Public Release: 

Duke Primate Center Sets October Expedition To Find 'Juliet'

Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. -- The Duke University Primate Center has announced an Oct. 2-18 expedition to capture a mate for Romeo, the only diademed sifaka in captivity. The diademed sifaka, a graceful bright-eyed lemur, is considered perhaps the most beautiful of primates, with its silky fur in rich shades of yellow, orange, gray, white and black.

According to Primate Center Director Kenneth Glander, the expedition represents as much a rescue attempt as it does an effort to bring into captivity a breeding stock of these highly endangered animals, the largest living lemurs. The animals are currently heavily hunted for food in their homeland of Madagascar, and naturalists believe they will become extinct within a decade.

The expedition aims to capture three diademed sifakas -- a mate for Romeo and another breeding pair. Once captured, the animals will be temporarily housed at the Ivoloina Zoological Park in Madagascar, where they will be gradually acclimated to a diet resembling that available at the Duke Primate Center in Durham. The animals will be transported to the center next May, when spring foliage is available in Durham to feed them.

Over the last few years, the husband-and-wife team of Charlie Welch and Andrea Katz have worked to develop the Ivoloina Zoological Park into a combination lemur breeding facility, zoo, education center and tourist attraction.

The ultimate objective of the Primate Center capture program is to build a breeding stock of captive animals that can be used to replenish populations in the wild when protected areas are created.

The October expedition will involve Glander, Welch and a local guide, who will search the jungle for the animals.

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 despite being saved from a coma once, subsequently died. Titania also died 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.

Such captive breeding programs can rapidly replenish populations of animals, said Primate Center Scientific Director Elwyn Simons. "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."

The outlook for diademed sifakas in the wild is especially grim, because logging operations in the Madagascar jungles where they live are rapidly depleting their habitat. These same logging operations provide easy access for both settlers and hunters, who find the conspicuous, brightly colored sifakas easy prey.

"In fact, on an earlier visit, when I tried to explain to the natives which animal I was looking for, they told me they called this animal 'It-takes-two-days-to-eat,' " Simons said.

While the natives have traditionally used blowguns for hunting the animals, it is now easier for them to buy firearms, considerably increasing the danger to the animals, he said.

The Madagascar government has long had laws to protect its lemurs, with fines for hunting them, but those laws are hard to enforce, Simons said. He cited recent reliable reports of cages of illegally captured diademed sifakas presumably destined for the dinner table that had been seized by local authorities after at least one had already died. In the remote jungle, poaching and eating by villagers usually goes undetected.

Young Romeo is now housed at the Primate Center with two of his cousin-species -- a Coquerel's sifaka and a golden-crowned, or Tattersall's, sifaka. The three animals have been living together in harmony, said Simons.

"Clearly, Romeo is a very lively, playful animal, with his own friendly personality," he said. "We see no reason why he wouldn't attach very quickly to a young female of his own kind and make a good father. In terms of our naming system, she could be called 'Juliet.'" Diademed sifakas are named after characters in Shakespearean plays, Simons said.

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 tarsiers.

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 for more than 50 million years, evolved into nearly 50 species, including about 16 species of giant lemurs that are now extinct. The pressure of human population increase on the island republic off Africa's east coast now threatens many extant species. The precarious situation demands widespread help for the rescue efforts made by Duke's Primate Center and conservation agencies in Madagascar, Glander and Simons said.

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Note to journalists: The Oct. 2-18 Duke Primate Center expedition has space for one reporter. The expedition will be headquartered at a hotel in the area and will depart each day for a day-long search involving rigorous hiking. For further information on participating, contact Dennis Meredith.

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