DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University primatologists were unable to capture a
mate for the rare lemur called Romeo, in an October 2-16 expedition to the
lemurs' homeland in Madagascar. Duke Primate Center Director Kenneth Glander
and his colleagues said Monday they sighted groups of rare diademed sifakas
like Romeo, but were unable to come close enough for a capture.
The diademed sifaka is the largest living lemur and considered perhaps the most beautiful of primates, with fur of yellow, orange, gray, white and black.
Romeo is the only diademed sifaka in captivity, and Primate Center scientists urgently seek to establish a captive breeding colony of the animals before they go extinct from hunting and habitat destruction.
In fact, said Glander, the expedition dramatically showed how much pressure the endangered animals are under.
"Although we saw groups of animals on five of our eight days in the forest, the instant they saw us, they would run away," Glander said. "We also found a lot of lemur traps and extensive cutting of trees." Glander said his observations supported the accuracy of estimates that the diademed sifaka will be extinct in about 20 years.
According to Glander, the researchers were particularly surprised at the reduced number of other lemur species in the east-coast Forest de la Gare where the expedition ventured. They sighted only a single bamboo lemur and heard the calls of black-and-white ruffed lemurs.
"There should have been many more, but hunting in the area is rapidly depleting the population." And, when Glander and his colleagues explored the area where Romeo had been captured three years ago, they found a heavily logged forest with no lemurs in sight.
The capture effort will continue, said Glander, with expedition member Charlie Welch, who lives in Madagascar, returning to the Forest de la Gare area in late November.
"Since we found that the lemurs grew more wary the longer we were there, Charlie will spend only two or three days at a time in the forest," Glander said.
The aim of the expeditions is to capture a mate for Romeo, as well as 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.
Over the last few years, the husband-and-wife team of 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 one bright spot in the expedition, Glander said, was that a hotel has been built in the area, aimed primarily at fostering ecotourism.
"The people of Madagascar certainly understand the danger of extinction for these animals, but they have no choice. They need the food the animals provide and the income from logging."
The center's three-pronged approach of captive breeding, habitat protection and education aims to preserve the animals and to encourage further ecotourism in certain areas, Glander 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 almost 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.