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Lemurs: You Can Go Home Again

  • Sunday, March 1, 1998

Janus, Letitia, Praesepe, Sarph, Zuben'ubi.

Named for celestial bodies, this rambunctious quintet of black-and-white-ruffed lemurs have some researchers thanking their lucky stars that their efforts seem to be paying off.

The five primates are carving out a place in conservation history as the first ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata variegata) to be born in captivity and then released into the wilds of Madagascar, their ancestral homeland. And they're thriving.

"All five continue to adapt very well to forest life, spending the days foraging for food and resting, just as do their wild-born counterparts," reports Charles Welch, director of the Betampona Ruffed Lemur Restocking Project.

The lemurs, all related to one another, were born at the Duke University Primate Center in Durham, N.C. After going through the lemur equivalent of boot camp--learning, for instance, to forage on their own--they traveled last October to the Betampona Natural Reserve, a 5,000-acre protected area of lowland rain forest.

Lemur species are only found in this island nation off East Africa's coast. Only 30 to 35 wild ruffed lemurs remain in Betampona, a number so small, say project officials, that disease, storms or breeding problems could wipe these out.

They are "highly endangered in Madagascar, as their habitats are destroyed and they are hunted for food," said Andrea Katz, Duke Primate Center's conservation coordinator and a technical adviser to the Madagascar Fauna Group, a 30-member international association of zoological organizations sponsoring the lemur project.

"This project is very important because it is generally difficult to reintroduce primates into the wild," says Pritpal Singh Soorae, AWF's project officer for the World Conservation Union's Reintroduction Specialist Group (RSG). "Primates usually have long learning periods before they're independent, and those bred in captivity may not be able survive in the wild as they haven't acquired the skills they need."

The RSG, headed by AWF vice president and director of African operations director Mark R. Stanley Price, provided reintroduction guidelines used by the lemur experiment and has offered continuing technical advice.

Ruffed lemurs, primates that weigh 7 to 10 pounds and are about 4 feet long,have long tails, beautiful black and white coats, foxlike noses and thick "whiskers" of fur framing their faces. They live mostly in trees and communicate with noisy vocalizations.

After acclimating themselves in outdoor cages, the five repatriated lemurs were equipped with radio collars and released into the wild on Nov. 10. Baskets of chow were hung high in the trees to supplement food they might find on their own.

Letitia and Zuben-Ubi, Welch reports, did not stray far from the release cage area and were soon joined by Janus, who had exhausted from wandering on his own. But Sarph and Praesepe each took off, disappearing for two days and prompting anxious searches.

After the chaos of the first few days, all the lemurs stayed closer to the core areas, although they quickly learned to find food in the forest. As they slowly extended their range, a meeting with wild lemurs was inevitable. On Dec. 5 Praesepe was approached by Boot, a member of the wild Sahabefoza group, who took an instant shine to the newcomer.

"He showed typical male behavior, whining and chattering as he approached Praesepe," says Welch. "She cuffed him when he got too close, typical female behavior."

Boot, with wounded pride, moved away, but then Praesepe followed him around the rest of the day. She may have been in heat, but mating between the two didn't take place because Boot wasn't in breeding condition.

Praesepe's reproductive cycle is still on "Duke time," says Duke University spokesman Dennis Meredith, and will have to adapt to Madagascar time to be in sync with Boot.

Some encounters with the wild lemurs are less amicable. Praesepe has fought several times with a wild female, and Sarph and Zuben-Ubi are suspected of clashing with Boot.

While worries about the five lemurs adapting to the wild have eased, the concern now, says Welch, "is that they don't bully their Malagasy relatives too much."

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