January 18th, 2012 by

I’ve loved lemurs ever since I saw the movie Madagascar in 2005. Two years later, I did a summer internship in Madagascar, working for a nonprofit organization in a remote village on the southern coast. One of the highlights of my summer was when we visited Berenty Reserve, a small private forest along the Mandrake River, where we actually got to hold lemurs and feed them bananas!

(Credit: Amanda Tai)

Madagascar is a hotspot for lemurs — there are more than 100 species and subspecies of lemurs alone. But the lemurs also have a unique role in Madagascar’s ecosystem: they help trees grow. Kara Moses, a biologist and nature writer, has been studying the furry primates and their link to trees and forests. One species in particular, the black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata), plays a key role in dispersing and germinating large-tree seeds. Fruit from trees is a primary source of food for ruffed lemurs and their digestive juices actually help germinate the seeds. From the lemur droppings, these seeds then grow into trees that have a large carbon-storing capacity. Without these lemurs, Madagascar’s forests could look completely different and have far lower carbon-storing potential.

I knew I liked lemurs for a reason. They’re cute and useful! However, ruffed lemurs are becoming increasingly threatened due to habitat loss and hunting. Much of Madagascar’s agricultural economy has turned to logging and slash-and-burning of forests. This clear-cutting process involves cutting and burning forests to create fields for agriculture. Ninety percent of the island’s forests have already been cleared for logging and agriculture. “The forest then becomes one composed mainly of trees with low carbon-storage potential, and the carbon-storage capacity of the whole forest is affected,” explained Moses. “This may have obvious global implications with respect to climate change, for example.”

When I was in Madagascar, I saw several forests that had been slash-and-burned and replaced with quick-growing trees like eucalyptus. Moses says that if there more alternative agriculture options were readily available, many people would stop implementing slash-and-burn. “[They] are aware of how destructive practices like slash-and-burn agriculture are, but have no alternatives — so alternatives need to be provided.” She says that a two-fronted approach of conservation education and community development is necessary to protect the lemur’s habitat. With this approach, the people of Madagascar can start improving their lives as well as their environment.