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Steig Johnson looks at preserving one of world's most endangered primate species

UCalgary anthropology prof monitors Madagascar rainforest and its lemur inhabitants


Visitors to the Calgary Zoo's Land of Lemurs exhibit not only learn about the endangered primates, but also gain practical tips on how they can help protect the rainforest.

By Barb Livingstone
August 4, 2017

All day long, for five straight months, Sheila Holmes slipped through the Madagascar rainforest, 16,000 kilometres away from her Calgary university classes, eyes and feet following black-and-white ruffed lemurs as they flew through the trees.

Holmes was not your average tourist on this Indian Ocean island off the eastern coast of Africa. Instead, this University of Calgary student, who is now working on her anthropology doctorate, became a crucial part of what is the longest continuous monitoring program of one of the most endangered primate species in the world. 

While Disney’s animated Madagascar series turned lemurs into movie darlings, estimates are many of the 100-plus species could be totally extinct in several decades, with constant loss of rainforest to slash-and-burn agriculture and the hunting of “bush meat” by humans in the impoverished country.

Steig Johnson, associate professor in the University of Calgary's Department of Anthropology, has been part of Madagascar’s community-based monitoring program — in collaboration with a local, independent non-government agency — from the start. What began as population research and education is now helping preserve the rainforest and its wildlife, while creating sustainable farming and eco-tourism jobs for the Malagasy. Volunteer monitors from around the world work with Madagascar-born technicians to track the “eco-engineer” lemurs whose seed-filled droppings are rehabilitating the environment.

That on-the-ground conservation has attracted the Calgary Zoo to join the project at the same time it launched its $8 million Land of Lemurs exhibit.

They are our brothers, of another mother

Lemurs, only found in Madagascar, make up one-quarter of the world’s primate species. Almost 95 per cent of lemur species are listed as threatened; 25 species are “critically endangered” — a 20 per cent increase since 2008.

 “What draws people like me to Madagascar is that this is a strange little separate chapter in the history of primate evolution — which includes humans — over tens of millions of years,” says Johnson, who has been doing research in the country for 20 years and who first drew his student, Holmes, into the program.

The species range from the tiny mouse lemur (head and body less than 2.5 inches long) to one larger than gorillas and now extinct. If you go to Madagascar, “you can’t help get involved when you see what is happening; when you see how incredibly fragile they and their environment are.”

Johnson is now vice-chair of International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) primate specialist group for Madagascar, helping find international donors and raise awareness.

Scoop the poop, and science too

In Madagascar, volunteers, along with trained community-born technicians, follow white-and-black ruffed lemurs fitted with radio collars. As the largest fruit-eating lemurs in the country, they swallow larger seeds without chewing them, and along the way, pollinate other plants (carrying a face dusted with flower nectar), promoting plant reproduction to feed all varieties of rainforest inhabitants.

Fruit seeds pass through the lemurs almost intact, are scooped up (with accompanying packets of fertilizer), germinated in nurseries, planted and moved into controlled conditions to harden, and then replanted in forests. Locals learn conservation methods and earn income — including as tourist guides (New York Times Travel declared Madagascar A Place to Go in 2017) — to support their families.

In other words, lemurs and their habitat are becoming more valuable alive than dead.

Cute, cuddly and charismatic

The acrobatic lemurs are engaging, social animals. The Calgary Zoo’s exhibit, opened in July, includes 13 lemurs from three species— the black-and-white ruffed, the ring-tail and the red-fronted. Destination Africa Curator Malu Celli says with its large outdoor enclosure of trees, rope bridges, water, and pod-style heaters, this exhibit bucks North American-style enclosed exhibits.

“Here, lemurs invite you into their home” with guests, led by zoo interpreters, walking the habitat area and interacting with (but not touching) residents.

The zoo’s collaboration with Johnson and the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership fits into its other, world-leading community conservation efforts (including the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary in West Africa), says Axel Moehrenschlager, zoo director of conservation and science and UCalgary adjunct associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

He says projects must not only practise good science and research, but also attack two of the world’s greatest challenges: threat of extinction and world poverty. “If we save lemurs but don’t benefit local people, that is failure. Conservation needs to help local communities to be fair and sustainable in the long term."

Why should we care about lemurs?

Zoo interpreters are not only sharing lemur life with visitors, but they also offer practical suggestions on how to protect rainforest habitat, like finding the Rainforest Alliance logo (indicating sustainable farming products) when buying coffee, vanilla, chocolate and tea.

When Holmes — at one time a Calgary Zoo gorilla team volunteer — is asked why protecting lemurs is important, she paraphrases professor Johnson: "Would you want to live in a place lemurs didn’t exist?"

Moehrenschlager, who chairs IUCN’s reintroduction specialist group, says people should understand there is hope — that conservation works very well, “we just need to do more of it.” He describes lemur conservation efforts as something of a test. “If we can’t save species as iconic as lemurs, we will struggle to save anything else.”