Madagascar’s real-life lemurs face extinction within 20 years
Immortalised in the hit cartoon “Madagascar”, real-life lemurs face extinction within 20 years short of drastic action to tackle the poverty driving islanders to poach the primates and destroy their habitat.
Each year that passes hastens the decline of the saucer-eyed primates, as the Indian Ocean island’s people struggle for survival amid a drawn-out political crisis.
“As long as there is poverty, we can’t expect to prevent the lemurs’ extinction,” said primatologist Jonah Ratsimbazafy from the University of Antananarivo.
Cast as a lovable bunch in the “Madagascar” movies, lemurs occur in the wild only on the island, having evolved separately from their cousins the African ape over millions of years.
Madagascar is home to 105 different species of lemur, accounting for 20 percent of the world’s species of primate, in an area spanning less than one percent of the global habitat of all primates.
But crop burnings and wild fires destroy 200,000 hectares of Madagascar’s forest a year. And the 13 percent of its natural forest that remains may disappear within a generation, according to Ratsimbazafy.
“If this rate of deforestation continues you could say that within 20 to 25 years there won’t be any forest left, so no lemurs either,” he said.
Ninety-three of the 105 known lemur species are on the endangered list.
An estimated 92 percent of Madagascar’s people live on less than a $2 a day, and social conditions have worsened on the island since its leader Andry Rajoelina seized power in 2009 with the help of the army.
Most foreign aid was suspended, bringing the economy to its knees and putting the country at risk of a food crisis — a situation exacerbated by a locust plague this year.
The broke state has scheduled a presidential election for later this month aimed at ending the four-year political crisis.
The island’s blossoming tourist industry also suffered a blow this month following the mob lynching of two Europeans and a local man accused of killing a boy on the Madagascan tourist island of Nosy Be.
The deadly riots sparked travel warnings from several countries including France and the United States.
Meanwhile locals eke out a living where they can — including by looting precious woods, minerals and lemurs from the forest around them.
Small-scale woodcutters also hunt the animals for food while searching for rosewood, according to Tovonanahary Rasolofoharivelo, another primate expert.
“Often they don’t bring enough to eat and woodcutting is hard work, so they eat lemur meat because the animals are easier to catch than birds.”
(Deforestation of Tropical Rainforests: A Study of Madagascar)
I’ve been trying to find a version of this that wasn’t quite so long. But this is the first time it has shown up on my dash, so I figured now is as good as any time to start talking about it.
This is going to be a really long post but I need to say my piece. And no, I am not sorry.
So Madagascar’s rainforests have been disappearing at unprecedented rates. What is left is but a tiny fraction of the original extent, as Shelly showed with the poignant photo above.
What this illustration does not show is that what is left of that forest is but a mosaic - it is not even as cohesive as shown in the final image. And we must also note that that image is only accurate up to 1990. Currently, less than 5% of the original extent of rainforest remains (though estimates vary).
Mosaic forest, i.e. forest that is broken into small fragments, is extremely vulnerable to deforestation. And what’s more, it is likely to be overlooked in conservation assessments focussing on things like this article - if we only care about forests of sufficient size to support lemurs, a lot of forest fragments get ignored. Many of those forest fragments are home to critically endangered species that are found nowhere else in the world, because Madagascar not only has unparalleled levels of endemism per square kilometre, but it also has unrivalled levels of micro-endemism, such that one forest mere kilometres from another may have numerous species not found in that other forest.
Take for example the Tarzan Chameleon, Calumma tarzan.
This species is known only from two tiny tiny forest fragment in eastern Madagascar. This species lives in fragments that are categorically too small to be considered for lemur-based conservation, so it has been overlooked. When it was described in 2010, the authors of the description named it specifically for the purpose of making it a conservation flagship, because of this ‘lemur-bias’ in conservation in Madagascar.
The same kind of thought process was behind the recent description of several dwarf chameleon species, including Brookesia desperata (from the Latin desperatus meaning ‘desperate’) and B. tristis (from the Latin tristis meaning ‘sad’ or ‘sorrowful’), both of which received names reflecting their conservation prospects and the prospect of the survival of their species as a whole.
That we have gotten to this point, where animals are being named in reflection of the fact that the survival of their species is unlikely, says so very much about what is wrong with conservation and what we are doing to our planet. Barely have these animals been named before we will be forced to append a little ‘EX’ label to their specimen jars in museums. And these are the lucky ones - to have even been discovered before they are eradicated, and that only because they are found in protected forest.
NO species should have to have go straight from description to the Critically Endangered or, worse, Extinct ranking.
While it is great that we think towards the lemurs, many of which are obviously disappearing, we have to think at the level of whole ecosystems if we want to save species. Conserving just for one species is incredibly short-sighted. We need to protect the forests at the holistic level.
One of the problems then is that, without a flagship to drive the conservation, how do we rally support? There is a constant battle between that which needs to be conserved as soon as possible, and finding some aspect about it for the public and for the conservation agencies to convince them that it is worth their time and money.
If you’ve read some of my earlier writings on this topic and the topic of my research and my field, you will know what this means to people like me. My forests, my animals, millions of years of independent evolutionary innovation, is being eradicated before we even know what it contains. Before it even has a name. That tragedy is… unspeakable.
Four years ago I went out to work in a forest called Antsolipa in northern Madagascar. We were doing a rapid assessment of the forest’s herpetological, avian, and mammalian fauna, to inform conservation work in that area. Yesterday, I learned that that forest no longer exists. It was lost in a fire. I have no doubts that that fire was man-made. My soul aches to think of everything that was lost.
The reality is that this is happening across the island and, at a broader scale, across the globe every day. If you could see it, and identify with it, as I did with my forest in northern Madagascar, your very soul would bleed out. And we are helpless to stop it. ‘Progress’ marches on and we will not know what havoc we have wrought until we reap its true repercussions.
The lemurs are vanishing. The forest is vanishing. 98% of all lemur species are ranked as Vulnerable or worse on the IUCN Red List. The frog assessment (which is ongoing, and in which I am [currently passively] involved) shows much the same trends - and when chytrid finally arrives on the island, as it almost inevitably will, the devastation will be unfathomable.
As they said in the article above, and as I have talked about in the past, while the poverty situation in the country continues, and while the political shitstorm lasts (those are not separate issues), nothing is going to change. Not for the forests. Not for the animals. Not for the researchers. And not for the people.
But what the future is… nobody can say for certain. Whether it will come in 20 years, or in 200, one thing is certain: if nothing changes soon, everything will be lost.