Researchers take steps to help save silky sifaka

Field studies at national park track species, educate villagers


MAROJEJY NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar -- It used to be that even the most dedicated animal researchers were not supposed to worry much about preserving the species they studied.

"People told me when I started working in Madagascar that if I got interested in conservation, I might never get tenure, that this was not science," Patricia Wright, director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, recalls of her experience of 20 years ago. Now, "I teach my students you can do really good research and apply it to conservation goals, and it's not a sin."

In fact, she says, conservation plans can succeed only if it's known where the animals roam, what they eat and how they behave, so that disturbances can be minimized.

In Madagascar, human pressures continue to threaten endangered lemurs, even in national parks. But the presence of a scientist in the forest may make hunters think twice, Wright says. "They're scared to do it if there is a researcher there," she says.

Few species are as threatened as the silky sifaka. Its numbers are estimated at fewer than 1,000, all of them in and around this park. Conservation International calls the species one of the world's 25 most endangered primates; it is one of three lemurs (out of 70) on the list.

"All you need is a few dedicated hunters, and they could be gone in no time," says the group's president, Russell A. Mittermeier. With donors and Madagascar officials, he is exploring new ways to preserve the species, whose only natural predator is the fossa, a mongoose-like mammal.

A few months ago, a hunter was caught near here with 28 dead lemurs in bags, two of them bone-white silky sifakas. It is taboo to kill certain kinds of lemurs but not the gentle, tree-dwelling silky. Some wealthy Malagasy, as Madagascar's people are called, consider its meat a delicacy.

Even more recently, illegal logging of rosewood trees for export to China has expanded inside Marojejy's park boundaries, an ominous development in a country where "slash and burn" agriculture has destroyed 85 percent of indigenous forest. Subsistence farmers clear land to grow rice.

Erik Patel, a graduate student at Cornell University and expert on the silky sifaka, has become a passionate protector of the species since launching the first in-depth field study four years ago.

Last year, he traveled here from the United States to spend two months visiting schools and taking students on field trips to see the animals in their mountainous habitat.

"You kind of feel like it's on your shoulders," he says. "Who else is going to do it?"

Patel tells impoverished villagers that ecotourism can help them economically. To encourage tourism, he produced a poster about the silky sifaka for the park and, when in the forest, helps European and American visitors spot the elusive lemurs, even if it disrupts his research.

Hunting has remained a problem.

In 2003, Patel and his assistants heard shots in the forest. "We had a debate. Should we go out with machetes? No. Should we keep a gun in camp? No." Instead, he descended the mountain and alerted local conservation officers, who caught the hunters holding bags of dead lemurs.

The problem, Patel says, is that there are too few patrols or dedicated park employees. The former director of Marojejy National Park, Sylvain Velomora, says he tried to pursue violators after he took the post last year.

"Unfortunately," his spokesman says in an e-mail, "many of the other park employees here are not nearly as honest and hard-working as he, so he is facing a difficult battle."

In late October, Patel heard about the rosewood logging from environmentalist Eric Mathieu, who tracks the threats on, a Web site he runs with Peace Corps volunteer Paul Atkinson.

Even when perpetrators are caught, Mathieu and Atkinson write, punishment is often light:

"In one case, a hunter was apprehended in the park with a freshly killed silky sifaka that he had shot under contract for another man in a neighboring village. However, neither man was fined or jailed, and the gun was returned within a month to the man who had contracted the kill."

Next year, Patel and geneticist Ed Louis will search for silky sifakas outside Marojejy and an adjacent nature reserve. The goal is to document any sightings in hope of creating new protected areas - something Madagascar's president, Marc Ravalomanana, has committed to doing around this island nation rich in biodiversity.

Patel says he has no idea how many silkies they may find, "but we are sure that they are being hunted and are living in disturbed habitats."

As for capturing several and putting them in zoos to ensure the species' survival, Wright, of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, is unsure that is a viable alternative.

"We don't know whether they would survive or not," she says, and no one wants to take that chance, yet. But if the hunting and habitat disturbance continue, "we have to think differently."

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