Click to read: New government protection for gentle lemur habitat

New government protection for gentle lemur habitat

Durrell Wildlife has played a leading role in the recent declaration of a highly threatened wetland habitat in Madagascar as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.  

Alaotra, in the country’s central-eastern highlands, is home to a number of highly endangered species, and is the ONLY home of the Critically Endangered Alaotran gentle lemur.  Six years of intensive in-country conservation work by the Trust have resulted in the declaration, formalised on 2 February, which will ensure an ongoing commitment by the Malagasy government to maintaining the area’s fragile biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

Trust staff  have been working intensively in Alaotra since 1997, conducting vital fieldwork and raising awareness in the local community of the plight of the gentle lemur, the biodiversity of Alaotra and the ecological and economic importance of the wetlands.  The main threat to the lemur's habitat comes from the local villagers, who burn the marshes and hunt the lemur for food.  It is therefore vital that the Trust's efforts to conserve the lemur have the support of the local community, otherwise they are doomed to fail.  Our aim has been to demonstrate that protecting the marshes would not only save the Alaotran gentle lemur from extinction, but also help maintain productivity and livelihoods in a highly populated part of this extremely poor country.  

Whereas in the past local villagers have burned reed beds to improve access for their fishing boats and nets, our research has shown that in actual fact they are depleting fish stocks by doing this.  The marshes provide a refuge and safe breeding ground for the fish, thus ensuring fish stocks in the lake are maintained.  They also act as a natural filter, protecting the lake from sedimentation being washed down from the surrounding hills, and are known to break down harmful chemicals used in rice production. In addition, the marshes help to maintain the humidity of adjacent rice fields during drought, and prevent flooding during periods of high rainfall.  

Through the organization of village festivals to educate locals about the importance of the marshes, and the subsequent set up of village and regional workshops, Durrell Wildlife staff have gradually built up awareness and support for village-led marsh conservation throughout the region.  The results of this initiative are very encouraging - figures from 2002 showed that marsh burning had diminished by 70% compared with the previous year, and that the lemur population had also stabilized with a slight increase to around 3,300 individuals.  Early indications from the field team conducting this year's lemur census are that the population appears to have increased again this year.  In addition, there had been no marsh burning at all at one of the main lakeside villages, Andilana Sud, which is remarkable given that this was one of the most devastated areas of marsh with the most lemur hunting in the past.  

With government support for marsh conservation in Alaotra now guaranteed by its Ramsar status, the future is starting to look a lot brighter for the gentle lemur and its wetland home.

Durrell Wildlife staff who have been closely involved with the project are thrilled.  Commenting on the designation of Alaotra as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, Durrell Wildlife’s Madagascar Programme Director, Joanna Durbin, said: “It is fantastic news for everyone involved that the grass-roots support for marsh conservation we have built up over the years has finally been embraced at a national level.  This is a very important step forward in our Alaotran gentle lemur conservation project.”

Durrell Wildlife’s International Programme Director, John Hartley, said: “We are delighted that our work has demonstrated to the Malagasy government the importance of protecting the delicate ecosystem at Lake Alaotra, for the ultimate benefit of all the area’s inhabitants, both human and animal.  The Ramsar listing guarantees that the government will remain committed to ensuring wise usage of the area at a sustainable level, which will go a long way towards ensuring the survival of species including the Critically Endangered Alaotran gentle lemur.  This is the result that we have been working towards for the past six years.”

Further Information

Durrell Wildlife realised the plight of the gentle lemur back in the early 1990s and began the world’s first ever captive breeding programme for this species at Jersey Zoo.  Durrell Wildlife now operates the European ‘studbook’ for the gentle lemur (otherwise known as the Hapalemur griseus alaotrensis), co-ordinating the breeding and well-being of the species in captivity across the continent.  Meanwhile it is working hard in Madagascar to safeguard the remaining wild population and its habitat.

About Ramsar

“The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 136 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1263 wetland sites, totalling 107.5 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.”   More information is available on their website:

Madagascar ratified the Ramsar Convention on the conservation of wetlands on 25 January 1998 and officially became a party to the convention on 25 January 1999.  Two sites were designated as Ramsar sites of international importance on ratification (Lake Tsimanampetsotsa of 45,604 ha and the Manambolomaty complex of 7,491 ha). Alaotra is the third Ramsar site in Madagascar and the first to be added to the Ramsar list since ratification.

Posted 19 March 2003

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