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Madagascar Lemurs at the Brink of Extinction


Image Source: Duke Lemur Center

Lemurs are cute, fluffy, intelligent little animals, fascinating to watch and fun to coo over. But they’re also the most endangered invertebrate on the planet. Only found in the wild in Madagascar, their habitat is at great risk. Madagascar is an island (the 4th largest island!) off the coast of Africa with a rapidly growing poor and rural population.

More than 70 million years ago, primate ancestors of lemurs came from mainland Africa to the island of Madagascar (exactly how they got there is debated, but it likely involved a “raft” of some kind). More than 100 species of lemurs evolved to fit the varying microclimates and ecosystems of Madagascar: from the more tropical coastal plains to the temperate mountains. Lemurs aren’t the only animals unique to this island, about 90% of the plants and animals in Madagascar cannot be found anywhere else.

Unfortunately, this astounding biodiversity is high at risk of extinction. Deforestation is the biggest threat to lemurs and the other species of Madagascar. Illegal logging is prevalent throughout the country, especially in the eastern rainforests. Selling charcoal, produced from the spiny forests, is also common. But possibly the most harmful is slash and burn agriculture, or Tavy, an essential part of Malagasy culture and livelihood. Tropical rainforests are cut, and then burned down in order to grow rice. The field can be used for a few years, and the cycle can be repeated a few times before the soil is devoid of nutrients. Then, small shrubs and vegetation grow where the rainforest once was as the farmers find new land to use. Deforestation not only destroys existing habitats for animals, like lemurs, it also causes erosion and landslides. Illegal hunting, fishing, the pet trade, and the introduction of foreign species all plague the country and its biodiversity as well.

Although it is easy to blame the Malagasy people for their irresponsible actions, from Tavy agriculture to illegal hunting, it is important to remember that this is the way of life for these people, and they are too impoverished to adopt more modern and more expensive farming techniques. As responsible scientists, conservationists, and citizens we can help the Malagasy people to protect their country and the rare plants and animals that live there. Projects by organizations such as the Duke Lemur Center strive to do just this, without being overbearing or forcing an unfamiliar way of life on the Malagasy people.

In order to protect lemurs, or other endangered species, we can do three main things:

  1. Donate to organizations that are working towards conservation (like the Duke Lemur Center https://lemur.duke.edu/)

  2. Advocate for policies that protect wildlife and the environment (and vote for government officials who support these policies)

  3. Make changes to your own lifestyle to prevent climate change and the destruction of habitats

References

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ma.html

https://www.lemurconservationnetwork.org/why-lemurs/

https://www.wildmadagascar.org/conservation/threats.html

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC