Operation Lemur

Displacement.  These days, it seems to be a theme that recurs at a tragic frequency.  It is a word whose various derivatives pepper our newspapers and pervade our airwaves.  On public radio, we hear heartrending tales of the plight of Somalian refugees fleeing from the violence of their homeland, while in TIME magazine, we follow the harrowing journeys of young Syrian mothers as they seek asylum in nations that are not their own.  Often it appears as though displacement has evolved into some virulent phenomenon that afflicts the most vulnerable among us.  But what we humans tend to overlook is that the ubiquity of this epidemic does not stop with “our kind.”  In the animal kingdom, too, displacement wreaks havoc upon enormous populations of innocents—among them the disappearing lemurs of Madagascar, who find themselves in the midst of what has surely been a devastating diaspora.  However, thanks to Monkeyland, some of the embattled primates have obtained a slice of salvation.

Since humans’ earliest explorations of the island-nation, Madagascar has been the subject of innumerable scientific studies for its unparalleled biodiversity.  Biologists marveled, and continue to marvel, at the richness of the species and the range of their phenotypes.  In the island’s seventy species of lemurs, which are indigenous solely to Madagascar, gleeful scientists have found an especially intriguing study into the singular environment (Monkeyland 2017).  But as the country has transformed—sociologically and ecologically—the native lemurs’ numbers have rapidly waned.  Their habitats degraded by logging, road construction, and slash-and-burn agriculture, they have been forced to the few dedicated tracts on the island that remain unscathed by “progress” (Smith et al. 1997, 509).  In fact, scientists estimate that only 10% of the lemurs’ “original forest cover”—that is the forest cover that existed prior to humans’ initial entrance into the island approximately 2,000 years ago—survives to the present (Monkeyland 2017).  Additionally, human-instigated hunting and exotic-pet trading threaten these rare creatures, while natural processes like southern Madagascar’s intermittent droughts exacerbate ongoing population loss (Monkeyland 2017).  Of the lemur species, black-and-white ruffed lemurs are among the most vulnerable, as their homes continually fall to become fields for farming and grazing.  Their ring-tailed relatives are classified as “Near Threatened,” according to the IUCN Red List, but they clutter zoos across the globe, having widely suffered removal from their rightful ecosystem (Monkeyland 2017).

In Monkeyland, a fortunate few from among the ruffed and ring-tailed refugees have found safe harbor.  The “frugiverous” former have brought with them their ravenous appetites for fruit, as well as their “raucous barking,” which resembles the sound of “a pack of bloodthirsty dogs” (Monkeyland 2017).  If you can believe it, the black-and-white ruffed lemurs are actually second among primates for loudness; they concede the crown to the aptly named howler monkey (Monkeyland 2017).  In terms of size, black-and-white ruffed lemurs are one of the biggest species of lemur, resting their large frames in nests of their own creation, which they position in tree canopies.  At Monkeyland, Mozzie and Tiger are two of more than twenty-five black-and-white ruffed lemurs who reside in the sanctuary (Monkeyland 2017).

Their petite counterparts, the ring-tailed lemurs, are perhaps the more internationally iconic of the two species.  In fact, the image of these amusing creatures provides the logo for Madagascar’s National Park system while simultaneously serving as the country’s national animal (Monkeyland 2017).  Ring-tailed lemurs are omnivorous and occupy the ground for longer periods of time than any other species of lemur, often concentrating in clusters of close to thirty individual lemurs.  These intensely social animals will, from time to time, congregate in so-called “lemur balls,” from which they frequently break free to “sunbathe, sitting upright facing its underside, with its thinner white fur towards the sun” (Monkeyland 2017).  Upon entering Monkeyland, you will almost surely find yourself surrounded by these prolific primates.  They are truly a sight to behold.

Monkeyland’s mission—which centers upon instilling a “recognition of [creatures’] need for interdependence of people, their natural environment and its component resources”—is a greater exigency now than ever before (Monkeyland 2017).  The logging mentioned earlier has reached a rate and scale that, if fully fathomed, should place the global community on red alert.  Since Madagascar’s governmental implosion in early 2009, the unquenchable thirst of foreign timber moguls has given rise to unregulated, “free-for-all” tree-felling (Draper 2010).  Chinese lumber companies, for instance, accumulated enough rosewood in the months directly following the collapse to equal 200 million dollars in revenue (Draper 2010).  Additionally, Madagascar’s population increase applies ever-greater pressure.  As of 2010, the island’s human inhabitants, who already numbered in the twenty millions, were multiplying at an annual rate of three percent, “one of the most rapid rates in Africa” (Draper 2010).  Logically, an explosion in people demands a corresponding  boom in food demand, which has led many Malagasies to revert to the ecologically disastrous, but temporarily efficient, method of slash-and-burn agriculture (Draper 2010).  But what they don’t recognize are what Robert Draper determines to be the “devastating, long-term consequences of a plundered forest—the disappearance of precious wood in as much as 25,000 acres of the country’s 11.3 million acres of protected areas, the extinction of lemurs and other endemic species, a plague of soil erosion that silts up rivers and wipes out nearby farmland, the loss of tourism revenue” (Draper 2010).  Thus, the plight of the lemur is also the struggle to preserve the well-being of the Malagasies themselves.

Under such circumstances, we as an international community of conservationists have much for which to thank Monkeyland.  As Madagascar shrinks, exotic-pet owners abandon, and zoos spurn, Monkeyland opens its arms wide to the world’s lemur refugees.  Its model is commendable, its cause is just, and its message is urgent.  Like the fleeing Syrian and the sojourning Somali, the Malagasy lemur depends on the benevolence and receptiveness of humankind.  If we have not done so already, it is time that we join the ranks of those who call for change, embodying the fundamental good and bio-egalitarian concern upon which the lemurs’ endurance so decidedly relies.


Draper, Robert. “The Pierced Heart of Madagascar.” National Geographic 218, no. 3 (2010): 80-109.

Ganzhorn, Jörg U., Joanna Fietz, Edmond Rakotovao, Dorothea Schwab and Dietmar Zinner. “Lemurs and the Regeneration of Dry Deciduous Forest in Madagascar.” Conservation Biology 13, no. 4 (August 1999): 794–804.

“Mission.” Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary: Plettenberg Bay, South Africa. 2017. Accessed July 13, 2017. http://www.monkeyland.co.za/index.php?comp=content&id=48.

Norris, Scott. “Madagascar Defiant.” BioScience 56, no. 12 (December 2006): 960–65.

Smith, A.P., N. Horning and D. Moore. “Regional Biodiversity Planning and Lemur Conservation with GIS in Western Madagascar.” Conservation Biology 11, no. 2 (April 1997): 498–512.

“Specie List and Info.” Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary: Plettenberg Bay, South Africa. 2017. Accessed July 13, 2017. http://www.monkeyland.co.za/index.php?comp=content&id=55.

Image Credit

Maggie Kennedy


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