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Man starts record-breaking walk to protect one of the world’s rarest primates

  • If successful, experienced trekker Ash Dykes will become the first person to walk the length of Madagascar.
  • Along the way, Dykes will meet with conservation groups working to protect the island nation’s threatened wildlife.
  • Only around 50 northern sportive lemurs are thought to exist, largely due to heavy habitat loss from charcoal production.

When visiting a new country, it is recommendable to cram as many sights in as you can in a limited amount of time. But trekking the 1,800-mile length of an entire island might be taking that to extremes.

Ash Dykes intends to do just that this month when he walks from one end of Madagascar to another, crossing grueling forested and mountainous terrain in the process. If successful, he will become the first person to achieve the feat.

He is well qualified, boasting the title of Adventurer of the Year. Just last year he trekked into the record books by completing a solo 1,500-mile journey across Mongolia during which he accrued the moniker the “ lonely snow leopard” from locals.

On his Malagasy adventure, Dykes will meet a number of conservation networks that are battling to ensure the survival of some of the island’s endemic and endangered wildlife species. The highlight he hopes will come at the end of his arduous slog when at the northern tip of Madagascar he may spot one of the most critically endangered mammals in the world – the northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis).

The critically endangered northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis). Photo by Edward Louis.

“Madagascar is a magical and largely unexplored island. This expedition is an opportunity to showcase its outstanding natural beauty whilst challenging and pushing myself to the limits in every way,” Dykes said upon the announcement of his challenge.

“Its terrain is unforgiving and conditions unpredictable, making it a tough challenge, but I’m determined to see it through. It’s an opportunity to unlock Madagascar’s mystery and share stories of its people and wildlife that would otherwise never be known.”

He will begin his trek with the full support of the Lemur Conservation Network, a group that, despite being established only in February, already has 50 member organizations working on the ground in Madagascar to find solutions for the extreme habitat loss and other challenges facing the country’s huge wealth of biodiversity.

“We need and embrace ambassadors like Ash Dykes,” Lynne Venart, the group’s communications director told Mongabay. “He has shown in his past expeditions in Mongolia and elsewhere that he cares about local people and how they interact with their land.”

“Because he is not entrenched in the conservation community his perspective, as an outsider who is passionate about the earth and indigenous cultures, is so valuable.”

Dykes will do well to actually see a northern sportive lemur, however. One of the most critically endangered primates in the world, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates the little creature with alluring, saucer-sized eyes has lost 80 percent of its population in the last 21 years.

An estimated 50 individuals are now all that remains of the species inhabiting an area comprising only about 3 square miles in Montagne des Francais in the far northern tip of the island. They are chiefly threatened by the destruction of their forest habitat for charcoal production, firewood and eucalyptus plantations.

Madagascar’s forests are home to many species found nowhere else in the world, such as this giant leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus). Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Dr. Edward Louis is the director of Conservation Genetics at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and works to protect lemurs from extinction as the director of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership. He said that while the destruction of forests to produce charcoal is a countrywide problem for the island’s wildlife, it hits particularly hard on the northern sportive lemur.

“In the case of places like Montagne des Français, the loss of habitat to charcoal production for mostly the nearby sea port city of Antsiranana is even a more urgent issue since the remaining 50 individuals of northern sportive lemurs in Montagne des Français are using…essentially the last of their remaining habitat,” he told Mongabay.

“[Habitat preservation] is more critical for this species or even this genus as captive breeding is currently not a viable option due to this species’ dietary choices of primarily new growth leaves.  In fact, no sportive lemur is being held successfully in any zoological park and even long term records of them in captivity are limited and short lived, so this small fragment of forest is all that is left for them to survive.”

But Madagascar’s forests continue to dwindle at an alarming rate. Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Secretary General of GERP (the Madagascar Primate Group) said that compared to just 25 years ago, only 10 percent of the country’s original forest remains.

“Each year, 36,000 hectares of forest disappears in Madagascar,” he told Mongabay. He said that measures to protect lemurs were clearly laid out in the national Lemur Action Plan of 2012 and that more than 90 new sites have been declared as protected areas by the ministry of environment.

“These measures will certainly help the fight to save Lemur species from extinction,” he said. “But it is evident that the threats to their habitat are always linked to the poverty of local communities.”

According to Global Forest Watch, 1.6 million hectares — nearly 6 percent — of Madagascar’s tree cover was lost to deforestation and plantation activity from 2001 through 2013. The island nation has little primary forest left, and its remaining Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) — large, continuous areas of primary forest — have lost more than 37,750 hectares of tree cover since 2000. The northern sportive lemur exists in increasingly fragmented forests in a small area of northern Madagascar with no official protections.

Despite its vast natural resources and potential for tourism, Madagascar remains one of the world’s poorest countries. This presents evident problems for conservation and efforts to stem illegal deforestation.

“I have always felt that any problem can be solved and this one is no different. However, telling people not to cut trees down for charcoal to save this species would seem simple enough,” Louis said. “But most of these people are at such a level of poverty that telling them not to use this forest and not offer them alternatives to cook their food is not a solution.

“We have initiated several alternative programs such as fuel efficient stoves, biofuel briquettes, aquaponics, community gardens, reforestation for habitat restoration and for fuel use. However, it still is a matter of finding solutions that are actually practiced as part of a daily routine and are at a productive level.”

If losing their home were not threat enough, many of the island’s 103 species of lemur are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A report published in Ecology and Evolution in February this year found that the animals will lose 59.3 per cent of their habitat in the next 70 years independent of other factors.

For the northern sportive lemur this may not even matter, as it has barely any habitat left. In 70 years, unless more effective measures are taken, there may not be any left.

If Ash Dykes is lucky enough to see one of the little creatures, he may well get to enjoy it for a little while. Feeding on a diet of leaves they are not the world’s slickest or fastest movers, often tiring very quickly as they swing tree from tree. However he should enjoy it as this species of lemur could still well become the first primate in 200 years to go extinct.

Disclosure: In late December 2015, it came to light that the author was a public relations contractor for Greenpeace at the time of this story’s publication. The author says this affiliation did not influence his reporting. The story was independently edited and fact-checked by a Mongabay editor.