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Science - Reuters
Madagascar's Lemurs Cling to Survival
Wed Jul 16, 8:05 AM ET
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By Ed Stoddard

ANALAMAZAOTRA RESERVE, Madagascar (Reuters) - The sun burns through the hazy mist, revealing a brilliant blue sky above the forest and prompting a chorus of howls from the family of lemurs.

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These appear to be cries of alarm raised against a danger unseen by the humans below. But the indri, the largest of Madagascar's lemurs, is better known for its "song" -- a long and haunting call which can carry for up to 1-3/4 miles through the dwindling forests it calls home.

"Sliding notes, harmonies, graceful razor slashes of sound," is how the natural history writer David Quammen has described the indri's call.

It is a call which may not be heard much longer, for the indri, like many of the weird and wonderful creatures found on the world's fourth-largest island, is heading for extinction.

The Analamazaotra Reserve, about 85 miles east of the capital Antananarivo, is one of the last refuges of this teddy-bear-like creature which spends almost all its time high off the forest floor in trees.

The Analamazaotra reserve covers just 2,000 acres and is home to only a few dozen family groups of two to five animals.


Estimates for Madagascar's total indri population vary widely between 1,000 and 10,000 -- no one is really certain -- but all the scientific literature agrees that the animal is highly endangered.

A superb jumper, the indri -- which can weigh 15-1/2 pounds or more -- can leap up to 33 feet.

But jumping from this patch of rain forest would be suicidal as it is surrounded by pine trees and a eucalyptus plantation, plants which offer no nutritional value for an indri.

Analamazaotra is an isolated island of indri habitat and one that may prove too small to support a viable population of the animals.

Like rain forests everywhere, it still contains an astonishing variety of life.

A morning's guided hike yielded sightings of the beautiful blue coua bird, indris and brown lemurs, a boa constrictor, a foot-long chameleon that snatched a huge bug with its lightning-quick tongue, a tiny frog and fish in a river.

Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish can all be seen during a five-hour walk in a tiny piece of ecosystem surrounded by degraded habitat. Try doing the same in a European or North American forest and you are unlikely to see such diversity.

A sign at the visitors' center says most of the native forest in the area has been cleared for farming, timber and the building of a railway, which is currently not operating.


Indris and other lemurs are only found on the Comoro islands and Madagascar, an evolutionary mad-house that began breaking away from Africa about 160 million years ago, becoming its own version of Noah's Ark as it drifted out into the Indian Ocean.


"Madagascar is truly the naturalist's promised land," wrote the naturalist Joseph Philibert Commerson in 1771. "Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she used elsewhere."

Madagascar has no deer or antelope species, and also lacks large predators. Poisonous snakes are absent as they are a relatively recent evolutionary development.

Madagascar also boasts half of the world's roughly 135 species of chameleons. But the lemurs are what really draw wildlife enthusiasts to this island.

Regarded as "primitive" primates, some 50 surviving species of lemurs make their home in Madagascar. Kin to monkeys, apes and humans, their behavior and characteristics shed vital clues on our own distant past.

But 15 species of lemurs have become extinct since sea-faring humans who originated in present-day Indonesia arrived on Madagascar's shores about 2,000 years ago.

Humanity is still wreaking ecological destruction on the island, as a swelling and desperately poor rural population hacks away forests, creating what some environmentalists say is the most heavily-eroded place on the planet.

For the lemurs, the last chance for survival may lie in the employment and cash generated by eco-tourists who come from afar to view them.

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