The blue-eyed black lemur (Eulemur flavirons) is a critically endangered species that is endemic to the forests of the north-western part of Madagascar. They were initially classified as a subspecies of the black lemur (Eulemur macaco) but were later grouped as a species on their own due to significant genetic variation with the black lemur. The species can be differentiated from the black lemur by its prominent ear tufts and blue eyes. The species is just one of the few primates that possess turquoise eyes. They are also sexually dimorphic, meaning that the two sexes of the species exhibit different characteristics beyond their sexual organs. Specifically, males have black fur, while females have reddish-brown fur. The natural habitat of the species is found in the Sahamalaza peninsula in the north-western part of Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world. Unlike most islands that were connected to larger landmasses at some point in the last 10,000 years, Madagascar drifted away from more significant landmasses nearly 90 million years ago. That means Madagascar has had the time to develop some unique biodiversity. The Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National park is a unique habitat that is home to the blue-eyed black lemur. The Ankarafa forest, one of the largest forest blocks in the park, has an estimated 97.3 individuals in every 0.386 square miles, with group size ranging from 4 to 11 individuals.
Threats To The Blue-eyed Black Lemur Population
In just three generations, the population of the species experienced a population decline of over 80%. Today, there are about 1,000 blue-eyed black lemurs that exist in the wild. The greatest threat to the species is habitat destruction through logging, slash and burn agricultural practices, forest fires, and mining. They are also hunted and kept as pets or consumed as food by locals. The threat of deforestation is particularly dire since the local communities rely on the forests for food and fuel. The local population also requires additional agricultural land to cultivate crops for consumption, which means that they cut down trees more often. The blue-eyed black lemurs are at risk since they are only found in a relatively small pocket of forest that is still exploited by local communities. The remaining forest fragments inhabited by the lemurs are vital for the continued existence of the species.
Looking Into The Future
According to a study published in the Africa Journal of Ecology, researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa carried out computer simulations on the population viability of the species indicating that if some action were not taken, the species would go extinct in the wild within 11 years. In a scenario where the frequency of fires and logging dropped to 2%, computer models revealed that extinction in the wild would take place in the next 44 years. Further analysis of the computer-generated models revealed an even grimmer future for the species. All model scenarios analyzed showed that the blue-eyed black lemur would go extinct in the wild within 100 years.
Saving The Species
Despite the rather gloomy predictions, several experts are hopeful the species will survive. Among them is Brice Lefaux of the Mulhouse Zoological and Botanical Garden in France, who believes that humans, plants, and animals can live together sustainably. Conservationists are careful to note that conservation efforts aimed at trying to prevent human well-being driven actions from driving lemurs to extinction should strive not to affect local welfare negatively.
Ecotourism has been floated as a critical strategy that could potentially save the blue-eyed black lemurs. The plan, once implemented, could allow local communities living around the forest to earn revenue while protecting the lemur’s habitat. Ecotourism creates economic incentives and other benefits for the locals and facilitates conservation efforts led by residents. Eco-tourists also gain insights on the intricate relationship between the communities and the wildlife while enjoying the sighting of blue-eyed black lemurs. When organized with the bottom-up approach, ecotourism can be sustainable as it is sensitive to local concerns. However, ecotourism alone cannot adequately solve the challenges associated with the conservation of the species. It can be effective when carefully implemented as part of a broader community-based conservation effort. Following the success of Uganda’s and Rwanda’s mountain gorilla ecotourism projects, Madagascar can leverage the uniqueness of the blue-eyed black lemur to attract eco-tourists. The examples in Uganda and Rwanda show that eco-tourists are willing to pay a premium for a chance to observe rare species in their natural habitat. Revenue earned from such ventures can be used to enhance conservation and benefit neighboring communities. The model, if implemented, could promote blue-eyed black lemur and forest conservation in the Sahamalaza peninsula.
Community sensitization and building awareness of the importance of the biodiversity in the Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National park and especially that of the blue-eyed black lemur, has been one of the most successful conservation strategies. According to the final report of the Conservation Leadership Programme, community sensitization contributed significantly to the conservation of the blue-eyed black lemur and the forest habitat. Some of the activities conducted under the Conservation leadership program included educational activities that increased the people’s awareness of the importance of safeguarding biodiversity and wildlife such as the blue-eyed black lemur in the park.
Creation Of Protected Areas
The Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park is a prime example of areas that have been established for the conservation of biodiversity, including blue-eyed black lemurs. The importance of protected areas is emphasized by the emergency lemur plan, which calls for 30 protected sites to aid in the conservation efforts. Russell Mittermeier, a co-author of the plan, president of Conservation International, and chair of the IUCN primate specialist group, suggests that such areas should have a manager “who is not corrupt.” He also recommends a permanent research presence and a combination of community conservation programs and local guide association.
Apart from the wild population present in Madagascar, several blue-eyed black lemurs are managed by ex-situ programs in zoos. The European population has had limited success in breeding, as only three births have survived in the period between 2012 and 2017. A systematic hand-rearing protocol has since been introduced to boost infant survival rates. At least five infants from two females have been cared for by following the procedure since 2013. Some of the methods used in the program include offering the new-borns some milk formula made with a combination of kitten replacement milk and human new-born formula at least ten times a day. Solid food is later provided on the seventh day, and complete weaning was achieved by the 107th day. The rearing of the lemurs also involves a socialization protocol that maintains permanent, audio, visual, and olfactory contact with the parents after birth. Other techniques of hand-rearing have also been tried over the years with considerable success include putting the new-borns with parents from alternative Eulemur species. More research is required to develop feeding protocols that incorporate physiological variations in the milk composition during the period of lactation. The success of such hand-rearing programs could prove vital, especially if the blue-eyed black lemurs go extinct in the wild.
Other Recommended Conservation Efforts
Other conservation efforts aimed at sustainably protecting the blue-eyed black lemur’s habitat include the empowerment of the local community through the funding of schools, the digging of wells, and encouraging the adoption of alternative farming practices. The reforestation of native trees has also been recommended to re-establish the blue-eyed black lemur’s habitats. The planting of exotic trees around villages could also be encouraged to reduce the reliance of native forests for timber and fuel. Local communities can use exotic trees for construction, pirogues, and charcoal burning.
Political Instability And Conservation
Some observers have noted that the political atmosphere in the country during specific periods has significantly affected the biodiversity of the country, especially blue-eyed black lemurs. A study published in Science indicated that the chances of survival of the various endangered species in the country, including lemurs, fell dramatically during the five years of political and economic strife after the 2009 Madagascar coup. Thousands of illegal loggers were reported to have swarmed the nation’s protected areas and national parks in search of precious ebony and rosewood trees for export. The consumption of lemur bushmeat, which was previously rare, became widespread as the economy tumbled and further hurt the local population, which was already struggling. The rapid deterioration of the situation prompted 19 scientists of the International Union for Conservation of Nature to document an emergency three-year plan aimed at the protection of lemurs in 30 sites across Madagascar. The observations indicate that there is a close relationship between socio-political events that affect the local population and wildlife conservation. Some scientists, including Christoph Schwitzer of the Bristol Zoo in the U.K, believe that given the unpredictable nature of the nation’s politics, mechanisms are needed to protect biodiversity in the country in the absence of political institutions. Such proposals, however, are easier said than done as Madagascar is one of the poorest nations on the planet.