DURHAM, N.C. -- Five captive black-and-white ruffed lemurs -- Janus,Letitia, Praesepe, Sarph and Zuben'ubi -- will begin an historic journeyOct. 17 when they depart for Madagascar to become the first such animalsever 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 ofthe San Francisco Zoo.
Once in Madagascar, they will be acclimated in outdoor cages for abouta month in the Betampona Natural Reserve, after which they will be releasedto join a dwindling population of their wild cousins. The animals are allnamed after heavenly bodies such as asteroids, planets, moons and constellations.
Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), the project's international sponsor, plansto systematically repatriate as many as 20 of the adaptable lemurs to theirancestral island nation over the next three years. The first potential releasegroups of the long-tailed, tree-climbing primates now live in two U.S. researchand breeding habitats: the Duke Primate Center and a Wildlife ConservationSociety site on St. Catherine's Island off the coast of Georgia.
"This is a beginning, but it is only a beginning," said AndreaKatz, Duke Primate Center's conservation coordinator and an MFG technicaladviser, who will serve as the project's field administrator in Madagascar."Lemurs remain highly endangered in Madagascar, as their habitats aredestroyed and they are hunted for food. Along with such restocking programsmust come major efforts at aiding the nation's economy and preserving remainingnatural habitats."
Black-and-white ruffed lemurs, known for the fur that frames their facesand 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 cannotadapt to cleared land or secondary forest. They are also among the mostwell-known lemurs, beautiful, striking, and vocal."
The Betampona reserve especially needs new stocks of black-and-whiteruffed lemurs, said Katz and Charles Welch, the project's director. Theyestimate that only 30 to 35 of the animals live there now, a density atleast one-tenth that of any other research site in Madagascar. That numberis so low that diseases, storms or breeding problems could potentially exterminatethe animals at that location, they warned. A careful study of the reservehas shown that it contains sufficient food resources for additional lemursand 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-whiteruffed lemur meat is "reportedly the tastiest," they noted intheir restocking proposal. Another possible culprit is inbreeding.
The five animals to be released are related to one another, but sincethey are unrelated to the sparse population in Betampona, their interbreedingwith that population will greatly enhance the gene pool of ruffed lemursin the reserve, said Katz and Welch.
Praesepe and Zuben'ubi are brother and sister. Praesepe is the motherof Letitia and Sarph, and Zuben'ubi is the father of Sarph. Letitia is themother of Janus.
The Betampona Reserve, a protected area of more than 5,000 acres, isamong the few remaining parts of a vast lowland rain forest that once dominatedmuch of eastern Madagascar. Most of that forest has now been cleared forfarming 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 strongerconservation mindedness in Madagascar's own citizens. Toward that aim, Malagasyscientists and nearby villagers will be closely involved in project researchand activities. And the reintroduction efforts will also provide local Malagasywith jobs and educational opportunities.
"As an example of education efforts, we plan environmental classesfor local school children to encourage their appreciation of their homeland'snatural riches -- including its unique plants and animals and their habitats-- and the conservation issues facing them today," Welch said. "Localresidents will be reminded that the Betampona refuge constitutes a vitalrepository 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 priorityfor conservationists. Its once-rich array of wildlife has been decimatedby habitat destruction, and by its growing human population's need for usableland and forest products. The problem is critical for lemurs' futures becauseall lemur species are native only to Madagascar.
The MFG, headquartered at the San Francisco Zoo, was formed in 1988 tocoordinate conservation efforts for Malagasy animals there and abroad. Itsactivities include training Malagasy students, researchers and technicians.It also assists the government of Madagascar in preserving lemurs and otherthreatened species through well-managed breeding programs.
Those programs are underway in distant places like the Duke Primate Centerand other MFG institutions, as well as in Madagascar's own two zoos: TsimbazazaBotanical and Zoological Park and Ivoloina Zoological Park.
"This project is an outstanding example of what zoos can do andmust do to preserve wildlife," said David Anderson, the MFG's chairmanand director of the San Francisco Zoo. "We have come full circle --from old fashioned menageries that only displayed animals, to centers forconservation that return wildlife to the wild and protect habitats aroundthe globe."
The Duke center, located in an isolated off-campus forest, is now hometo 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 andGreat Britain.
Despite the species' severe decline in the wild, these lemurs have beenfound to breed very successfully in captivity, Katz and Welch said.
More than 250 black and white ruffed lemurs now live in North Americaninstitutions, 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, thewidely distributed lemurs are being genetically managed as if they werea single large population.
Besides the five to be released, other candidates are now being keptin fenced natural enclosures at the Duke Primate Center or on St. Catherine'sIsland.
The animals are prepared for their future lives in Betampona by puttingthem through a kind of lemur "boot camp." For instance, whilethe Duke animals now descend to eat "unnatural" rations of monkeychow, their keepers are varying their feeding sites. That's to discouragedependency and encourage them to range widely.
The lemurs at Duke and St. Catherine's Island also readily forage forwild plants as they will have to do in Madagascar. And they've been observedissuing the appropriate alarm calls when they spot local predators. In NorthCarolina, their enemies include hawks, foxes and owls. At Betampona, themain predator will be the fossa (pronounced "foosh"), a bobcat-sizedcousin of the mongoose.
Despite their apparent ability to forage, the animals will undergo acareful acclimatization process before being released, said Welch.
"They'll be fed a mixture of the local fruits and leaves that weknow lemurs eat there," he said. "At the end of the month, thedoor will be opened, but we may not immediately cut off the food. We'llcontinue to supplement their diet for as long as it takes for them to reliablylocate food trees in the area. As they do that, we'll reduce and eventuallyeliminate the food we give them."
They will also be equipped with radio collars so that Welch and otherfield researchers can track their movements. Both he and Katz hope thiswell-monitored and well-documented first attempt will become a model forreintroducing many lemur species to their former home.
Primary collaborators in the project include some of the MFG's key memberorganizations: the Duke Primate Center, Philadelphia Zoo and Roger WilliamsPark 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 Managementof Protected Areas, the Malagasy Department of Water and Forests, the Universityof Madagascar and Parc Ivoloina.
The total budget for the first three year phase will be $300,000. Almosthalf that money is already in hand due to fund-raising efforts -- principallyby the Jersey-London-Marwell group, which has raised $120,000.
In one notable example, actor-producer John Cleese donated the proceedsfrom the London premier of his comedy film Fierce Creatures, whichfeatured 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 inEssex, England; Columbus (Ohio) Zoo; Denver Zoo; Fort Worth (Tex.) Zoo;Institut d'Embryologie, Strasbourg, France; Institute for the Conservationof Tropical Environments in Stony Brook, N.Y.; Knoxville (Tenn.) Zoo; LosAngeles Zoo; Micke Grove Zoo in Lodi, Calif.; Oklahoma City Zoo; OrgrodZoologiczny 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 ConservationSociety in Bronx, N.Y.; Zoo Atlanta; Zoological Garden Zurich in Switzerland);and Zoologischer Garten der Landes in Saarbrucken, Germany.
Materials provided by Duke University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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