July 20, 2012 — by DLC Director, Dr. Anne Yoder, and Conservation Coordinator, Charlie Welch

Last week, 60 of Madagascar’s leading lemur conservationists and researchers gathered in the capital of Antananarivo to reevaluate the IUCN Red-List conservation statuses of all existing lemur species. Duke Lemur Center’s SAVA Conservation project director Dr. Erik Patel was among the participants. It had been seven years since the last assessment – new discoveries and increasing conservation threats since a coup d’etat in 2009 and subsequent political crisis warranted the reassessment. Also, recent genetic research has resulted in “splitting” of some species into smaller and sometimes more threatened taxonomic groups. Taking an approach that seeks to maximize the preservation of genetic and ecological diversity, the IUCN concluded that twenty-three lemurs qualify as Critically Endangered (up from 8), fifty-two are Endangered (up from 18), and nineteen Vulnerable (up from 14) to extinction.  These are stunning and disturbing results. “That means that 91% of all lemurs are assessed as being in one of the Red List threatened categories, which is far and away the largest proportion of any group of mammals,” said Dr. Russ Mittermeier, Chairman of the Madagascar Primate Specialist Group and President of Conservation International.  Unprecedented high levels of lemur hunting as well as escalating habitat disturbance are the primary contributing factors.

As the world’s leading research center for lemurs, the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) in Durham, North Carolina is gravely concerned about the outcome of the IUCN meeting. In addition to our focus on the study of lemur biology and evolution, we have a core responsibility to dedicate our resources and our hearts to the protection of lemurs in their country of origin, Madagascar. For more than 20 years, the DLC has devoted its efforts towards conserving lemurs and their habitats, joining forces with other conservation organizations in an effort to preserve not only the disappearing lemurs, but also the dazzling array of unique fauna and flora found nowhere else on earth. When these species disappear from Madagascar, they are lost to us all forever.

As in many developing countries, conservation in Madagascar has been and continues to be an uphill battle.  Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, home to a human population that is saddled with some of the most pressing concerns faced by any community on earth, such as simply feeding their children.  Many of our conservation efforts in Madagascar involve working with local people, trying to environmentally educate and provide sustainable agriculture alternatives. If we are to convince people of the importance of protecting and managing wisely their natural resources, it is our duty to help them improve their own lives, and the lives of future generations.  The DLC thus serves a unique role in conserving lemurs by integrating ex situ breeding programs for lemurs, thereby providing a genetic safety net for populations in Madagascar, and in situ efforts to protect lemurs by working with their Malagasy stewards.

Politics, economics, and the environment are inextricably linked. Madagascar will likely continue to need outside help for years to come if we are to achieve conservation success. The DLC is well into the process of developing a conservation initiative in the SAVA region of northeastern Madagascar, which is directed on the ground by Dr. Erik Patel. The new project includes components ranging from environmental education to reforestation, and we hope that in the long-term, these efforts will slow the insidious and progressive destruction of forests and the plants and animals that live there. No matter how frustratingly slow the progress, we must never lose hope – the outcome is too important.