Feral beasts threaten lemurs in Madagascar:
An interview with lemur expert Dr. Michelle Sauther
Rhett A. Butler, wildmadagascar.org
February 7, 2007
Despite this relative impoverishment of megafauna, Madagascar still boasts nearly 90 kinds of lemurs, all of which are unique to the island (save one species that was probably introduced to some nearby islands). Lemurs display a range of unusual behaviors from singing like a whale (the indri) to sashaying across the sand like a ballet dancer (the sifaka). Interest in lemurs has helped Madagascar become a global conservation priority, though they are still at risk. Continued deforestation, scattered hunting, and looming climate change all pose significant threats to some lemur populations. One largely unexamined threat comes from introduced species such as the Indian civet and mongoose, but especially dogs and cats that have become feral.
Dr. Sauther has studied the ring-tailed lemurs of Beza Mahafaly since 1987 and helps run the Beza Mahafaly Lemur Biology Project, an initiative that seeks to better understand how lemurs are responding to habitat change. In February 2007, Dr. Sauther answered some questions from WildMadagascar.org / mongabay.com about her work.
Mongabay: How did you get involved with lemur research? Do you have any tips for students wanting to pursue a career in primates conservation?
Mongabay: Last spring a team of scientists writing in the journal Science said that Madagascar's extraordinary levels of biological diversity results from the "configuration of watersheds" and "geologically recent shifts in climate". How will future climate change impact Madagascar's biodiversity?
Sauther: It is amazing that with all that the lemurs currently have to face, they will unfortunately also be exposed to another threat, global warming. Already we have seen the change at the research site I work at called Beza Mahafaly. We work there during what is supposed to be the dry cool season every year (June — August). During the past three seasons we have had to deal with torrents of rain. In addition we have had drought, and a recent cyclone caused the whole reserve to be flooded. The result was dramatic as it affected the fruiting of their major food resource, the Tamarind. Few fruits were produced and many females and their infants did not make it through that year.
Mongabay: Your work has focused on the charismatic ring-tailed lemur, a generalist when it comes to feeding. How will they fare in a warmer world? Will generalists do better than specialists under changing climate?
Mongabay: A number of theories -- most revolving around the arrival of man on the island and his use of fire -- have been proposed for the extinction of megafauna. What does your research suggest was the culprit?
Mongabay: I understand that your are developing a project that will examine the impact of introduced species on endangered lemur populations -- can you tell me more about the project?
Sauther: As I said, we currently have a crisis at our reserve. Domestic dogs are common in and around the villages in the Beza Mahafaly area, and are often used to guard domestic livestock. Domestic cats are also common in these villages, possibly to mitigate rodent populations. However, feral cats (locally "ampaha") have also been observed in the Beza Mahafaly reserve and surrounding region. This large felid represents a truly feral domestic cat, possibly the African or European wild cat (Felis silvestris, Felis lybica), or a potential hybrid. Although domestic dogs are useful in this pastoral society, feral dogs are becoming an increasing problem for local people, as they are known to attack domestic livestock (i.e., young goats and sheep). Feral cats are also known to attack poultry.
The past several years have seen a population explosion among the feral dogs so the introduced predators are having an observable impact on the local economy. These introduced species are also impacting the Beza Mahafaly lemur population. In 2006, there were two eyewitness accounts of feral dog kills of ring-tailed lemurs, one an infant (less than one year old), the other a collared adult female. Two Verreaux's sifaka were also subject to dog attacks during 2006: one survived with the aide of veterinary treatment, the other died despite veterinary efforts. Since 2003, we have seen evidence of feral dog predation of lemurs in canine feces (i.e., lemur hair and bone), we have found lemur skeletal material with signs of predation and we have numerous accounts of both feral dogs and cats stalking both ring-tailed lemurs and sifaka. We need to systematically assess the threat of predation by these introduced species on the Beza Mahafaly lemur population to develop a feasible plan of action, and we are looking for donors to help. (Contact Dr. Sauther if you would like to help: ).
Mongabay: What does the future hold for lemurs? Are current conservation efforts going to be enough to save lemurs from extinction? How effective are these efforts? What needs to be done to conserve Madagascar's biodiversity?
Mongabay: Is there anything people can do abroad to help save lemurs and Madagascar's wildlands? What role does eco-tourism have in conservation on the island?
Sauther: I would really like to see people become "working tourists" in Madagascar, e.g. bringing their particular expertise, be it in business, economics, communication, etc. to help current programs and projects in Madagascar. Right now there doesn't seem to be any way to link such people to projects, so developing this link would be an important component. I know people want to help, and this would be a great way for them to see the beauty of Madagascar's wild places while doing something concrete to help maintain the island's unique environment.
Beza Mahafaly Lemur Biology Project
Paw Madagascar - Feral animal management to protect lemurs
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