By Rita Robison

After recently celebrating Earth Day, it’s a good time to learn about endangered species and what we can do about the decline in valuable animals and plants.

An island country off the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is known for its unique wildlife. Some of its most well-known animals are lemurs, which are only found in Madagascar. Of the 112 lemur species, 98 percent are endangered with about a third considered critically endangered. Lemurs are the most threatened mammal group on Earth.

Lemurs are a group of highly diverse primates. Although they resemble monkeys, they’re more closely related to lorises and bush babies. Species vary widely with some as small as 1 ounce and larger species weighing about 20 pounds. Black, brown, grey, red-brown, and white are common body colors. Ring-tailed lemurs, easily recognized by the black rings on their white, fluffy tails, are the most popular species of the lemur. Smaller lemurs eat fruit, insects, or sap while larger lemurs are mostly herbivorous, eating plant materials such as bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, nectar, and shoots.

Wildlife Madagascar has established three field sites where it’s setting up long-term conservation field studies and beginning to create infrastructure for ecotourism and partnering with local communities. It plans to establish long-term monitoring of target species at each site.

Wildlife Madagascar was founded by my niece Debra Erickson, who is executive director and board chair of the organization. Interested in supporting her work, I was the group’s first member.

Debra Erickson and Rita Robison

In early April, I had the opportunity to go to San Diego to attend one of three book signing events to support Wildlife Madagascar. Tim Eppley, Ph.D., chief conservation officer for Wildlife Madagascar, is one of the authors of the book Lemurs of Madagascar. The photo below, by Georgeanne Irvine, is of Dr. Eppley and me after he signed my book. I asked the author if he would answer some questions in an email interview. His responses are below.

Rita and Dr. Tim Eppley

Q. What do you like most about your work with Wildlife Madagascar? What do you like least?

A. When I joined Wildlife Madagascar last year, the NGO was in the middle of its search for potential program sites, particularly areas that had been largely ignored by conservationists and tourists. While I’ve been fortunate enough to travel throughout Madagascar earlier in my studies and career, assisting in the search for remote sites that were: (1) biologically important, (2) had incredible fauna and botanical diversity, (3) and had the potential for high-end tourism was incredible and took me to some places I hadn’t yet seen. We trekked across Analamerana Special Reserve in the north in search of the critically endangered Perrier’s sifaka. We squeezed through the narrow limestone karst passages of Namoroka National Park in the west. We clambered the densely forested hills of northern Anjozorobe. It was fantastic and being able to experience and explore these remote sites and learn more about the issues both local people and wildlife faced in these areas was fascinating. Though we now have three program sites, I am looking forward to our continued explorations for more.

As for what I like the least … domestic flights in Madagascar, as these are limited to turboprop planes, which I don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve always tended to work in remote areas that are otherwise inaccessible via vehicles from Antananarivo (the capital, and where our national office is located), but despite having taken countless flights around the country, I’ve never quite become comfortable with turboprop planes and have always dreamed of a day where I could just drive to my field site.

Q. Why should people care about what happens to lemurs?

A. There are many reasons that people should care about lemurs. For one, they are primates and are the most ancestral lineage within our scientific order, so studying them can provide insights into human evolution. Second, despite their diversity, 98 percent of the 112 species are threatened with extinction, making them the most threatened mammal group on earth. On top of that, lemurs play an important role in pollination and seed dispersal, so their loss within their few remaining habitats has the potential to create a cascade effect from disrupting ecosystem health to the eventual extinction of all the plant species that depended on lemurs, as well as all the fauna that depended on the flora.

Q. What species of lemurs do you like best?

A. There are about 112 species of lemur, despite most people only knowing about ring-tailed lemurs, and so that incredible diversity makes this a tough question. Out of all of them, I’ve spent the most time with southern bamboo lemurs and the red ruffed lemurs, following them around their forest habitats and getting to know their day-to-day lives, so both of them are very special to me. These species are from opposite ends of the dietary spectrum, with bamboo lemurs consuming mostly leaves while ruffed lemurs consume mostly fruits, yet both have shown a high degree of resiliency to change, giving a rare glimpse of hope in the face of anthropogenic effects. (Note: The stuffed toy lemur Eppley is holding in the photo is a red ruffed lemur.)

Q. Why do lemurs have large eyes?

A. Many lemurs are nocturnal and this is the reason for their larger eyes, at least when compared to the fewer lemur species that are active during the day. Large eyes, as well as a layer of tissue called a tapetum lucidum in their eyes, help these lemurs to see at night.

What you can do to help lemurs

Join Wildlife Madagascar and become a member for $25. You’ll get the monthly newsletter to keep up on the work of the organization, and the website has resources such as articles by Dr. Eppley and others on conservation research in Madagascar.

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