St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner
December 7, 2008

In the 12th and final report of a monthly series this year, Saint Louis Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner explores a part of the globe where the zoo is working to conserve threatened species, protect natural habitat and partner with other organizations to strengthen the web of life in which we all live.

Paradise on Earth

I'm often asked what my favorite animal is. I don't really know the answer to that question, but the lemurs of Madagascar are high on the list. Lemurs are small prosimians, or pre-primates, but don't look much like monkeys. They look like a cross between a monkey, a cat and a raccoon.

Life on this beautiful island - situated 250 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean - developed largely in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Madagascar is one of our most ecologically rich places, and many ecologists describe it as an Eden. It has 25 percent of Africa's flowering plants. Half of the world's chameleons are found there. In fact, almost all of Madagascar's reptile and amphibian species, half of its birds, and all of its lemurs are found nowhere else on our planet.

Endangered Lemurs

Like virtually every other wild thing in Madagascar, the lemurs are in trouble. Ten species are critically endangered, seven are endangered and 19 are considered vulnerable. They are endangered because the people of Madagascar have cut or burned more than 80 percent of their island's forests. In addition to massive habitat loss, many of the larger species also are hunted for food.

Acutely aware of the threat to this unique island, a group of scientists from around the world have banded together, forming the Madagascar Fauna Group to develop a plan for conserving wildlife, focusing on lemurs as the flagship species. The St. Louis Zoo is a key player in this collaborative effort, which includes the Chicago Zoological Society, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Duke University and the Zurich Zoo.

The group takes a collaborative approach to conserving this incredible island's biodiversity. Headquartered here at the St. Louis Zoo, the group's two most important programs are managing Parc Ivoloina, which encompasses one of Madagascar's two zoos, a conservation training center, a broad environmental education outreach program and field site for rapidly growing eco-agriculture training, a research partnership with the local university and managing the conservation research program of Betampona Natural Reserve.

We work closely with the Missouri Botanical Garden here, which has extensive research projects on the flora of Madagascar. The garden is training and collaborating with local collectors to catalog and conserve the island's 10,000 to 12,000 vascular plants.

Restocking Betampona

Betampona is an "island" reserve. It sits atop a beautiful chain of mountaintops surrounded by cultivated areas. This means that no large animals can migrate in or out. In 1991, our survey of black and white ruffed lemurs in the reserve indicated that only about 50 animals of this species remained. The Madagascar Fauna Group decided to "restock" the reserve and add new genes to the population. They turned to the Ruffed Lemur Species Survival Plan to select release candidates from the captive population.

After several years of preliminary research, the group released the first group of ruffed lemurs - three males and two females - in 1997. More captive-bred lemurs were released into the reserve in 1998 and 2001. I traveled to Madagascar, hoping to see the descendants of some of these animals, some of which had been collared and all of which are regularly studied at the reserve.

Betampona (which, I'm convinced, translates to something like "the place where all paths go uphill, even if you're returning from whence you came"), is Madagascar's oldest reserve, founded by the French almost 100 years ago. With its huge number of endemic or rare plants and animals, Betampona is critically important.

It is also magically beautiful.

The climb begins in a little village marked by a few small stores that sell staples and a shop or two with the Malagasy equivalent of fast food fried potatoes and roasted corn. The path leads through and around several other small villages, situated alongside fields of rice, crossing about 15 rivers that race down from the mountains above. After a few hours of walking, you reach the real climb, an exhausting, nonstop, virtually straight-up trek. Without our porters, I'd still be struggling up that mountain.

At the top, the village of Rendrirendry sits at the entrance to the reserve. Everyone in the village has someone employed by the Madagascar Fauna Group in their household. The ground is covered by a carpet of grass and bougainvilleas and amaryllis blooms everywhere. The houses are sturdy, and the group's offices are built of cement. Even in this lush landscape, signs of technology are everywhere: Radios, GPS units and camera traps seem to cover every table.

The village children greeted us with a tonga soa, or traditional singing greeting, and I took my turn pounding a hollow tube of bamboo on a low bench of wood in time with the music. Mothers play with their youngsters while fathers weave mats or relax in the shade of huge trees. After everything you see walking up here, it looks like the paradise you had always hoped to find.

And that is only the beginning. The trail from the village leads into the reserve and within minutes we could see lemurs leaping gracefully high in the trees. A pair of mongoose walking along the trail greeted us with surprise but not alarm. They are brown mongoose, and my book on the mammals of Madagascar did not contain a picture of them; there simply are no good pictures of them because they are so rarely seen.

The ancient forest seems totally alive; it embraced us with a hot warmth that is almost sensual. It also shed a few forest leeches down my shirt. When they are fully engorged with blood, they drop off, but I continue to bleed because they excrete an anticoagulant. By the end of my first hike, my shirt soaked with sweat and blood, I looked like I came out on the short end of a bad encounter with a machine gun.

Finally, our forest agents spotted the lemurs wearing the radio collars; they are the ones we had come to see. They were born thousands of miles away in a zoo and now have returned to live in their native land.

Research Expands

The successful reintroduction program offers real hope for preserving the wildlife of Madagascar - and other endangered habitats and animals around the world.

Perhaps even more important is how this focused research program has expanded over the years into a training program for conservation agents and, more broadly, into lowland rain forest research in general. Malagasy nationals are now studying the cycle of plant blooming and fruit production, and Malagasy professionals specialize in monitoring reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals - including lemurs, of course. We're also training college students in field biology.

On a personal level, the project allowed me to visit a place of rare and fragile beauty, one that few people are allowed to visit, to see a species that we have helped - and will continue to help - to survive in the wild.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com