A species made famous by a series of hit animated films is now threatened with extinction after a dramatic drop in its wild population.
Two new independent studies estimate that there are only between 2,000 and 2,400 ring-tailed lemurs — perhaps the most charismatic of Madagascar’s animals, and a flagship species of the country — left in the wild. This is a 95% decrease from the year 2000, when the last known population estimate was published. It also means that now there are more ring-tailed lemurs in zoos around the world than remain in the wild.
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Ring-tailed lemurs are currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and face a series of immediate threats from habitat loss and bushmeat hunting. In addition, the species is being extracted from the wild for the in-country illegal pet trade which provides private households with pets and businesses with lemurs that foreign tourists can take selfies with. Fortunately, the illegal trade of live lemurs out of Madagascar into the international market is strictly monitored. This means that ring-tailed lemurs in zoos across the world have not been the victims of this trade; rather, they have been bred in captivity and are often registered as part of global breeding programs.
The two studies, one in Folia Primatologica and the other in Primate Conservation, were published by researchers at Conservation International and Lemur Love, an international NGO that works to protect ring-tailed lemurs from extinction.
“Ring-tailed lemurs could be a poster species for the extinction crisis,” said Dr. Marni LaFleur, the lead author of one of the studies and co-director of Lemur Love. “This species could go extinct in the wild very soon, but it hasn’t been on the radar of scientists — or the general public — because they are so prevalent at zoos globally, at tourist destinations in Madagascar, and are popular in movies and media.”
While collecting data for the study in mid-2016, the researchers found themselves trekking through both of Madagascar’s jungles — the forested and the urban kind — trying to understand the threats that ring-tailed lemurs face.
“We saw several intact forests without any lemurs and after walking around for days and interviewing the local communities and park managers, it was clear that all of the animals in some locations had been captured for the pet trade or hunted,” said Dr. Tara Clarke of Duke University and Lemur Love. “It is devastating.”
Now that these findings have been made public, there is reason for hope.
Historically there has been limited conservation funding and attention allotted to ring-tailed lemurs — in part because they were assumed to be doing well as a species. These new studies are already mobilizing resources and awareness, with the proposal to add ring-tailed lemurs to the 2016-2018 “World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates” listing, published bi-annually by the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. This should help release funding for much-needed census efforts and initiatives to track the illegal trade of these animals.
In addition, zoos stand to play an extremely important role in ring-tailed lemur conservation. The lemurs’ presence in zoos around the world presents a fantastic opportunity to inspire the public to care about these animals in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. There are also opportunities to build better linkages between captive facilities around the world and conservation efforts in Madagascar. If zoos can connect with and support organizations that are initiating efforts on the ground to help save ring-tailed lemurs in the wild, we will surely be able to keep this species from disappearing.
Finally, there are real opportunities for ecotourism and other interdisciplinary conservation programs to help keep ring-tailed lemurs safe. The primary threats to ring-tailed lemurs, including deforestation and capture for the bushmeat and pet trades, can each be linked to poverty. Subsistence living depends heavily on natural resource exploitation, and forest products, including lemurs, are often sold to generate badly needed income. It is therefore critical to link conservation efforts with social and economic development activities, such as training and employing local people in effective reforestation techniques, in order to ensure that both Madagascar’s human and wildlife populations can thrive.
Kim Reuter is the natural capital accounting director in Conservation International’s Africa field division. Based in Nairobi, Reuter has studied the urban bushmeat trade in Madagascar; she also runs the Pet Lemur Survey, which collects data from the public to shed light on how many people illegally own lemurs as pets in Madagascar. Funding for the new lemur studies was provided in part by the Conservation International-administered Primate Action Fund, and undertaken by researchers at the University of California San Diego, Duke University, Conservation International, the University of Victoria and the University of Colorado Boulder.