Training new conservationists: Lemurs, lizards and leeches

Olivia Couchman

The next generation of conservation leaders have been trekking the depths of Madagascar's tropical forest in search of some of the world's most unique animals.

They are the new cohort of EDGE Fellows training as part of the EDGE Fellowship programmea two year initiative that will equip them with the skills needed to conserve species considered Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE).

The Madagascan backdrop is the home to many of these species, some of which can be found nowhere else on the planet.

ZSL's EDGE Fellowship Manager, Olivia Couchman blogs from inside the Madagascan rainforest.

Red fronted lemur in madagascar
Red fronted lemurs are native to madagascar
The EDGE team have been based at Centre ValBio on the edge of Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar for over a week.

During our coffee breaks we analyse every inch of the dense rainforest we can see from our balcony in search of Madagascar’s famous residents, the lemurs.

Dr. Patricia Wright, Stony Brook University and founder of ValBio, casually mentioned that we would see many lemur species whilst we were here; despite her knowledge of the forest we remained sceptical.

The rainy season has arrived and it has not stopped pouring for two days straight, lemurs are not too keen on rain so our expectations stay low as we pack up our bags ahead of our trip into the park.

The 14 new EDGE fellows meeting in Madagascar
New EDGE fellows meet in Madagascar
We wake up at 5am to glorious sunshine and head off into the park with our three expert guides from Ranomafana village. 

Sliding up and down the forest slopes in search of lemurs and other famous wildlife wakes the group up.

We welcome the lack of mosquito clouds previously experienced in Costa Rica and of course no (proper) venomous snakes to worry about!

However, when the afternoon downpour hits, out come the leeches. It turns out that there is no defence against these blood sucking annelids; our bright blue leech socks only delay the inevitable!

Golden bamboo lemur
The Golden bamboo lemur is the first spotted by the new EDGE team
With our new passengers hitching a ride we trek deeper into the forest. Here we find our first lemur of the day, the Golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus) chewing on its favourite meal, bamboo. This bamboo contains levels of cyanide that could kill a human. This must be an EDGE species! This lemur was assessed as Critically Endangered in 2014 due to a declining trend in its population which is now less than 250 individuals, and is ranked number 52 on the new EDGE mammal list.

Another fast paced scramble through the jungle brings us face-to-face with the Red-bellied lemur, (Eulemur rubriventer), a male and a juvenile resting in a tree. Listed as Vulnerable, this species is cathemeral, having both day and night activity patterns. Alongside the red-bellies are Ranomafana Bamboo Lemurs (Hapalemur griseus ssp. ranomafanensis) high in the trees with radio collars attached by researchers from the centre. 

Baby lemur
A baby Red-bellied lemur spotted resting in a tree
We drag ourselves from the group when we hear the calls of the elusive and larger Milne-Edwards' sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi), this lemur species is beautiful, with a black body and a light-coloured ‘saddle’ on its lower back. Sadly this EDGE species is Endangered and has experienced a population decline of more than 50% over 45 years. This group of lemurs are famous for the way they jump through trees always staying upright, and is thought to be able to leap up to 10 metres!

As we watch the sifaka jumping into the distance we begin the hunt for one of the most impressively camouflaged animals in the world. This is not an easy task and when a group of overly enthusiastic herpetologists cannot spot the creature even when they are staring right at it, you know it has been busy adapting to its environment.

The mossy leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) would be the most incredible animal to see in this forest…if you could spot it! This lizard ranges from 15 to 20 centimetres in length and they spend most of the day hanging vertically on tree trunks with their head down. The accuracy with which its skin matches a mossy tree has to be seen to be believed. This skill is helped by its dermal flaps that hide any outline of the animal making it almost invisible.

mossy leaf-tailed gecko camouflaged on a tree
Mossy leaf-tailed geckos have amazing camouflage
Madagascar is a priority region for the EDGE of Existence programme due to the highly evolutionarily distinct species found here and sadly due to the complex conservation issues the wildlife is facing.

The primarily threats are habitat destruction and fragmentation from slash-and-burn agriculture and logging but they also face threat from unsustainable hunting and climate change causing increased cyclones and drought across Madagascar.

With approximately 90% of Madagascan plant and animal species only found here it is important that conservation measures continue to be implemented to protect this important island.  

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