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Empty forest and the fall of the ring-tailed lemur in Madagascar

Madagascar's amazing ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) have all but vanished from many of the island nation's forests. According to last surveys, population of the lemur has fallen to between 2,000 and 2,500 animals in the wild, a highly disturbing 95 percent decrease in the last 17 years. There are now fewer ring-tailed lemurs living in the wild than there are living in zoos around the world. There are an estimated 2,800 ring-tailed lemurs in zoos, in addition to many more in smaller roadside collections, laboratories, and the pet trade. The species is not only the most common lemur in captivity, but indeed the most common of all captive primates. However, it is now one of the most endangered lemur in world with a high risk of extinction.

Natural history

The ring-tailed lemur has an extreme ecological flexibility and can colonize a diverse range of habitats including forest gallery, littoral, and dry deciduous forests, spiny bush, brush, and rocky outcrop vegetation. Due to the highly seasonal environment in which it depends on, the ring-tailed lemur must use a wide variety of food sources throughout the year. It is an opportunistic omnivore and feeds on ripe fruits, leaves, leaf stems, flowers, birds, and many insect species. It starts its day waking before dawn and moving about in the branches of the group's sleeping tree.

Photo on the left: by Paddy Ryan


The country has lost about 80% of its original forests and the primary forest now covers only 12% of the country due to extraction of precious hardwoods and fuelwood, clearing land for agricultural and grazing activities. The deforestation process in Madagascar has started long time ago and accelerated since the end of the 19th century with the French colonization and conversion to coffee and vanilla fields.

Natural forest cover in Madagascar until 1985.

Deforestation and hunting are the greatest threats to the ring-tailed lemur. Its habitat includes gallery forests and bush habitat, but these habitats continue to disappear due to annual burning practices that promote the creation of new pastures for livestock. Further, the mountain forests on which ring-tailed lemur depends are threatened by slash-and-burn agriculture, fires, and exploitation of firewood. Over-grazing and the felling of trees for charcoal production further impact wild populations. This primate is also hunted for food in certain areas and frequently kept as a pet and sold to zoos. It is estimated that home and business owners had taken illegally 30,000 lemurs from the wild in the last five years with the ring-tailed lemur representing a large portion of the market.

Conservation at work

Ring-tailed lemur depends on gallery forests and open forests with tamarind trees to survive the harsh seasonal environmental conditions. Population density and survival depends on habitat quality. Focusing on conserving remaining critical habitat including mountain forest is the main conservation work urgently needed to save the ring-tailed lemur. Other crucial conservation efforts should focus on the remaining large populations (e.g., Isalo, and Tsimanampesotse) and to bring back natural forest by creating corridors for maintaining the genetic diversity and survival of wild populations. Field efforts must focus on community-based conservation to meet the sustainable needs and aspirations expressed by the Malagasy people within the range of the lemur.

Cutting down the illegal trade of lemur is another vital activity in protecting the endangered ring-tailed lemur. Too many individuals keep being taken away from their natural habitats. Once captured, lemurs are very often kept on ropes or in small cages under unacceptable conditions. One more reason why the trade of lemur must end.

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