Lemurs are some of the most charming primates you could hope to meet, according to Christoph Schwitzer, chief zoological officer of the Bristol Zoological Society in England. “When you observe them as a researcher in the forest, they get used to your presence very quickly and, only after a few weeks or so, they may jump on your head and use you as a support to get to the next tree,” he said. “You wouldn’t see this in any other primate.”
The blue-eyed black lemur has at least one particularly charismatic feature: The species is the only lemur, and one of just a few primates, that consistently have “striking turquoise eyes,” Schwitzer said.
With only about 1,000 individuals left on the planet, blue-eyed black lemurs are also among the most endangered
of all primates. They face the same struggles as many other species at risk of extinction — humans are wrecking their habitats and hunting them for food — but their location makes them especially vulnerable.
Like all lemurs, Eulemur flavifrons are native only to Madagascar, the fourth largest island on the planet. While most islands were connected to larger landmasses as recently as 10,000 years ago, it has been nearly 90 million years since Madagascar floated off on its own. That means everything that lived on Madagascar before people got there is unique, as its residents have had millions of years to evolve all alone. But although Madagascar is a hot spot for biodiversity — with a large number of different species — it’s also an island where saving native animals seems almost impossible.
“The threat they face is deforestation, which is common all over the world but especially in Madagascar, because there it’s due to people who are starving,” said Brice Lefaux, director of the Mulhouse Zoological and Botanical Garden in France. “They need to feed their children, and they have no fuel but charcoal, which means burning trees. They need houses, so they need to cut down trees. They need places to grow rice to feed their families, which means cutting down trees.”
Blue-eyed black lemurs are especially at risk, because they live only in a pocket of forest on the northwestern tip of Madagascar. There is barely any habitat left for them, but people still need wood and land to support themselves. Meanwhile, increased food scarcity may mean that more tribes willing to hunt lemurs for food are moving to the area, groups that previously found poaching taboo may now be willing to eat lemur meat.
But experts are hopeful that these creatures will make it. A small number of lemurs live in captivity around the world, and scientists are working hard to breed as many of them as possible. In Madagascar, groups are
working to help people build a sustainable future by funding schools, digging wells, figuring out more forest-friendly farming practices and supporting eco-tourism.
“Local guides make a very good living on eco-tourism, taking people out to see lemurs and other animals, and they become big advocates for conservation,” said Russell Mittermeier, chief conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation. “Sometimes they even set up their own reserves.”
Lefaux said that it’s possible for all of Madagascar’s humans and plants and animals to live together, but that “the balance is very weak.” Conservationists have to look carefully to make sure that their efforts aren’t hurting local welfare, while also trying to keep human well-being from driving lemurs to extinction. There’s a lot of work to do, but scientists and citizens alike are committed to keeping these creatures from disappearing.
“There’s a huge number of people around the world who love lemurs and want to save them, and a growing number of locals in Madagascar who feel the same way,” Mittermeier said.
Scientific name: Eulemur flavifrons
Where they live: Madagascar
Size: Three to five pounds
How many are left: Fewer than 1,000
Status: Critically endangered
Fun fact: This species is sexually dichromatic, meaning that males and females have very different coloring. Males are black, while females are reddish brown or gray.