DURHAM, N.C. -- An expedition from the Duke University Primate Center will set out Oct. 7 to rescue extremely rare lemurs in a small, doomed patch of forest habitat in Madagascar.
The researchers' objective is to capture five diademed sifakas -- the largest living lemur and considered among the most beautiful of primates, with lush fur of yellow, orange, gray, white and black.
The researchers hope that among the captured animals there will be a "Juliet" for a young male diademed sifaka named Romeo at the Primate Center. He is the only member of his species in captivity and has waited six years for companion members of his species to arrive at the center.
Primate Center scientists urgently seek to establish a captive breeding colony of the animals before they go extinct from hunting and habitat destruction.
Led by Primate Center Director Ken Glander, the expedition will search for the diademed sifakas in a 600-acre patch of forest that is rapidly being destroyed by wood-gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture. The area to be searched is the Mahatsinjo forest south of the Madagascar capital of Antananarivo. An expedition into the forest by another group earlier this year reported the presence of the rare lemurs.
The latest expedition is the third such attempt to capture diademed sifakas. The first two failed to bring back animals, Glander said, because the animals in the areas searched were being hunted and fled when the expedition members approached.
"The critical factor that gives us hope for success with this expedition is that the animals in this forest are not hunted as far as we know," Glander said. "This is probably one of the few places in their habitat in Madagascar where they are not hunted." Capturing the lemurs in the Mahatsinjo forest is particularly important because the area is severely threatened.
"This forest is completely isolated, an island patch in an agricultural area, and it is shrinking," said Glander. "It is not protected and probably doomed, due to cutting of the forest for subsistence."
During five days in the forest, the expedition will seek to capture three young adult females and two males, Glander said. Once captured, the animals will be temporarily housed at the Ivoloina Zoological Park in Madagascar, where they will be acclimated to captivity. In approximately six months to a year, two females and one male will be brought to the Duke Primate Center, while the other breeding pair will remain in Ivoloina.
The return of the animals will depend on construction of a new quarantine facility, which the Primate Center is seeking to build to more easily meet the federal requirement for a 30-day quarantine of any animals brought to the center. The $50,000 quarantine center, for which funds are still being sought, will include chambers with separate ventilation systems and an entry area in which people can don isolation suits. The quarantine will also prove invaluable for isolating animals coming into the center from zoos and other facilities, Glander said.
The Ivoloina Zoological Park that will be the acclimatization site for the new animals is a combination lemur breeding facility, zoo, education center and tourist attraction developed over the past decade by the husband-and-wife team of Primate Center primatologists Charles Welch and Andrea Katz.
The park exemplifies the Primate Center's three-pronged approach of captive breeding, habitat protection and education to preserve the animals and to encourage further ecotourism in certain areas, Glander said.
Romeo first came to the Primate Center in fall 1993, along with his mother Titania and another unrelated male Oberon. The three animals were the first diademed sifakas ever brought into captivity outside Madagascar.
Oberon arrived at the center in poor physical shape and subsequently died of an infection. Titania also died later from what the Primate Center scientists believe was too much calcium in her diet, an unexpected and atypical reaction for a lemur.
Romeo, on the other hand, survived and prospered, because as an infant his body required more calcium, and he did not suffer from hypercalcemia. Calcium-rich foods are now excluded from Romeo's diet, and the Duke primatologists believe that they have developed enough information about the sifaka's low-calcium diet of leaves to bring more animals into captivity.
"We know now to be extremely careful of the amount of calcium in their diet," Glander said. "We will carefully monitor their blood values and only feed them vegetation and other materials that we know are low in calcium."
Romeo has now reached a weight of 14 pounds, well on his way to his adult weight of 18 to 20 pounds.
Captive breeding programs such as the Duke Primate Center's can rapidly replenish populations of animals, Glander said. Because captured animals are well fed, and protected from disease and natural enemies, they can produce from five to 10 times more offspring that survive to adulthood than wild animals normally can, he said.
After the expedition to rescue the diademed sifakas, Glander will go to the Madagascar forest reserve at Betampona, where the Madagascar Fauna Group is operating a program to release into the wild black-and-white ruffed lemurs. So far, nine lemurs have been released to augment the dwindling wild population, and of those, five are still living in the forest. Two have disappeared and may either be dead or out of radio range, and the other two were killed. Three more animals--Hale, Bopp and Kintana--are now in "boot camp" at the Duke Primate Center, being acclimated to forest living in preparation for a planned October 2000 release.
At Betampona, Glander will work with fellow primatologists to capture wild black-and-white ruffed lemurs so that they can be examined and fitted with radio collars. The scientists' purpose is to study the wild lemurs for comparison to the captive-born animals released in the area.
The Duke Primate Center houses the world's largest collection of endangered primates. Duke is also the only university-operated center that concentrates solely on studying and protecting prosimians such as lemurs, lorises, and galagoes. The center is supported by the National Science Foundation, private donations and Duke University.
Prosimians, or "submonkeys," are descended from primates that also were ancestors to the anthropoids, a suborder that includes monkeys, apes and humans. Thus, studying prosimians can yield insights into the early history of human ancestors.
Lemurs, isolated on Madagascar, off Africa's east coast, for more than 50 million years, evolved into almost 50 species, including about 16 species of giant lemurs that are now extinct. The pressure of human population increase on the island republic now threatens many extant species.
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