Friday, December 5, 2008

Duke Lemur Center Remembers: How Titus Came to the Lemur Center

Duke Lemur Center's Charlie Welch and some of his co-workers and friends in Madagascar

In 1987 my wife, Andrea, and I first went to Madagascar together to do a month long feasibility study to explore the potential of the Forestry Station site of Ivoloina as a conservation and captive breeding center. Before we left Madagascar that year, we accompanied Dr. Elwyn Simons on the first capture mission of the golden-crowned sifaka. The passing of Titus, hence the passing of that species as a whole in captivity, has brought to memory some of the details of that capture mission.

We first flew to Diego Saurez at the northern tip of Madagascar, as it was virtually impossible to get there over land in those days. After several days of mission preparations in Diego, we started southward with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver which we had rented (negotiated.) At Ambilobe, we left the paved road and went eastward on a dirt road - the main road to the coast. As we hurtled along at manic speed, the rust-colored road dust rooster-tailed over the back of the pick-up truck and settled onto our guide and me. We traveled for hours nestled in amongst our gear with heads tucked in and cloth over our faces. Andrea and Elwyn were squeezed into the cab with the driver.

Finally, after dark we arrived at the village of Daraina, which was near forests where the golden-crowned sifaka had been sighted. The appropriate village authorities were apprised of our mission, and as is the custom in rural Madagascar, we were kindly given a hut (which even has foam mattresses!)to sleep in. The next morning after arranging for a local guide, who turned out to be the village president, we were off on foot across the hills of knee high grass and eventually arrived at broken patches of forest. The forest in this part of Madagascar is deciduous dry, such that when we were there the leaves were off most of the trees. That fact, combined with the low canopy and gently hilly terrain made for ideal lemur capture conditions. The golden-crowned sifaka were easy to spot as per Andrea's description that from a distance they appeared as large white flowers scattered among the branches of the leafless trees. As our additional good luck would have it, they were quite tame, as the locals did not hunt, trap, or bother them at all. We had soon captured the two pair that we were hoping for.

As the previous blog entry mentioned, we originally thought that the lemurs which we were seeking were of the species Propithecus diadema candidus. We were surprised at how different they looked fro the photos that we had seen of P.d.candidus, and from the beginning Elwyn suspected that they were indeed a new and different species.

Our fortune was not all good as the rains came early starting that day of capture and fell steadily for that entire day. The poor village president, who had accompanied us, was shivering violently after hours of being soaked but insisted on staying with us till the end. As we walked back to the village with the lemurs in crates lashed to poles and carried on our shoulders, we suddenly realized that the tiny streams that we had stepped over on the way out had turned into raging torrents that at times came up to our waists, as we carefully crossed! The walk back to the village took hours longer than getting in.

Our next concern was getting back over what had been dusty road but was now knee deep mud in places. We could see other trucks stuck up and down the road near the village. As we waited a day for the road to dry, Elwyn spent much of the time surrounding the bizarrely calm wild-caught lemurs with every sort of food choice available. The lemurs picked and ate at selected items. We were able to leave the following day, and though the roads were very bad in places and often required maneuvering around mired vehicles, we eventually made it back to Ambilobe and Diego. From Diego, we flew back with the lemurs to Tana and a day later back to the US and the (then ) Duke Primate Center (now called the Duke Lemur Center.)

We had high hopes that the two pair would form that start-up nucleus of a future reproducing population of golden-crowned sifaka in captivity, as has been the beginning of many of the other lemur species at the Duke Lemur Center. Unfortunately, despite massive efforts on the part of the Lemur Center staff over the years, it was not meant to be. They simply proved to be a very delicate and difficult species in captivity.

The good news is that the discovery that the golden-crowned sifaka was indeed a new and separate species of Propithecus immediately focused the attention of conservation organizations on the species and its plight in the Daraina area. As it turned out, the range of the species is extremely small, making it one of the most endangered on the island. The result of the focus has been the creation of a protected area, with the conservation NGO Fanamby working at the site. This development has probably been critical to the survival of the golden-crowns, as the region of Daraina has in recent years drawn more people and activity due to gold deposits in the area. And of course, when as area is designated as protected, that benefits the full array of flora and fauna that exists there - not just one lemur species. In this case, the golden-crowned sifaka can be considered a true flagship species.

Conservation can work in circuitous ways, and I think that the golden-crowned sifaka is a classic example. In the end, it is important to keep the large picture in our field of view. The golden-crowns may not have worked out as a species suitable to captivity, but we can rest assured now that the species will continue to exist in its native forests. That is important. Thanks, Titus.

Post by Charlie Welch, Duke Lemur Center's Conservation Manager
If you would like to support the work done at the Duke Lemur Center, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment