The Most Endangered Group of Primates

400 million years ago these prosimian primates rafted to Madagascar on floating islands of vegetation. Deep in the forests of Madagascar you’ll find them today, spending all of their time awake in the trees, generally eating fruit, and if not eating, then grooming each other or sunbathing. 400 million years ago they had no predators but sadly today it’s different story. Lemurs have lost more than 80 percent of their habitat in Madagascar since humans first arrived 2,000 years ago.

They are one of the world’s most endangered mammals and the most endangered group of primates. Ninety-five percent of Earth’s lemur population is threatened. Of the planet’s 111 known lemur species and subspecies, 105 are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, a group of primate specialists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined. The IUCN Red List, which is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species, was updated recently to show that that 33 lemur species are now classified as Critically Endangered, with 103 of the 107 surviving species threatened with extinction.

Ring-tailed lemur (Johannes Maximilian / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0))

Lemurs only live in one place in the world, Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands, which are off the coast of Mozambique in Africa. They occupy many different habitats: dry deciduous forests, spiny forests, rain forests, wetlands and mountains. As pups, many lemur species will cling to the mother’s belly for the first three to four weeks of life and then will ride on her back until it is three or four months old. At three to six months the babies are weaned. Growing up can take one to three and a half years, depending on the species. This can be a short time when compared to how long lemurs live. Some lemurs can live up to 30 years.

Lemurs are also essential pollinators. The traveler’s palm tree, for example, relies primarily on black-and-white ruffed lemurs to pollinate its flowers. The lemurs get pollen on their noses as the eat the fruit and nectar, thus spreading pollen as they forage. In fact, due to their close relationship with native trees, scientists have actually used them as key indicators of forest health.  

Red Ruffed Lemur (Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0))

Threats to the Lemurs

However, human activities are driving the decline of these unique primates. As forests are cleared by slash and burn agriculture and illegal logging, their habitat is destroyed. Additionally, some people hunt them, or even collect the babies for the pet trade. The single greatest threat to lemurs is the same thing causing most wildlife declines around the world: habitat loss, driven by everything from logging and agriculture to climate change.

One way to aid the species into recovery, would be to use less fossil fuels without cutting down what’s left of Madagascar’s forests. Eco-tourism is one way Madagascar is trying to save the species, showing many communities that they are more valuable alive than dead. Communities tend to resort to illegal logging because of the income it provides to support their families. In an aim to solve this issue, the Duke Lemur Center has a program in the Sambava-Andapa-Vohemar-Antalaha region, that supports jobs in fields like fish farming and park maintenance and offers ecological education and family planning to ease pressure on resources.

400 million years ago these primates were the size of gorillas and living without a worry, but just as their size has changed over time, so has their landscape. If we wish to keep this vulnerable group of species alive, we have to act quickly and intentionally or there might be none left at all. 

Photo credits:

Thumbnail: WikiMedia Commons

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