No primate species is known to have gone extinct during the last 200 years. But that’s almost certain to change dramatically over the next decade, and the first to go may be a mild nocturnal lemur with huge amber eyes.
The northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis) is now thought to be down to just 19 individuals, living in two dwindling patches of tropical dry forest at the northern tip of Madagascar. The larger patch is just under 200 acres—about a quarter of the size of Central Park in Manhattan.
If that word “sportive” brings to mind the flamboyant ring-tailed lemur, King Julien, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Madagascar animated movie series, hold that thought for a bit.
In fact, the northern sportive lemur is a decidedly sedate and uncharismatic creature, eight inches tall, with gray brown fur, weighing under two pounds. It spends its nights steadily feeding on whatever leaves it can still find. By day, it perches at the mouth of its tree trunk nest hole, soaking up the sun.
The British apparently applied the term “sportive” to species in the genus Lepilemur either because they adopt a boxer-like stance when threatened, or because of the way they leap from a vertical position on a tree trunk. But leaf-eating makes for a low-energy diet, and compared to the balletic movements of sifaka lemurs, for instance, the sportive lemurs are “really rather sluggish,” says primatologist Christoph Schwitzer. “You need a radio collar to follow them, because they leap from tree to tree. But they can’t keep that up for long because they run out of fuel.” The truth, he says, is that “nobody really knows why the British called them sportive. In German, they’re wieselmaki, or weasel monkeys.”
The main threat to the continued survival of the northern sportive lemur (and most of the other lemur species in Madagascar) comes from local villagers gathering wood either for cooking or to turn into charcoal for sale in the city. The Malagasy still practice slash-and-burn agriculture, as well. That means cutting down and burning a patch of forest, using the ashes to make the nutrient-poor tropical soil fertile, and then moving on to a new patch after two or three years.
“It was sustainable when there were only a few people living on Madagascar,” says Schwitzer, who is vice chair of the Madagascar primate specialist group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But there are now 21 million people on this island off the southeast coast of Africa, and only about 15 percent of its original forest remains intact.
The continued survival of the lemurs is also at risk because of political and economic turmoil following the 2009 overthrow of Madagascar’s last democratically elected government. That coup forced most international aid organizations to pull out, and Madagascar, already among the poorest nations on Earth, became significantly poorer. Bushmeat hunting of lemurs, which was rare in the past, has become increasingly common.
Early this year, the World Bank returned to Madagascar with the promise of substantial new aid. But election of a new national government, originally scheduled to take place this week, has been repeatedly postponed.
Madagascar should be doing far better, says Schwitzer. It has substantial petroleum, iron ore, and sapphire reserves, and its motherlode of rare and colorful animal species should be the basis for a thriving tourist economy. “For such a country to be so poor is crazy,” he adds. “It has to do with a recurring political crisis every 10 years and people not getting their act together.”
And that puts lemurs on death row. When the IUCN issues its new three-year lemur conservation strategy later this month, it will report that more than 90 percent of Madagascar’s 104 lemur species are now vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
Captive breeding might sound like the logical next step for the northern sportive lemur. But with only 19 individuals in the wild, it’s hard to justify pulling out part of the population for a captive breeding program, especially when the likelihood of failure is so high. The lemur’s leafy diet is difficult to replicate in a zoo, particularly because most science-based zoo programs are in the northern hemisphere, where leaves are unavailable in winter.
...if somebody decides to go out lemur hunting, the species is gone.To keep the northern sportive lemur from becoming extinct over the next three years, the IUCN is proposing to place forest guards in the field round the clock. “You have to get somebody on ’em 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they have to know where every animal is,” says Russ Mittermeier, chair of the IUCN primate specialist group and president of Conservation International. “Otherwise, if somebody decides to go out lemur hunting, the species is gone.”
The good news is that the program to put guards in the field will cost only $25,000 a year. And given proper protection, lemurs can rebound even from very small population numbers. (Mittermeier says that if readers want to make a donation and have it go 100 percent toward the cost of those guards, you should mark your donation for that purpose and address it to his attention at Conservation International, 2011 Crystal Drive, Suite 500, Arlington, VA 22202.)
Overall, the IUCN figures that to get all 104 lemur species through the next three years will cost $7.6 million. To put that number in perspective, the three Madagascar animated movies released by DreamWorks Animation since 2005 have so far earned about $1.9 billion worldwide, with another sequel now in development. Perhaps the DreamWorks team would like to send a little thank you cash to King Julien's family.