With their wide-eyed, eerie stare and night time activity, lemurs are spectre-like figures of Madagascar's forests: 'lemur' means ghost in Latin, and it is not difficult to see how the enigmatic and elusive animals got their name.
The unique group of primates are found only in Madagascar. But they are thought to be the most threatened mammal group on Earth. Of the 101 lemur species, 22 are critically endangered, 48 are endangered and 20 are vulnerable, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.
Ten years ago “everybody was very optimistic” about saving lemurs, says Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Centre in Durham in the US, who led the new study looking at how climate change is likely to impact Madagascar’s lemurs.
But in 2009 a coup catapulted the country into turmoil and an offshoot was that many conservation plans were destabilised.
With lemurs in immediate danger, few conservationists have looked further ahead to how climate change could affect the animals.
A new sophisticated predictive computer model has now forecast this story: Yoder and her colleague Jason Brown report 60% of 57 species examined are likely to find suitable habitat reduced by an average of 59.6% over the next 70 years, entirely due to climate change.
“For the majority of lemur species, they actually experienced declines in their range sizes. In addition to that, not only are their distributions going to shrink, into the future, but they’re actually going to have to shift across space, in some cases by hundreds of kilometres,” explains Brown, from the City College of New York’s Biology Department in the US.
The results are worrying, say the researchers, because the model only looked at climate change and did not take into account other threats.
Lemurs were predicted to largely head north and east. Yoder says this was “perhaps fortunate in an odd way” because the northeastern Madagascar “is still fairly forested”.
But for lemurs in certain parts of western Madagascar, “there aren’t forest corridors presently in existence… for them to be able to move”.
The study also found that nine lemur species (16% of the total examined) were predicted to expand their ranges while 13 species’ (22.8%) ranges remained stable over time.
But Yoder says there is an urgent need for conservationists and the Malagasy government to protect the forest corridors that do exist and to establish new ones.
“Understandably most of the conservation efforts right now are just, you know, immediate fixes.”
In 2014 a new president was inaugurated in Madagascar. In the same year a team of primatologists launched an emergency lemur action plan in reaction to problems that had been triggered by the 2009 political crisis.
But Dr Christoph Schwitzer says since its launch “the threats [to lemurs] haven’t diminished, unfortunately”.
“The main threats to lemurs are the same – mainly habitat destruction,” he says. “Madagascar has lost at least 80% of its original forest cover since human arrival.”
“It’s mainly slash and burn agriculture in Madagascar... which means chopping down a bit of forest, burning the trees, planting rice on the fertile soil. You can do that maybe for two or three years when the soil isn’t fertile anymore and you move on and do the same a couple of hundred metres down the road.”
Compounding the problem, illegal extraction of tropical hardwoods such as ebony and rosewood has become rife following the unrest, according to Schwitzer. “That’s a very scary and relatively new phenomenon.”
Another huge threat to lemurs is subsistence hunting. Lemurs are protected by Malagasy law but in reality they are hunted for food “because people can’t meet their protein requirement”, Schwitzer says.
“It is really now kicking off. It’s not yet at the scales of the bush meat problem in continental Africa but certainly getting there.”
“But of course if you are starving or if your family is starving, then you know you’d rather take a couple of lemurs out than have your children starve.”
So what’s currently being done to save Madagascar’s lemurs?
The island already attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, but eco-tourism is a fairly new area of interest for conservationists: “It’s all about what conservationists call valorising natural resources – basically putting more value on keeping the animals and the nature alive than what you can get when you extract it,” explains Schwitzer.
In some rural areas on the edge of wildlife-rich national parks, new tour guide associations have sprung up, he says. One of these associations has been set up by Bristol Zoo Gardens, which also provided training for 30 guides. “Now we just need to get the people over there.”
The country has many established lemur conservation projects in place and some of these are focused on trying to improve livelihoods of people in rural communities to take away pressure from remaining forests.
One project, organised by local experts and the Duke Lemur Centre, shows people living in the SAVA (Sambava-Andapa-Vohemar-Antalaha) region of Madagascar how to construct and manage acre-sized fish farms as an alternative source of income to rice agriculture.
Another success story is the Anja Community Reserve in southern Madagascar, which is a nature reserve and town. The forest is managed by local residents, who have formed the Association Anja Miray, to preserve wildlife such as the forest’s large population of endangered ring-tailed lemur, and attract tourists. The site is the most visited community reserve in Madagascar.
Despite lemurs’ precarious position, there is hope for their survival.
One very rare lemur species to benefit from conservation efforts is the stunning critically endangered black-eyed blue lemur. The extraordinary animal, the only non-human primate that has blue eyes, is about to be taken off the IUCN’s list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.
“It’s always a difficult one if you take one of those species off, but we think that it has simply received a lot of attention by our project… we are doing stuff about their survival and I think we have been quite successful at least in a part of their distribution range,” says Schwitzer, adding that he believes a conservation research station near a population of the lemurs has helped to deter habitat destruction.
“I would say if Madagascar stabilises politically then I do have hope. Right now the political climate is so changeable,” says Yoder.
“I’m not just going to throw my hands up and say ‘oh well’. As long as I’m breathing I have hope.”
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