Lemurs in an Unprotected Forest Corridor

Madagascar is, as composer Henry Kaiser said, a world out of time. Isolated from any other major landmass since an age when dinosaurs still walked the Earth, over 90% of the flora and fauna of Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world. None of Madagascar's unique residents are more recognizable than the lemurs that pervade all corners of the island. These charismatic primates arrived to Madagascar as immigrants carried by the tides. What they found was a land ripe for the picking and after millions of years of evolution in the multitude of Malagasy ecosystems, what started as a small group of furry colonials has become an explosive adapative radiation comprising over 100 species. 

Madagascar's rich natural history is in danger. Traditional agricultural practices combined with an an explosion in the Malagasy population, political instablity, and wide-spread poverty have taken a drastic toll on the island's flora and fauna. It is estimated that less than 10% of Madagascar's original forest cover remains. Over 90% of living lemur species are currently under risk of extinction within the next quarter of a century. Many lemurs play a vital role as seed dispersers, pollinators, and integral links in the ecosystems that they inhabit. Losing the lemurs would not only result in irreparable damage to Malagasy forests but also in the loss of an important part of our evolutionary heritage. Lemurs have retained many of the primitive traits found in the basal primates which we share with them as ancestors and give us an unprecedented view into early primate evolution. 

There is hope for Madagascar's lemurs. Researchers have been captivated with these amazing primates for decades, all the while making them the subjects of intense study into primate behavioral ecology, conservation, and evolution. Combined with international aid programs, several of these scientific explorations have led to the establishment and maintenance of many of the national parks that now safeguard what remains of Madagascar's natural wonders. Parks such as Ramonafana National Park, Kirindy Forest Reserve, Masoala National Park, and Beza Mahafaly Reserve serve as powerful wardens for their lemur charges and as intense centers of research. not only that, but many of these sites work with the local Malagasy people, employing them as field technicians, staff at field sites, engaging the local youth in cosnervation education programs, and teaching them how make a living off of the land without degrading it. 

This summer, I am planning on travelling to Madagascar to survey three species of diurnal lemurs (Milne Edward's sifaka, the red-bellied lemur, and the red-fronted lemur) in an unprotected forest north of Ranomafana National park, known locally as Ampatsona and Ambohidaza. This forest was once part of a corridor between Ranomafana and Fandriana to the north, forming part of a continuous forest system across southeastern Madagascar, which has since been severed when much of the forest was cut down. While Ranomafana remains connected to the forests to its south, the severance of the northern corridor in Ampatsona-Ambohidaza is emblematic of the very real danger of fragmentation and isolation that faces the remaining forests in the area. While in the area, I will be continuing the work of my colleague James Herrera by employing local Malagasy as field technicians, teaching locals techniques in terrace farming so that they no longer rely on the traditional slash-and-burn agriculture that was responsible for much of the degradation in the area, continuing reforestation efforts, aiding local landholders in establishing an association to protect what forest remains, and enforcing the rights of the local people in keeping out illegal gold mining in the area.

The data I collect on the diurnal lemurs of Ampatsona-Ambohidaza will be used to begin characterizing how many groups of each species inhabit the area, how large those groups are, what their sex ratios are, and in the case of the endangered Milne-Edward's sifaka, how many infants are born during this year's birth season. These data are vital not only toward understanding the community structure and dynamics of these lemur species but also a key starting point for any future research on these groups. Moreover, these data will be invaluable for making comparisons with groups of the same species found in the protected forest of Ranomafana to the south. The information I gather will be used to better define the Ampatsona-Ambohidaza ecosystem and its priority for consideration as a protected forest. Lastly, my ultimate goal is to help establish a long-term research site in the area. Ongoing research not only demonstrates the value of keeping forests in tact to the local Malagasy people but also discourages illegal mining, lumber extraction, and other forms of exploitation. 

How can you help? Getting to Madagascar is expensive, and regrettably the more funds I have to spend on getting to Madagascar, the less I will be able to dedicate to both my research and to initiatives with the local Malagasy. Having more available funds would allow me to hire additonal Malagasy technicians, purchase more supplies for terrace farming, continue reforestoration efforts, and continue developing the infrastructure for future research projects in the area. Please help me safegaurd the future of the forest, its people, and of course, the lemurs that call it home.
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Andrew Zamora 
Sound Beach, NY
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