DURHAM, N.C. -- U.S.-bred black and white ruffed lemurs, descendants of animals originally removed from Madagascar to conserve their species, will be carefully returned to the wilds they never knew next fall in a first-ever restocking project.
Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), the project's international sponsor, plans to systematically repatriate as many as 20 of the adaptable lemurs to their ancestral island nation over the next three years. The long-tailed, tree-climbing primates now live in two U.S. research and breeding habitats: the Duke University Primate Center and a Wildlife Conservation Society site on St. Catherine's Island off the coast of Georgia.
One of many endangered species in Madagascar, these lemurs are known for the ruffs of fur that frame their faces. Their coats are various pastiches of black and white. Also characteristic are their group vocalizations, a barking roar so evident during feeding times at the Duke Primate Center. Next fall's deployment will be the "first well-planned and monitored release" of captive-born lemurs to a native rain forest environment where they will live apart from humans, said Andrea Katz, Duke Primate Center's conservation coordinator and an MFG technical advisor who will serve as the project's field administrator in Madagascar.
"It will be what is called a `soft release,'" added MFG technical adviser Charles Welch, the project's on-site director and Katz's husband. "On a soft release, you try to help the animal adjust to that first habituation period."
The animals' new home will be Betampona Natural Reserve, a protected area of more than 5,000 acres. It is one of the few remaining parts of the lowland rain forest that once dominated much of eastern Madagascar. Most of that forest has now been cleared for farming and local wood consumption, said Katz and Welch. Betampona, in fact, is itself surrounded by rice fields.
Besides releasing lemurs, organizers hope to stimulate a stronger conservation mindedness in Madagascar's own citizens. Toward that aim, Malagasy scientists and nearby villagers will be closely involved in project research and activities. And the reintroduction efforts will also provide local Malagasy with jobs and educational opportunities.
"Part of our job is to help them find economic alternatives to the unsustainable use of natural resources, and to help people understand the value of their environment through education," said Welch, who with Katz and their young daughter resides for most of each year in a nearby town.
As an example of the education efforts, local residents will be reminded that the Betampona refuge is a vital repository for clean drinking water and also protects their villages from flooding.
Madagascar is one of the world's poorest nations, and a major priority for conservationists. Its once-rich array of wildlife has been decimated by habitat destruction, and by its growing human population's need for usable land and forest products. The problem is critical for lemurs' futures because all are native only to Madagascar.
The MFG, which is headquartered at the San Francisco Zoo, was formed in 1988 to coordinate conservation efforts for Malagasy animals there and abroad. Its activities include training Malagasy students, researchers and technicians. It also assists the government of Madagascar in preserving lemurs and other threatened species through well managed breeding programs.
Those programs are underway in distant places like the Duke Primate Center and other MFG institutions, as well as in Madagascar's own two zoos: Tsimbazaza Botanical and Zoological Park and Ivoloina Zoological Park.
"This project is an outstanding example of what zoos can do and must do to preserve wildlife," said David Anderson, the MFG's chairman and director of the San Francisco Zoo. "We have come full circle -- from old fashioned menageries that only displayed animals, to centers for conservation that return wildlife to the wild and protect habitats around the globe."
The Duke center, located at an isolated off-campus setting, is now home to 16 different endangered lemur species, as well as six other "prosimian" (pre-monkey) species such as lorises and bushbabies. It is an MFG member, as are 30 other zoological organizations in the United States, Europe and Great Britain.
The Betampona reserve especially needs new stocks of black and white ruffed lemurs, Katz and Welch said. They estimate that only 30 to 35 of the animals are living there now, a density at least 10 times less than that found at any other research site in Madagascar. That number is so low that diseases, storms or breeding problems could potentially exterminate the animals at that location, they warned.
Past poaching activities may at least partially explain such a low census. Black and white ruffed lemur meat is "reportedly the tastiest," they noted in their restocking proposal. And another possible culprit is inbreeding.
In general, "black and white ruffed lemurs are among Madagascar's most endangered," Katz said. "They can only survive in primary tropical rainforests. They cannot adapt to cleared land or secondary forest. They are also among the most well-known lemurs, beautiful, striking, and vocal."
Despite the species' severe decline in the wild, these lemurs have been found to breed very successfully in captivity, Katz and Welch said.
More than 250 black and white ruffed lemurs are now being held in North American institutions, 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, the widely distributed lemurs are being genetically managed as if they were a single large population.
Organizers already have identified a pool of possible candidates for release to Betampona. All are now being kept in fenced natural enclosures at the Duke Primate Center or on St. Catherine's Island. Duke's candidate lemurs largely stay 100 feet up in trees, though "they spend much more of their time on the ground in captivity than they do in the wild," Katz acknowledged.
Efforts are being made to prepare the furry recruits for their future lives in Betampona by putting them through a kind of lemur "boot camp." For instance, while the Duke animals now descend to eat "unnatural" rations of monkey chow, their keepers are varying their feeding sites. That's to discourage dependency and encourage them to range widely.
Happily, the lemurs at Duke and St. Catherine's Island are also foraging for wild plants as they will have to do in Madagascar. And they've been observed issuing the appropriate alarm calls when they spot local predators. In North Carolina, their enemies include hawks, foxes and owls. At Betampona, the main predator will be the fossa (pronounced "foosh"), a bobcat-sized cousin of the mongoose.
After a summer of observations, medical checkups and genetic analyses at both sites, the first group of black and white ruffed lemurs -- four or five "compatible individuals," said Katz -- will be selected for export. In early October, those will be flown to Madagascar in pet carriers, then kept for about a month in a cage in the rain forest.
"They'll be fed a mixture of the local fruits and leaves that we know lemurs eat there," Welch said. "At the end of the month, the door will be opened, but we may not immediately cut off the food. We'll continue to supplement their diet for as long as it takes for them to reliably locate food trees in the area. As they do that, we'll reduce and eventually eliminate the food we give them."
They will also be equipped with radio collars so that Welch and other field researchers can track their movements. Both he and Katz hope this first attempt will become a model for reintroducing many lemur species to their former home.
Primary collaborators in the project include some of the MFG's key member organizations: the Duke Primate Center, Philadelphia Zoo and Roger Williams Park 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 Management of Protected Areas, the Malagasy Department of Water and Forests, the University of Madagascar and Parc Ivoloina.
The total budget for the first three year phase will be $300,000. Almost half that money is already in hand due to fund raising efforts -- principally by the Jersey-London-Marwell group, which has raised $120,000.
In one notable example, actor-producer John Cleese donated the proceeds from the London premier of his comedy film Fierce Creatures, which featured 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 in Essex, England; Columbus (Ohio) Zoo; Denver Zoo, Fort Worth (Tex.) Zoo; Institut d'Embryologie, Strasbourg, France; Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments in Stony Brook, N.Y.; Knoxville (Tenn.) Zoo; Los Angeles Zoo; Micke Grove Zoo in Lodi, Calif.; Oklahoma City Zoo; Orgrod Zoologiczny 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 Conservation Society in Bronx, N.Y.; Zoo Atlanta; Zoolgical Garden Zurich in Switzerland); and Zoologischer Garten der Landes in Saarbrucken, Germany.