Oct. 14, 1997 DURHAM, N.C. -- Five captive black-and-white ruffed lemurs -- Janus, Letitia, Praesepe, Sarph and Zuben'ubi -- will begin an historic journey Oct. 17 when they depart for Madagascar to become the first such animals ever to be returned to the wilds they never knew.
The five lemurs, born in captivity at the Duke University Primate Center, will travel to Madagascar accompanied by veterinarian Graham Crawford of the San Francisco Zoo.
Once in Madagascar, they will be acclimated in outdoor cages for about a month in the Betampona Natural Reserve, after which they will be released to join a dwindling population of their wild cousins. The animals are all named after heavenly bodies such as asteroids, planets, moons and constellations.
Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), the project's international sponsor, plans to systematically repatriate as many as 20 of the adaptable lemurs to their ancestral island nation over the next three years. The first potential release groups of the long-tailed, tree-climbing primates now live in two U.S. research and breeding habitats: the Duke Primate Center and a Wildlife Conservation Society site on St. Catherine's Island off the coast of Georgia.
"This is a beginning, but it is only a beginning," said Andrea Katz, Duke Primate Center's conservation coordinator and an MFG technical adviser, who will serve as the project's field administrator in Madagascar. "Lemurs remain highly endangered in Madagascar, as their habitats are destroyed and they are hunted for food. Along with such restocking programs must come major efforts at aiding the nation's economy and preserving remaining natural habitats."
Black-and-white ruffed lemurs, known for the fur that frames their faces and the lush coats of black and white fur, are among Madagascar's most endangered, Katz said.
"They can only survive in primary tropical rainforests. They cannot adapt to cleared land or secondary forest. They are also among the most well-known lemurs, beautiful, striking, and vocal."
The Betampona reserve especially needs new stocks of black-and-white ruffed lemurs, said Katz and Charles Welch, the project's director. They estimate that only 30 to 35 of the animals live there now, a density at least one-tenth that of any other research site in Madagascar. That number is so low that diseases, storms or breeding problems could potentially exterminate the animals at that location, they warned. A careful study of the reserve has shown that it contains sufficient food resources for additional lemurs and is now secure enough that they will be relatively safe from poachers, they said.
Past poaching activities may partially explain such a low census. Black-and-white ruffed lemur meat is "reportedly the tastiest," they noted in their restocking proposal. Another possible culprit is inbreeding.
The five animals to be released are related to one another, but since they are unrelated to the sparse population in Betampona, their interbreeding with that population will greatly enhance the gene pool of ruffed lemurs in the reserve, said Katz and Welch.
Praesepe and Zuben'ubi are brother and sister. Praesepe is the mother of Letitia and Sarph, and Zuben'ubi is the father of Sarph. Letitia is the mother of Janus.
The Betampona Reserve, a protected area of more than 5,000 acres, is among the few remaining parts of a vast lowland rain forest that once dominated much of eastern Madagascar. Most of that forest has now been cleared for farming and local wood consumption, said Katz and Welch. Betampona, in fact, is itself surrounded by rice fields.
Besides releasing lemurs, project organizers hope to stimulate a stronger conservation mindedness in Madagascar's own citizens. Toward that aim, Malagasy scientists and nearby villagers will be closely involved in project research and activities. And the reintroduction efforts will also provide local Malagasy with jobs and educational opportunities.
"As an example of education efforts, we plan environmental classes for local school children to encourage their appreciation of their homeland's natural riches -- including its unique plants and animals and their habitats -- and the conservation issues facing them today," Welch said. "Local residents will be reminded that the Betampona refuge constitutes a vital repository for clean drinking water and plentiful water for their rice fields, and also protects their villages from flooding," he said.
Madagascar is one of the world's poorest nations and a major priority for conservationists. Its once-rich array of wildlife has been decimated by habitat destruction, and by its growing human population's need for usable land and forest products. The problem is critical for lemurs' futures because all lemur species are native only to Madagascar.
The MFG, headquartered at the San Francisco Zoo, was formed in 1988 to coordinate conservation efforts for Malagasy animals there and abroad. Its activities include training Malagasy students, researchers and technicians. It also assists the government of Madagascar in preserving lemurs and other threatened species through well-managed breeding programs.
Those programs are underway in distant places like the Duke Primate Center and other MFG institutions, as well as in Madagascar's own two zoos: Tsimbazaza Botanical and Zoological Park and Ivoloina Zoological Park.
"This project is an outstanding example of what zoos can do and must do to preserve wildlife," said David Anderson, the MFG's chairman and director of the San Francisco Zoo. "We have come full circle -- from old fashioned menageries that only displayed animals, to centers for conservation that return wildlife to the wild and protect habitats around the globe."
The Duke center, located in an isolated off-campus forest, is now home to 16 different endangered lemur species, as well as six other "prosimian" (pre-monkey) species such as lorises and bushbabies. It is a MFG member, as are 30 other zoological organizations in the United States, Europe and Great Britain.
Despite the species' severe decline in the wild, these lemurs have been found to breed very successfully in captivity, Katz and Welch said.
More than 250 black and white ruffed lemurs now live in North American institutions, while others are prospering in British and European zoos. These facilities all share husbandry and health information on their charges, and they often exchange animals as well for outbreeding. In effect, the widely distributed lemurs are being genetically managed as if they were a single large population.
Besides the five to be released, other candidates are now being kept in fenced natural enclosures at the Duke Primate Center or on St. Catherine's Island.
The animals are prepared for their future lives in Betampona by putting them through a kind of lemur "boot camp." For instance, while the Duke animals now descend to eat "unnatural" rations of monkey chow, their keepers are varying their feeding sites. That's to discourage dependency and encourage them to range widely.
The lemurs at Duke and St. Catherine's Island also readily forage for wild plants as they will have to do in Madagascar. And they've been observed issuing the appropriate alarm calls when they spot local predators. In North Carolina, their enemies include hawks, foxes and owls. At Betampona, the main predator will be the fossa (pronounced "foosh"), a bobcat-sized cousin of the mongoose.
Despite their apparent ability to forage, the animals will undergo a careful acclimatization process before being released, said Welch.
"They'll be fed a mixture of the local fruits and leaves that we know lemurs eat there," he said. "At the end of the month, the door will be opened, but we may not immediately cut off the food. We'll continue to supplement their diet for as long as it takes for them to reliably locate food trees in the area. As they do that, we'll reduce and eventually eliminate the food we give them."
They will also be equipped with radio collars so that Welch and other field researchers can track their movements. Both he and Katz hope this well-monitored and well-documented first attempt will become a model for reintroducing many lemur species to their former home.
Primary collaborators in the project include some of the MFG's key member organizations: the Duke Primate Center, Philadelphia Zoo and Roger Williams Park Zoo in the United States; and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, Marwell Preservation Trust and Zoological Society of London in Great Britain. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association also supports the project.
Madagascar collaborators include the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas, the Malagasy Department of Water and Forests, the University of Madagascar and Parc Ivoloina.
The total budget for the first three year phase will be $300,000. Almost half that money is already in hand due to fund-raising efforts -- principally by the Jersey-London-Marwell group, which has raised $120,000.
In one notable example, actor-producer John Cleese donated the proceeds from the London premier of his comedy film Fierce Creatures, which featured captive lemurs in addition to its human cast.
Other MFG members include: Aktiengesellschaft Zoologischer in Koln, Germany; Baltimore Zoo; Brookfield (Ill.) Zoo; Cincinnati Zoo; Colchester Zoo in Essex, England; Columbus (Ohio) Zoo; Denver Zoo; Fort Worth (Tex.) Zoo; Institut d'Embryologie, Strasbourg, France; Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments in Stony Brook, N.Y.; Knoxville (Tenn.) Zoo; Los Angeles Zoo; Micke Grove Zoo in Lodi, Calif.; Oklahoma City Zoo; Orgrod Zoologiczny Poznon in Poland; Parc Zoologique et Botanique Mulhouse in France; Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash.; San Antonio Zoo; San Francisco Zoo; St. Louis Zoo; Transvaal Snake Park in South Africa; Wildlife Conservation Society in Bronx, N.Y.; Zoo Atlanta; Zoological Garden Zurich in Switzerland); and Zoologischer Garten der Landes in Saarbrucken, Germany.
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