presence fundamental for the maintenance of the island’s current biological diversity. Recent data indicate that forest regeneration of large-seed plant species is largely slowed down in forests where lemurs have been eradicated. Their loss would likely trigger extinction cascades.”   

Dr Donati added: “Perhaps most astonishing, the total number of recognized lemur species has been steadily growing in the last decade, thanks to the increasingly fine-grained genetic techniques. For instance, two new lemur species were identified last year in areas where scientists have been working for years.   

“We must join our efforts to meet the action plan's objectives and we invite all potential stakeholders to intervene to ensure the survival of the lemurs now. Madagascar - and the world - would undoubtedly be much poorer without them."   

The article, led by the primatologist Dr Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at Bristol Zoo Gardens and vice-chair for Madagascar of theIUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, explains that there is still hope for lemurs despite the profound problems.Dr Schwitzer said: "Despite profound threats to lemurs, which have been exacerbated by the five-year political crisis, we believe there is still hope.”   

 Dr Schwitzer explained: “Past successes demonstrate that collaboration between local communities, non-governmental organisations and researchers can protect imperiled primate species. Madagascar recently held their first post-crisis presidential elections. There are encouraging signs that the new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, will set the conditions for a return to effective governance and, very importantly, resumption of international aid.”  

Oxford Brookes’ Department of Social Sciences webpages have more information on the University’s Primate Conservation. The paper is available to read on the Science website.