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Sounding the Alarm: Madagascar’s Weird and Wonderful Lemurs on the Brink

Madagascar is home to an astonishing number of wildlife species, but perhaps most famous are its lemurs—and for very good reason. The big-eyed primates are charismatic, diverse, resourceful, whimsical and even quite humanlike.

Lemurs have another, less fortunate distinction: They are the most endangered primates in the world, according to leading primate conservationists who gathered in May to review the status of Madagascar’s 111 lemur species. The newly updated assessments for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species provisionally find that 95 percent of Earth’s lemurs are on the brink of extinction: 105 of the 111 species are Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable.

Leading Conservationists Unite

The IUCN SSC Lemur Red Listing and Conservation Planning Workshop was held in Madagascar and included more than 50 experts from around the world. Our own Russ Mittermeier, Chief Conservationist Officer and winner of the 2018 Indianapolis Prize, represented Global Wildlife and helped lead the workshop.

Male Blue-eyed Black Lemur. (Photo by Russ Mittermeier)

These experts are working together to implement a major action plan for lemur conservation. That plan has succeeded in raising more than $8 million for lemur conservation, which is now being disbursed to dozens of conservation projects.

Madagascar: More Than Just a Kids’ Movie

Madagascar, an island off the Southeast coast of Africa and the fourth largest island in the world, is one of the top megadiversity regions and one of the highest priority biodiversity hotspots on Earth. It is home to thousands of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet, including its world-famous nonhuman inhabitant, the lemur.

Northern Sportive Lemur from the Analalava in the Sahafaky region. (Photo by E. E. Louis Jr.).

A possible lemur extinction could have a domino effect on Madagascar’s biodiversity.  Large-seeded plants—which are key to the health of Madagascar’s forests—would then be at risk of extinction because lemurs spread their seeds throughout the island.

A lemur extinction could also impact the livelihood of its human inhabitants. The island’s economy relies heavily on ecotourism, making its wildlife—especially the lemur—its greatest asset. People all over the world travel to the “Red Island” to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.

Madagascar’s vast and diverse primate population makes it one of the four major regions for primates, even though it is only about 3 percent the size of the three other regions where primates are found (mainland Africa, Asia, and the Neotropics).

Forests of Madagascar. (Photo by Robin Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation)

Lemurs: The “Teeth Comb,” “She-power” and Other Interesting Traits

Lemurs are interesting-looking primates with huge eyes. They tend to live in female-dominated societies, use their teeth instead of fingers to groom, and are quite vocal. In fact, the Indri Lemur’s call has been compared to a humpback whale with a police siren. For more than 40 million years, lemurs evolved in isolation on the island of Madagascar, free from competition from monkeys and apes, resulting in features that make lemurs remarkably different from these other primates.

Female Blue-eyed Black Lemur. (Photo by Russ Mittermeier)

Among the most spectacular species of lemurs provisionally up-listed from Endangered to Critically Endangered in the assessment is the Indri, the largest of the living lemurs and a species of symbolic value comparable to that of China’s Giant Panda; as well as Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, which, at 30 grams, is the world’s smallest primate.

Another striking lemur is the Critically Endangered Blue-eyed Black Lemur, one of the few primate species other than humans that has blue eyes. Probably the rarest lemur is the Northern Sportive Lemur, also Critically Endangered, of which there are only about 50 known individuals left. All nine species of the spectacular sifakas have also now been provisionally listed as Critically Endangered.

Sheth’s Lemur is named after Brian Sheth, GWC’s board chair. (Photo by Richard Randriamampionona)

Two lemur species actually bear the names of GWC leaders: Mittermeier’s Mouse Lemur is named after Russ Mittermeier; and Sheth’s Lemur is named after GWC board chair Brian Sheth.

Lemurs are in danger of extinction from slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging, charcoal production and mining. More alarmingly, new data also indicates that hunting and live capture for pets is a more serious threat than conservationists previously imagined.

The lemur workshop was sponsored by IUCN’s SOS Program, the Houston Zoo, the Marat Karpeka Lemur Foundation, the Bristol Zoological Society, and Global Wildlife Conservation, and was held at the Carlton Hotel in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.

Check out these 12 incredible facts about lemurs from Mother Nature Network

(Top photo: Verreaux’s sifaka, Madagascar. Photo by Russ Mittermeier)

About the Author

Tabitha Upshaw

Tabitha Upshaw

Tabitha Upshaw is GWC's Chief Marketing Officer. Tabitha is responsible for the organization’s branding, communications and marketing programs. Her small-but-mighty team also works collaboratively with incredible partners to generate support for many important wildlife conservation initiatives.

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