London/Arlington, Va., USA – With more than 90 per cent of species threatened with extinction, lemurs are the most threatened mammal group on earth.
Native to the shrinking and fragmented tropical and subtropical forests of Madagascar, off Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, lemurs are facing grave extinction risks driven by human disturbance of their habitats. Combined with increasing rates of poaching and the loss of funding for environmental programs by most international donors in the wake of the political crisis in Madagascar, challenges to lemur conservation are immense.
An article published in high-impact journal, Science, this week, primatologist Dr Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at Bristol Zoo Gardens and vice-chair for Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) SSC Primate Specialist Group, explains that there is still hope for lemurs despite the profound problems.
The article, led by Dr Schwitzer, was co-authored by 19 lemur conservationists and researchers, many of which are from Madagascar or have been working there for decades. It stresses the importance of implementing a new emergency three year IUCN lemur action plan - recently published by Dr Schwitzer and other lemur experts from around the world - which outlines a way forward for saving Madagascar’s 101 lemur species.
The action plan contains strategies for 30 different priority sites for lemur conservation and aims to help fundraise for individual projects.
"Fact is that if we don’t act now, we risk losing a species of lemur for the first time since our records began," Schwitzer explains. "Lemurs have important ecological and economic roles and are essential to maintaining Madagascar's unique forests, through seed dispersal and attracting income through ecotourism. Their loss would likely trigger extinction cascades. The importance of the action plan cannot be overstated."
Vital steps outlined by Dr Schwitzer and colleagues include effective management of Madagascar's protected areas, the creation of more reserves directly managed by local communities, and a long-term research presence in critical lemur sites. Currently Bristol Zoo, alongside other European zoos, manages one of the few long-term research stations for monitoring lemurs in Madagascar’s forests. Working on grassroots projects with local communities and promoting and expanding ecotourism - one of the country’s most important foreign exchange earners - are other important components of the action plan.
Dr Schwitzer said: "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. Madagascar recently held their first post-crisis presidential elections. There are encouraging signs that the new president, former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina, will set the conditions for a return to effective governance and, very importantly, resumption of international aid.”
He added: "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."
Dr Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and Chair of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, co-authored the article in Science and the IUCN lemur action plan. He said: "The actions needed to prevent further lemur extinctions, as outlined in the Lemur Conservation Strategy, are ambitious but attainable. Lemurs, tortoises, rosewood, and other natural resources in Madagascar have been collateral damage and victims of the political instability that has persisted for nearly five years. However, with the new democratically-elected government of President Rajaonarimampianina, we have high hopes that this exploitation of natural resources will be curtailed in the near future. Indeed, during a recent meeting with President Rajaonarimampianina, we discussed lemur conservation and ecotourism, the rosewood trade, and the importance of Madagascar's biodiversity as its most visible and important global brand and key element in long-term human well-being and poverty alleviation. These were all issues about which he was already well-informed. As a result, I am feeling optimistic about Madagascar for the first time since early 2009.”
Of the 101 surviving lemur species, 22 are now classified Critically Endangered, 48 are Endangered, and 20 are Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, equating to 94 percent of the world’s lemur species for which sufficient data were available to enable their assessment against the Red List criteria.
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The three-year IUCN lemur action plan “Lemurs of Madagascar – A Strategy for Their Conservation 2013-2016”, had a total of 83 authors and contains 30 site-based conservation strategies for priority lemur sites,.
The 30 projects have individual funding targets from $50,000 to $500,000 equating to a total budget of $7.628 million over three years.
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Bristol Zoo Gardens is a conservation and education charity and relies on income from visitors and supporters to continue its important work.
It employs over 150 full and part-time staff to care for the animals and run a successful visitor attraction to support its conservation and education work.
Bristol Zoo supports – through finance and skill sharing - 15 projects in the UK and abroad that conserve and protect some of the world’s most endangered species.
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About Conservation International (CI) – Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area and employs more than 800 staff in 30 countries on six continents, and has nearly 1,000 partners around the world. For more information, please see www.conservation.org or visit us on , and YouTube.