A leader for lemurs
Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Durrell’s Training and Conservation coordinator for the Madagascar programme, is one of Madagascar’s leading lemur experts. In his role as co-chair for the 2013 Prosimian Congress which will take place in Ranomafana at the start of August, he’s an extremely busy man at the moment. But we managed to catch up with him to find out more about this meeting of international experts and lemur conservation.
First off Jonah, can you explain what is a prosimian and why people are so interested in these animals?
Sure, well prosimians are primates, so they’re our cousins. But they’re a bit more distant than apes and monkeys which are in the anthropoids group. They are made up of lemurs, lorises, tarsiers and bushbabies and are found in areas of Africa, Madagascar and Asia, but not in the New World. They’re considered to still have ‘primitive’ characteristics such as tails, small size and nocturnal lifestyles, so are closer to the ancestral first primates than humans and the other anthropoids. People are interested in them because they represent an enormous amount of primate diversity, especially the lemurs of Madagascar. We think the ancestor of the lemurs arrived from Africa floating on logs probably about 50 million years ago. The primates that evolved later in Africa – the anthropoids – did not make the leap over to Madagascar, so lemurs were able to evolve without competition and diversified into an amazing range of species filling every available niche, from the tiny Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur which weighs only 30g, to the now extinct archaeoindris which was the size of a silverback gorilla. Madagascar represents only 0.4% of the world’s land area, but is home to 20% of primate species!
Prosimians are also a lot less well known than the larger primates. New lemur species are being described every year! But they face grave threats to their survival – 94% of lemur species are classed as endangered by the IUCN.
The Congress will bring together leading prosimian researchers and conservationists from around the world to share research results, exchange experiences and ideas and decide on strategies to follow for the coming years. We want to coordinate our efforts and collaborate to save these species around the world. We’re going to publish the proceedings of the congress to share with the international community. I’ve dreamed for a long time of having this conference in Madagascar as it is so important for prosimians, and is where some of the threats facing these animals are most pronounced.
How did you get involved in lemur research and conservation, and what is your role in the Prosimian Congress this year?
Well it’s a long story… but I’ll try to cut it short! I started off studying palaeontology and for my field work I would visit a lot of remote sites in Madagascar to look for fossils. But to get to these sites I had to trek through forests and on the way I saw lots of traps for lemurs and other signs of hunting and deforestation. I decided that the fossilized animals that I was looking for could wait in the ground; it was the living ones, the lemurs that needed urgent action. So I started studying lemurs. And the more I studied them the more I loved them… I had no chance to quit; I wanted to make a difference by getting more and more people on the same wavelength and working together for lemur conservation.
After my PhD I came to work for Durrell in Madagascar, eleven years ago now. I’m now in charge of training and capacity building and oversee community conservation efforts.
I am also now co-chair of the IUCN/SSC primate specialist group’s Madagascar section, the first Malagasy national to fill this role, which is a great honour, and a big responsibility. I feel a personal responsibility towards ensuring no more lemurs go extinct, and know I need to get as many people as I can working with us towards this goal.
As one of the principal organisers of the Prosimian Congress alongside Dr Patricia Wright, I’ve been working hard over the last year to raise the funds to run the event and organise things so that everyone coming to Ranomafana next month enjoys their stay and gets the most out of the congress. I am also one of the keynote speakers at the congress, and will make use of this opportunity to give a strong message to all the participants: it is time for action, and we need synergy.
Can you tell us a bit more about what Durrell is doing to save lemurs?
Durrell is working to save a wide range of critically endangered target species in Madagascar, and lemurs are an important part of this work. We are working at five sites with important lemur populations, with Lake Alaotra and the Manombo forest complex being particular targets for lemur conservation. The big focus for our work at Alaotra is the bandro, or Alaotran gentle lemur, the only lemur to live in reeds in the marshes and critically endangered due to the destruction of its habitat. There are eight species of lemurs that call the Manombo forest home, with two, the grey-headed brown lemur and the black-and white-ruffed lemur some of the most endangered primates on the planet.
Durrell’s approach to conservation, developed over the past 25 years is focused on engaging the community to address the root causes of the threats on biodiversity. People are the ones causing the threats, but they are also the solution. One of our most important initiatives is participatory monitoring and community patrols. We’ve seen these to have a big impact on the level of threats in a particular area. For example at Manombo, signs of hunting have practically disappeared in the area the community patrols visit since the patrols started. We are also carrying out research at all our sites to better understand the threats these populations face in order to work out the best ways to conserve them.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for lemur conservation?
It’s definitely a big challenge: in the last IUCN assessment 94% of lemur species were classed as endangered. We need to bring that down substantially over the next few years. Deforestation is the biggest threat – habitat is vanishing because the laws are not being enforced and increasing poverty is driving the clearing of forest to grow crops and produce charcoal. The new lemur conservation strategy which will be launched next week outlines these threats and the direction we need to take to address these, through integrated approaches aimed at reducing poverty and engaging communities in conservation.
But there are great examples of projects that are working to address these threats, and this is why we need to exchange and collaborate at events like the Congress. I want everyone to go away feeling that they can make a big difference.
Image credits: diagram from http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/primates-definition-evolution-characteristics.html; Eulemur cinereiceps pair - Iñaki Relanzòn
Posted 31 July 2013