Is This the Smallest Primate on Earth?

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You've spent years working in Madagascar. What makes it such a unique location?

Madagascar is considered one of the world's hotspots, places which have the highest amount of endemism and biodiversity concentrated in particular areas that are heavily threatened. Every time I go back the biodiversity still astounds me. As much time as I've spent in the jungles there I still see something new every time. There are still new species being discovered, including chameleons and primates. And with ongoing research that number is ever increasing.

Like much of Madagascar's wildlife, lemurs are under serious threats. What are the biggest threats to them right now?

What's the biggest threat to lemurs right now? Well, it's really a double threat of course—hunting and deforestation—but bigger at the moment is deforestation. Less than 10 percent of the original forest remains standing in Madagascar. It's a frightening event that's going on there. Every year when I go back, even forests that are protected seem to be shrinking. There's just not enough money or manpower to protect them. Many of the preserves and protected areas look good on paper, but the truth is that they continue to disappear.

In addition, hunting has always been a pressure—hunting for food. They don't hunt lemurs for medicinal products, or pelts, or the other reasons that many animals are hunted. Those factors don't seem to play a role; it's done for food. So, it's a hard thing as a researcher to go in and say, "stop hunting these animals" when the villagers are poor and hungry and this is the only way to get food on the table. They don't have many alternatives available to them. It's a challenging dilemma and the fact is that these animals are found only in their backyard, but they need them to survive.

We need to put a spin on the situation so that keeping these animals alive would benefit the local people, but it's hard to sell the long term to people who need food. They are thinking about their next meal. You have to provide some kind of alternative. Especially with the discovery of the new species, it may be a way of promoting ecotourism that can have a huge positive effect on the villages. It could increase revenue and provide jobs as guides, guards, conservation people, cooks, and a market for village arts and crafts.

You and Dr. Ed Louis first found this new lemur species last year almost by chance.

Well, we did set traps, so we were looking for lemurs. I always think of the great discoveries and they were often by chance. We were trying to determine the absence or presence of mouse lemurs in the area—the recognized species of mouse lemur, the only one people knew. We had no idea we would be identifying and trapping a species new to science. It's a dream come true for a scientist to make a brand new discovery.

It's a high-tech world and a lot of scientists use a lot of high-tech equipment. Yet you went back to capture and document this new species of lemur without even using a simple trap—by spotting its eye shine at night and just grabbing it by hand.

There was absolutely nothing high-tech about this expedition. Dr. Ed Louis, from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, and I have worked with this team for years and part of their responsibility is to pack the equipment because most of it is stored in their village. When Ed and I fly into the capital we usually just meet up with the team or fly directly to the site, and we don't have a lot of time to go over the packing with them.

So at the airport, I'm looking for the most important and critical piece of equipment and it's nowhere to be found. I asked the team and they were hesitant, no one wanted to tell me that we had no traps! It was so ridiculous that we even went on the expedition knowing that we didn't have traps; but airplanes are very difficult to come by in Madagascar and we had pilots ready and waiting. We had to get on and go.

We all started brainstorming about how to build traps. It's a simple concept: you bait whatever you're using, and an animal can get in and then can't get out. We used water bottles with an end cut off. It was the same simple concept as a trap, but unfortunately they didn't work.

Fortunately, we caught one by hand. Luckily the tree he decided to perch on was low enough and not surrounded by many others, so we could isolate it on one tree and pull the surrounding small trees away. The tree was low enough that once we pulled the branches down one of my guides was able to get his hands on the lemur. Luck was on our side. The funniest thing is that Ed Louis is back in the field now and the team doesn't want to pack traps. They've developed this hand-catching as a technique and it's working really well. I don't think it will catch on though; they are a pretty unique team.

Are there enough people out doing this kind of fieldwork?

My feeling is that there are never enough people out there doing this kind of work and those people are the thing that will really make the difference. Researchers serve as ground troops. One of the things that happens when a researcher arrives in an area is that hunting and slash-and-burn activity really decrease because there's a human presence. Anytime someone's in the area the word starts to spread. And a key opportunity that researchers have is the chance to educate local people and make them aware—and those people are key to spreading the word back to their villages. If they team up with you—you've got a huge force.

Why is it so important that a new species has been discovered?

The ironic part is that suddenly this tiny little animal becomes a huge ambassador for Madagascar. It's almost like they are mascots in Madagascar, they are what most people, including the Malagasy, think of when they think of Madagascar because they are unique to the island.

You have this new discovery, this new animal, and people say, "Wow, there's so much we don't know." And people will be drawn to this particular area because of this; it can raise awareness and get the government involved because there's something new and exciting to focus on. You can say, "Look at what we just discovered."

Did you have some success in getting government officials excited about the discovery?

One of the great things about the country's new government is that they are genuinely interested in conservation.

I met with the prime minister and he became very engaged. When I walked into his office, he had pictures and books about conservation in there and I said, "This is a good sign." He was very responsive and as excited as I was about this. I raised the possibility of creating a national park in this area and his response, to my surprise, was, "We can do it." At first he said it in French and I thought, "Did I understand that correctly?" So he repeated it in English and added, "What do we need, what's the next step?" I had had that hope in mind but I wasn't expecting that response. Obviously the process of creating a national park is a lengthy one and he said, "OK we'll get that process started." But he also saw the urgency of the situation and said, "What do you need us to do tomorrow?"

It was fantastic, because often governments don't see the immediate urgency. In the span of months it may be too late, and there might not be much left to protect. If we act quickly, with the help of Madagascar's government, this tiny new primate will save the home of many endangered animals.

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