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Zoo's conservation efforts in Madagascar include welcoming a baby lemur

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2011 - Sophie spends much of her day riding piggyback on her mom. This fluffy little coquerel's sifaka lemur is just 4 months old. She is still nursing, but she's beginning to show some curiosity about the food her parents and brother, Titus, 15 months, enjoy. As her confidence grows, she ventures away from mom, but soon leaps back again to her secure seat, wrapping her arms around her mom's neck.

When fully grown, Sophie will weigh about 11 pounds and be about 20 inches tall -- not including her two-foot long tail. She will leap from tree branch to branch on powerful legs, up to 30 feet at a single bound. And when on the ground, she'll "dance" on those legs, using her much smaller arms for balance. When the sifakas are on display at the zoo's primate house, around 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, the action is non-stop.

The name sifaka comes from the specie's cry of alarm: "shee-fa'-ka." These prosimian (non-monkey or ape) primates make many sounds as they stay in constant communication with their group. They live high in the trees of the dry forests of northwestern Madagascar and are strict vegetarians with a preference for leaves. And, as with other lemurs, theirs is a matriarchal society.

Coquerel's sifakas are one of the 17 endangered lemur species on the island of Madagascar, near Africa. Lemurs are found nowhere else in the world. They have evolved into 48 species, exploiting the island's various ecologies.

In Madagascar today, coquerel's sifaka lemurs now live only in two protected areas. Existence for these and other threatened lemurs is threatened by the destruction of their habitat. Madagascar is a very poor country with a high birth rate. Vast forests get nibbled away by "slash and burn" agriculture that fails to produce the fertile farmland needed to feed a growing population -- and leads to more slashing and burning.

An additional pressure on these animals is hunting for bushmeat. Traditionally, the tribes that lived near sifakas had a taboo against killing them. But in Madagascar, as in the rest of the world, people are mobile and other tribes do not necessarily respect that taboo.

The nation's poverty and environmental degradation are exacerbated by civil unrest following the military coup in 2009. Natural preserves where the zoo's programs are centered can no longer count on government protection.

Modern zoos consider breeding endangered animals one of their most important missions. To keep them genetically robust, as well as to increase their numbers, the St. Louis Zoo participates in a planned breeding program through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This program maintains a stud book that keeps track of the origins of reproducing pairs; pairs that reproduce more than average may be put on birth control to let other pairs catch up in genetic representation. So far, however, only the St. Louis Zoo and Duke University's lemur center have succeeded in breeding coquerel sifakas like Sophie. In fact, Sophie's father comes from the Duke Lemur Center.

In the wild

The St. Louis Zoo, through its Wildcare Institute, has worked since 1988 with the Madagascar Fauna Group to protect biological diversity in the rain forest preserves on the northwest side of the island. These preserves are particularly important because many of their animals and plants occur nowhere else in the world.

The zoo and its many partners are taking a multi-faceted approach to studying and preserving the rainforests. Some are more academic, such as taking comprehensive inventories of species. Others are aimed at changing conditions for the human population. One such program experimented with different composts to enrich the poor soil.

The "lemurs in Madagascar" project includes a high-tech program to integrate all the field data collected in the 5,500-acre Betampona rain forest preserve. Established in 1927, the original nature reserve is host to a huge diversity of species, including over 80 kinds of frogs.

Researchers have been gathering ecological data there since 1990, but putting it all together into a comprehensive picture has been daunting. Now the Madagascar Fauna Group (including the Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden) is collaborating with Saint Louis University's Wasit Wulamu to establish a geographic information system. With GIS, a detailed map can be overlaid with layers and layers of data. "You can see how ruffed lemur densities are related to tree densities and/or frog populations and/or poaching events," said Ingrid Porton, curator of primates at the Zoo.

At times it seems as if the collected data will be the history of a disappearing habitat. Porton manages the Center for Conservation in Madagascar. For the Sophies of the world to have a future outside of zoos, Porton emphasizes the importance of world pressure for Madagascar to once again have a stable government. In the absence of the current unrest, the government could once again protect its unique nature preserves, and the Malagasy population could again receive the foreign aid to relieve its poverty.

In the meantime, the zoos will continue their efforts to save and increase endangered species.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching technical writing at WU's engineering school.

Jo Seltzer