Scientists provide a lifeline for Madagascar's "panda"

10/5/2009

Madagascar rainforest survey doubles known localities of world's rarest lemur

Antananarivo, Madagascar – A scientific expedition into Madagascar’s rainforests has doubled the number of locations where the world's rarest lemur, the Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus), is known to occur.

Dr Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and renowned lemur expert, hailed the discovery as "another milestone in saving one of the world's most threatened primates".

The Greater Bamboo Lemur – which, like China's giant panda lives on a diet consisting almost exclusively of bamboo – was thought to be extinct until rediscovered in the early 1980s. It is the only species within the Prolemur genus, and current scientific knowledge indicates that it is the most endangered of all lemurs – with less than 100 thought to survive in the wild.

IN PHOTOS: The Greater Bamboo Lemur 

Occurring only in Madagascar, there is evidence to show it was once widely distributed across the island, but it is now restricted to a small part of the remaining eastern rainforest belt and a handful of outlying degraded forest fragments. The animals' population has been declining for years due to rainforest destruction, over-exploitation of the Giant Bamboo it feeds on, hunting, and, potentially, climate change.

"When we first realised the extent of their decline it was clear that we had to respond, and fast", revealed Tony King of The Aspinall Foundation's bamboo lemur project. "These remarkable discoveries give us renewed hope for the challenge ahead of us".

The survey was undertaken by The Aspinall Foundation, Conservation International, Association Mitsinjo and GERP. The team of researchers and local guides headed for remote areas of Madagascar’s Ankeniheny-Zahamena rainforest, soon to be officially declared the island nation's latest protected area. They trekked several hundred miles in total, often off-road, on foot or in dug-out canoes, focussing their efforts on remaining stands of giant bamboo, searching for characteristic feeding remains, fresh droppings, or even a rare glimpse of the lemur itself, with its black face and orange eyes contrasting with its distinctive white ear tufts.

"We found evidence of Prolemur simus at eleven different sites throughout this 370,000 hectare forest", Conservation International primatologist Tovonanahary Rasolofoharivelo explained. "The new localities lie in the southeastern and central parts of Ankeniheny-Zahamena".

The team enjoyed tremendous support by local communities who will play a key role in the management and conservation of the new protected area. "If you want to succeed in finding an animal as rare and secretive as the Greater Bamboo Lemur, you have to work with the local communities who have an intimate knowledge of the forest they live in" states Rainer Dolch of Association Mitsinjo.

"This is an extraordinary success for our efforts to save the species," said Dr Jonah Ratsimbazafy of the Malagasy Primate Group GERP. "It should put nature conservation back on the agenda in Madagascar, after recent lawlessness and a surge in illegal logging within national parks, which risked annihilating previous conservation successes".

"Searching for the world’s rarest and most elusive lemur in this remote forest was a big gamble" added Damian Aspinall of The Aspinall Foundation, "but sometimes that's what it takes to help save a species from the brink of extinction".

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For more information contact:
Patricia Yakabe Malentaqui, Press Officer, Conservation International
Mobile: (+1) 571 225-8345
Office: (+1) 703 341 2471
Email: p.malentaqui@conservation.org

Tony King, The Aspinall Foundation, tonyk@howletts.net
Rainer Dolch, Association Mitsinjo, rdolch@gmx.de
Jonah Ratsimbazafy, GERP; jonah.ratsimbazafy@durrell.org

Notes to the Editor:

The Ankeniheny-Zahamena rainforest corridor will become one of the largest protected areas in Madagascar, covering 371,000 hectares. Containing principally medium-altitude rainforest, the corridor is fundamental for the conservation of much of the country’s endemic wildlife, while also providing various essential ecosystem services. However, the forest endures high human pressure, as the local and regional population still depends on its natural resources for their daily subsistence. Various initiatives are being developed to counter this pressure, including resource valorisation, identification of alternative revenue-generating activities, agricultural intensification and participative forest management – 108 community associations are now responsible for management transfer zones in the protected area’s periphery, with more being prepared.

The Aspinall Foundation is a UK-registered charity devoted to saving rare and endangered species throughout the world, including gorillas in central Africa, gibbons in south-east Asia, and now lemurs in Madagascar. Please visit www.totallywild.net/jaf to find out how you can help.

Conservation International (CI) applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth's richest regions of plant and animal diversity in the biodiversity hotspots, high-biodiversity wilderness areas and key marine ecosystems. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information about CI, visit www.conservation.org.

Association Mitsinjo is a Malagasy conservation organisation that evolved out of a local community. It is currently responsible for the management of more than 10,000 hectares of valuable wildlife habitat in eastern Madagascar’s rainforests and is spearheading projects on forest restoration.

GERP (Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar) is a Malagasy association of national and foreign primatologists, created in 1994 and currently counting 67 active members. GERP is managing the Maromizaha future protected area in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor and supports the greater bamboo lemur project through the participation of its scientific members in the research missions.