Can Tourism Save the World’s Most Endangered Mammal?
The movie Madagascar may have helped lemurs capture our hearts, but the chances of these charismatic little primates surviving on the island in the future are looking grim and have led scientists to call for immediate action to help same them from extinction.
Living only on Madagascar, lemurs are now considered the most endangered mammal on earth. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), of the 103 species of lemurs, 24 are now listed as Critically Endangered, 49 are Endangered and 20 are Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which equates to 94 percent of the world’s lemurs. At least one species, the northern sportive lemur, has fewer than 20 individuals left.
Over the past few years political and economic chaos has gripped the region, further threatening their chances of future survival. Not only did the turmoil cause international funding for conservation programs to drop off, but it killed tourism and left the area open to mining, slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging in parks and protected areas, particularly for rosewood and ebony trees. Poverty in the area also helped drive a growing bush meat trade.
In a recent study published in Science, a team of 19 scientists called for the implementation of a new emergency, three-year IUCN lemur action plan that outlines the way forward for saving Madagascar’s lemurs from extinction. In spite of all the obstacles, they remain hopeful that things can be turned around for lemurs if immediate action is taken.
The plan includes a multi-faceted approach that involves effective management of Madagascar’s protected areas, the creation of more reserves directly managed by local communities and having a long-term research presence in critical lemur sites. In all, these approaches will be used at 30 sites of importance for lemur conservation.
One of the major objectives in their plan will be promoting tourism at these sites. While it might seem counterintuitive to promote traffic to sensitive areas that are home to critically endangered species, scientists believe that if implemented carefully in this case, tourism can be a huge tool to help save lemurs from extinction by creating economic incentives for local communities to protect lemurs and their habitats.
Not only do they want to see lemurs protected because they’re lovable little primates, but because they play an important role in the ecosystem as a keystone species on the island.
“Virtually each of Madagascar’s unique habitats and ecosystems has a unique set of lemur species. Moreover, many lemurs are dependent on a large variety of endemic food plants,” co-author Rainer Dolch, the head of the local community conservation group, Association Mitsinjo, told Mongabay. “Protecting lemurs would therefore ensure the conservation of the habitats and ecosystems where they occur, including most of Madagascar’s other unique animal and plant species.”
Meanwhile, lemur advocates are hoping to raise about $7.6 million to see these efforts carried out, which is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things for saving lemurs and protecting Madagascar’s biodiversity. According to TakePart, even donating a few dollars to organizations working at these sites, including Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Duke Lemur Center and the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments at Stony Brook University, can help save lemurs.
Dr. Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at Bristol Zoo Gardens and vice-chair for Madagascar of the IUCN’s SSC Primate Specialist Group, stated:
Despite profound threats to lemurs, which have been exacerbated by the five-year political crisis, we believe there is still hope. Past successes demonstrate that collaboration between local communities, non-governmental organisations and researchers can protect imperiled primate species. We urgently invite all stakeholders to join our efforts to meet the action plan’s goals and to ensure the continued existence of lemurs and the considerable biological, cultural and economic richness they represent. Madagascar – and the world – would undoubtedly be much poorer without them.
If a trip to Madagascar isn’t feasible, but you want to see more lemurs, you can catch them in Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, a new documentary featuring their plight and the work of Dr. Patricia Wright, one of the study’s co-authors, that will be released at select IMAX theaters on April 4.
Photo credit: Thinkstock