This post was originally published on Conservation International's blog, Human Nature.
This week marks the first-ever World Lemur Festival in Madagascar, which will culminate in World Lemur Day on October 31. This event is intended to raise awareness of the importance of these wonderful creatures both across Madagascar and around the world.
Why should we care about lemurs? Well, aside from being delightful, beautiful creatures that are part of the mammalian order Primates of which we ourselves are members, they are also a major economic asset for a country historically plagued by poverty and political instability.
Madagascar is one of the most biodiversity-rich countries on the planet, with levels of endemism (organisms found nowhere else) among the very highest on Earth. This applies not just to individual species, but also to unique genera and entire families, meaning that Madagascar is home to entire evolutionary lineages (some of them dating back 90 million years or more) found nowhere else on the planet.
For those of you who might have missed the three Dreamworks animated films in the Madagascar series, or who have not seen any of the various nature documentaries on them, lemurs are a distinct group of primates found only on Madagascar.
Now numbering 105 species in five families and 15 genera, lemurs are so diverse that they make Madagascar one of the four major regions in which nonhuman primates occur and account for nearly one-third of all primate families and about one-fifth of all known primate species. This in spite of the fact that Texas-sized Madagascar is only about 2 percent of the land area of each of the three other major regions where nonhuman primates occur: tropical, subtropical and temperate Asia; the African continent; and South and Central America.
But the threats to Madagascar's natural environment as a whole are enormous, making it perhaps the highest priority hotspot in the world. In 2009, a political coup resulted in five years of chaos and natural resource destruction. Prior to this, Madagascar was already one of the poorest countries on Earth; in 2010, an estimated 75.3 percent of Malagasy people were living below the national poverty line.
Fortunately, democratic elections finally took place at the end of 2013, and the new government of former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina (yes, his name is that long) is making all the right moves. The president has reached out to Europe, Japan, the U.S. and the African Union to restore confidence, and aid money should be flowing again soon. Indeed, it appears that USAID is restoring its vaunted biodiversity program in the country, a truly outstanding effort that ran for 25 years prior to shutting down because of the coup.
The president has already met with a number of conservationists (myself included) and appears to recognize the value of his country's natural capital and even its lemurs. What is more, he is about to travel to the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- a once-a-decade event -- where he will hopefully reiterate his commitment to Madagascar's protected areas and his intention to improve their management and increase the scale of coverage.
As the chaos of the coup dies down, the planes flying into Madagascar are once again full of tourists. Travelers from around the world want to see Madagascar's lemurs, and are willing to pay a lot to do so.
When they visit one of the habitats where lemurs live, they help local communities living around these reserves, many of which have or are actively developing guide associations to facilitate such visits. Some of the most advanced guide associations, such as the Guide Association of Andasibe, the Mitsinjo Association and the Guide Association of Ranomafana, all in Madagascar's highly diverse eastern rainforest region, make a very good living as guides. Indeed, they are so excited about conservation that they are creating new community-run reserves to complement those managed by the Malagasy government's nature conservation agency, Madagascar National Parks.
What is more, the parks and reserves of Madagascar don't just protect animals and plants, they also provide essential ecosystem services to people, including freshwater provision, soil maintenance, foods, fibers, medicines, disaster prevention and climate change mitigation. Given that Madagascar has already lost more than 90 percent of its original natural vegetation and has some of the most severe erosion on the planet, these critically important reservoirs of natural capital keep Madagascar from ecological collapse.
The combination of growing ecotourism revenues and protection of ecosystem services make these parks and reserves critical to the country's future. However, there is no time to lose.
An IUCN Red List workshop that we held in the capital city of Antananarivo two years ago indicated that 90 percent of Madagascar's 105 lemurs are threatened, with 23 of them being in the Critically Endangered category and another 52 Endangered. Some of these are on the verge of extinction, with species like the northern sportive lemur being down to about 50 individuals (but with an active conservation program on its behalf).
The hunting of lemurs continues in some parts of the country, impacting even the indri, the largest of the living lemurs and a magnificent creature that looks like a cross between a teddy bear and a giant panda, leaps from tree to tree like an arboreal kangaroo and sings like a humpback whale. As far as charisma goes, it is truly the "giant panda" of Madagascar, yet it is still sometimes killed for food.
The World Lemur Festival is the brainchild of one of Madagascar's leading primatologists: Jonah Ratsimbazafy, an employee of the Houston Zoo and frequent grant recipient of CI. So far, the festival seems to be successfully attracting attention of the Malagasy press, as well as the many lemur fans from around the world.
Indeed, a major event held Sunday included a video message from one of the world's most prominent lemur lovers: entrepreneur Richard Branson, who came to Madagascar with me two years ago and has captive colonies of several endangered species on his islands in the Caribbean.
Lemurs are a critical natural resource for Madagascar. They are the country's most distinctive brand, symbolic of its greatest competitive advantage in the global marketplace: its unique biodiversity.
In many ways, lemur conservation holds the key to ensuring human well-being for the country's rural population in the future. Let's hope that this first-ever World Lemur Festival will meet its many ambitious objectives, and that it will be the first of many to come.
Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier is currently the executive vice chair of Conservation International and chairman of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. He has been to Madagascar over 80 times in the past 30 years and is the lead author of the "Lemurs of Madagascar" field guide, now in its fourth edition.