Living It Up With Lemurs
June 20th, 2018 by Brandon Pomrenke

The critically endangered red ruffed lemurs are the largest lemurs in the Myakka City lemur colony.

Scientists work to bring lemurs back from the brink of extinction

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that more than 90 percent of lemur species face extinction in the next 20 years.

Alison Grand, executive director of the Lemur Conservation Foundation in Myakka City, is determined to help lemurs fight that devastating trend.

“One reason working with lemurs is so fulfilling is that unlike other species I’ve worked with, lemurs are really struggling to survive in the wild,” Alison says. “There’s a critical conservation element to what I’m doing as well.

“This isn’t just about having these animals here for people to come see or research. It’s bigger than that because they are the genetic safety net for the individuals that are struggling for survival in the wild. That elevates everything to a whole other level. You’re doing the research and you’re doing the husbandry, but you’re doing all of this because if you don’t, they may not survive.”

The primatologist and conservationist originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but she found herself drawn to primates, their communities and their behavior during her undergraduate studies. While she enjoyed working with a variety of primates, lemurs had a certain allure.

“Lemurs are really complex,” Alison says. “A lot of people think of them as simple, primitive primates, but they have very complex social structures and they can be a challenge. Their behavior is complex, so they’re really fun to observe. Every day is a new adventure when you work with lemurs.”

Alison, who has a master’s degree and doctorate in neuroscience and behavior, brings a variety of experience to the Lemur Conservation Foundation. Before joining the conservation foundation, she worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which gave her the opportunity to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo to study and develop conservation programs.

Alison spent much of her time there supporting the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, commonly referred to as GRACE.

Her work was about more than primates, however. She worked with community members to stress the importance of conservation and community building.

Alison also helped create community development projects, including a rabbit breeding program and skills/business training for women.

The experience shaped her career.

“It opened my eyes to a whole new world of studying primates and wanting to save primates,” Alison says. “It’s not just about the furry primates. It’s about human primates as well, and incorporating the community work to save habitat. That job set the baseline for my career.”

Alison says she enjoyed her time with Disney’s Animal Kingdom and learned a lot about the importance of relationships between humans and their furry counterparts, but she wanted to get involved with lemurs again.

She says the perfect career step would blend all of her previous experience.

“I had the research piece, the conservation piece, the animal management piece and I didn’t want to give any of them up,” Alison says. “I love all of them, and that became the challenge because for most jobs, you could pick one. Rarely do you have a job where you have all three, but that’s what I found here. I got to come full circle and work with lemurs again. It was the perfect fit.”

Alison began volunteering with the Lemur Conservation Foundation, and eventually took on the role of animal care manager in 2013. She oversaw daily care of animals and lived onsite for 31/2 years.

As executive director, her role has expanded greatly.

Joining Alison in the fight for lemur survival is Erik Patel, conservation and research director. Like Alison, he has seen the impact of community programs on lemur habitat.

Erik, who first traveled to Madagascar to study the silky sifaka—one of the rarest lemurs—for his doctorate project, has gone to Madagascar every year for the past 16 years.

He says his early travels to study and develop projects in the northeastern region of the island were a lesson in hardship, but also in the importance of helping conserve the beauty and the resources provided by the rainforest.

There was no infrastructure, he knew no one and communication was difficult.

As the years passed and Erik was more familiar with the culture and the people, he became involved in several projects for the Lemur Conservation Foundation that included conservation, education and, most recently, ecotourism.

Madagascar’s northwest region, where most of Erik’s lemur research takes place, is home to the nation’s largest remaining rainforest. Approximately 80 percent of those living near the protected land live on $1.50 a day. Seventy percent are subsistence farmers who are running out of land.

Because so many people live near the protected lands, some will trek into the reserve to hunt lemurs or illegally harvest wood, both of which are detrimental to lemur populations.

“One of our goals is to support human livelihood and reduce dependence on forest resources while improving biodiversity conservation,” Erik says. “We work on village projects because we recognize a lot of local communities don’t have many options. It behooves us to address some of the socioeconomic drivers of the habitat destruction.”

Erik says much of the destruction is not caused by clear cutting or large-scale corporations, but small-scale operations by people who need things to live.

“The trouble is there’s very little forest left outside the protected areas,” Erik says.

One section of protected land getting positive attention from locals and researchers from around the world is Camp Indri, one of the Lemur Conservation Foundation’s ecotourist projects. When Erik first visited the site in the mountainous Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve, it was little more than a flat patch of grass. The 280-square-kilometer reserve is 90 percent primary forest—home to 11 species of lemurs and more than 100 species of birds.

“It’s remarkable,” Erik says. “It’s just full of life, but there wasn’t good access for visitors or researchers. We knew we couldn’t bring tourists unless we built at least toilets. So the first thing we built was a toilet, and there was great celebration locally over that. Then we built a dining area and four covered tent shelters. We provide tents and even running water.”

As word spreads about Camp Indri, named for a lemur species, more visitors arrive each year. With visitors come money, publicity and more employment for locals—work that doesn’t involve cutting down trees or illegal hunting.

“Having visitors and researchers come to the area brings so much money in,” Alison says. “The more money Madagascar national parks can bring in, the more it can transform the community to have this area be a place where researchers and visitors come. That’s the hope—to bring this new business to the area. They make money from the area and have more reason to protect it.”

Camp Indri offers educational programs created to teach the importance of environmental conservation to youth throughout the region, including local children who do not have enough money or the clothing and equipment to travel into the dense rainforest. Children often grow up with stories of the mysterious lemurs and hearing the calls from the trees, but many have never seen one.

The program is popular with children and their parents. The trips are in constant demand.

“The most challenging part is there are so many kids, and we can only organize so many visits,” Erik says. “They have so much fun, and they get to see large lemurs in the rainforest, like the indri lemur and silki sifaka.”

Alison says the educational programs are a great way to teach the next generation about conservation and lemurs.

“This is the kind of program that changes a kid’s life,” she says. “Just like my experience in undergrad at the Duke Lemur Center opened my eyes to a whole new field that changed the direction of my life, these kids would never have these kinds of experiences otherwise.”

Education is important, but so is reforestation—another part of the Lemur Conservation Foundation’s work to slow the decrease of lemur habitat and provide a source of income for locals.

“You can’t have enough trees,” Erik says. “The area we work in has reasonably good soils compared to the rest of Madagascar. We plant a variety of cash crops people can make money from, but are unlikely to cut down.”

Foundation staff and locals planted at least 6,000 trees in 2016. Erik says it should not be hard to double and triple that in the years to come.

Each tree planted—and each one not illegally cut down—is one more the endangered lemurs can call home. Each community taught about the animals’ plight can be an advocate for a symbiotic relationship with one of Madagascar’s fastest-disappearing animals.

Myakka City Lemur Reserve is not open to the public, but does host special events. Go to www.lemurreserve.org for information about special events and open houses.