By Brandon Semel
I’m currently writing this at 2:30 am, Madagascar time, as I wait for the local taxi brousse (or bush taxi) to take me from the small town of Daraina to the coastal cities of Vohemar and Sambava where I can finalize my research permits. Let’s just say that things here don’t always go according to a western schedule, as my ride is already half an hour late and there’s no sign of car, driver, or even other passengers! Fortunately, music from the town’s only discothèque is loud enough to keep even the drowsiest of travelers wide awake.
For the past two months, I’ve been in and out of Daraina and its surrounding forest fragments conducting surveys to estimate population sizes of several lemur species. The focus of my study is on the critically endangered golden crowned sifaka, which is found only within about a 40 mile radius of town. But, as lemurs are earth’s most threatened group of mammals and are endemic to (or found only on) the island of Madagascar, we’re keeping records of the six other lemur species also found in the area.
Golden-crowned sifakas are definitely among the most charismatic of the lemurs, with their long legs and tail that help them to leap 20-30 feet between tree trunks, bright white bodies accented by a crown of golden hair (thus the name!), and mellow disposition expressed by bright, orange eyes. Unlike other lemurs in the region, they’re protected from hunters by local taboos. However, as people from other regions come here to try their luck at finding gold, and law enforcement is still recovering from a recent coup d’état, this protection may be short-lived. Perhaps an even greater threat is the continued loss of habitat due to slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and ever-expanding cattle pasture that are a direct result of Madagascar’s rapidly growing human population.
Thanks to conservation efforts by the Malagasy NGO, Fanamby, I have some hope for the region’s incredible biodiversity. But long-term protection can only be guaranteed if local people embrace the importance of conserving their few remaining natural resources. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar’s rich biodiversity has significant potential to bring in much needed international tourist and research dollars. Hopefully the continued presence of researchers, such as myself, not only will improve our understanding of how species are responding to ongoing global change, but also will impress upon the locals the international significance of their natural heritage.
Well, finally! It’s 4 am and we’re about to see just how many people, mattresses, sacs of rice, and live chickens can be squeezed into what should be a 12 passenger van (right now I count at least 20, 1, 10, 9, plus luggage). It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride!
Ph.D. student, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Virginia Tech
Interfaces of Global Change Fellow