Madagascar: Prosimian Protection & Community Capacity Building with the Duke Lemur Center

Earlier this month, millennials and the Duke University community mourned the death of Jovian, the Coquerel’s sifaka lemur better known as “Zoboomafoo” from the late 1990’s PBS Kids show of the same name. Jovian resided at the Duke Lemur Center (DLC), which houses the world’s largest and most diverse collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. The DLC houses many other species of lemurs and other prosimians such as lorises and bush babies. Last spring, I took a tour of the DLC, and a few weeks ago I volunteered there with the Duke Conservation Society.

A Coquerel's Sifaka at the DLC. Photo by author, 2014.
A Coquerel’s sifaka at the DLC. Photo by author, 2014.

Lemurs are world’s most endangered mammals and are only endemic to Madagascar. Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot—an area that is both biologically diverse and severely threatened by human activity. Globally, more than one billion people live in biodiversity hotspots, which cover only 12 percent of the planet’s land surface. With a population growth rate of 2.8 percent, Madagascar’s population of approximately 23 million is expected to double by 2040. As the map of biodiversity hotspots below shows, Madagascar also has low resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Photo courtesy of Population Action International.
Photo courtesy of Population Action International.

Deforestation and habitat degradation are the primary threat to lemurs and Madagascar’s other unique wildlife. With weak government enforcement, approximately 90 percent of Madagascar’s original forests have been destroyed by illegal logging.  Eighty percent of Madagascar’s population are subsistence farmers, and many practice slash and burn agriculture. As the forests disappear, humans and wildlife become closer in contact, which has the potential to increase the risk of zoonotic diseases. For example, the WHO reports an outbreak of the plague in rural Madagascar, which has recently spread to the capital Antananarivo.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 92 percent of its population living on under $2 a day. According to the World Food Program, Madagascar ranks sixth in the world for chronic malnutrition rates, and most meals in rural households do not include protein. Traditionally, killing and eating lemurs was taboo—or fady in Malagasy culture—but a study reveals that patterns of bushmeat consumption of protected species have increased in recent years. However, local populations do not prefer bushmeat to other types of proteins, and the same study posits that an increased availability of fish and domestic meats in rural areas will drive down demand for bushmeat.

Lemurs, lorises and bush babies are also threatened by the burgeoning demand for prosimian pets. The DLC houses one slow loris, the adorable star of many viral internet videos. However, lorises are often snatched illegally from their natural habitats, and transported and held in inhumane conditions. Last year in Thailand, pop star Rihanna posted a picture of herself and a slow loris on Instagram, which eventually led police to arrest two primate smugglers.

The Duke Lemur Center has supported an active conservation program in Madagascar for more than 20 years. The Center manages the Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), a NGO and consortium of conservation agencies and zoos that works in supporting community-based conservation efforts in Malagasy communities.

In 2012, the DLC established another conservation program in the Sava region on the northeast of the island, integrating community development and biodiversity conservation. In regional communities, the DLC is working with the Andapa Fish Association to breed fony—an over-exploited and nearly extinct fish species endemic to Madagascar lakes—for reintroduction and local consumption, in hopes of meeting the community’s nutritional needs and alleviate the pressure to consume bushmeat.

Madagascar’s turbulent political history and colonial legacy makes managing local institutions, distributing aid and implementing conservation efforts difficult. Since independence from France in 1960, Madagascar has faced contested elections, assassinations and coups. A 2009 a military-backed coup suspended all inflows of foreign aid, although foreign aid had previously comprised 70 percent of the national budget.

In a 2013 interview in Duke Magazine, Charlie Welch, a DLC conservationist, said that, “breeding animals in captivity [at DLC] was only going to make a small dent. We quickly realized that if we wanted to do anything, we were going to have to go way beyond lemurs. About 95 percent of our conservation is working with people.” Engaging local communities and capacity building in conservation practice is exceedingly challenging in the context of Madagascar, but is perhaps imperative to achieve positive outcomes for both the environment and the community.

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A ring-tailed lemur at the DLC. Photo taken by author, 2014.
A ring-tailed lemur at the DLC. Photo taken by author, 2014.