Nov. 18, 1997 DURHAM, N.C. -- The leader of an unprecedented effort to return endangered lemurs to their homeland of Madagascar has emerged from the depths of the forest preserve to report that the five captive-born animals from Duke's Primate Center now roam free for the first time in their lives.
Project leader Charles Welch reported that the black-and-white ruffed lemurs were released on Monday and immediately dispersed to begin their new lives in the 5,000-acre Betampona Natural Reserve, where they will enhance the dwindling lemur population. The lemurs are part of a project by the international Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG) to systematically repatriate as many as 20 of the adaptable animals to their ancestral island nation over the next three years.
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. They are regularly hunted for food on the island.
After their arrival in Madagascar three weeks ago, the animals -- Janus, Letitia, Praesepe, Sarph and Zuben'ubi - had spent time in an outdoor cage in the reserve, under the care of San Francisco Zoo veterinarian Graham Crawford. During that time, all began eating fruits harvested from the forest, supplemented with commercial monkey chow.
Since all were in good health, the release was set for Monday morning, Nov. 10, Madagascar time. The release process began with a trimming of the animals' tail hair into distinctive patterns, so they could be better identified as they were tracked through the forest.
"Two of the project's conservation agents then led a traditional ceremony in which they explained the lemur release project to the ancestors and asked the ancestors for their blessing," wrote Welch in an e-mailed report. "Short speeches were made and everyone took a sip of the local home-made rum, held in a folded leaf. Three leaves were left full of rum in a pile of stones at the base of the release cage.
"The ceremony complete, the doors were opened in front of an anxious audience of the project's personnel and the representatives of the Malagasy government's Department of Water and Forests and National Association for the Management of Protected Areas."
The lemurs at first emerged cautiously from their cage, wrote Welch, but it proved to be the last peaceful moment the researchers would enjoy. "We had expected the lemurs to remain close to the release cage for the first days, where they could be sure of an easy meal of monkey chow. Completely contrary to our predictions, within five minutes all of the lemurs had moved away from the release site, some in their own direction. The chaos of the day had begun."
Three animals immediately headed for the project's base camp and had to be recaught and released to ensure they would stay away from the familiar comforts of manmade structure. Another moved too close to the territory of a wild group of ruffed lemurs, a contact which the researchers wanted to discourage early in the animal's adjustment to the wild. So, he had to be recaught and freed near the release site, Welch wrote.
The researchers spent several days in exhausting treks through the dense, hilly forest, coping with malfunctioning radio-tracking equipment, tracking the animals. "We feel it critical to observe each animal daily during this initial period and to continue to supplement their diets with monkey chow till they are observed to feed substantially on wild leaves and fruit," Welch wrote.
All the animals have been reported in good condition so far, he wrote, "probably in better shape than the project personnel who are exhausted with efforts to keep up with them." "The lemurs are dispersing and coming back together irregularly, perhaps exploring potential territories," he wrote. "Time will tell."
Welch said the Duke lemurs were visited in their outdoor cage by wild lemurs, but the researchers said they had as yet observed no post-release contacts. "Yesterday for the first time, Zuben'ubi, Letitia and Sarph vocalized loud and long, so perhaps it won't be long till their first meeting with their wild neighbors," he wrote.
Primary collaborators in the Betampona restocking project include some of the MFG's keymember 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 support 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 (Texas) 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.
The Duke Primate 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. The center is supported by the National Science Foundation, Duke University and private donations.
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