Most endangered primates on brink of extinction

Posted: 18 July 2012

The world’s 103 lemur species have been identified as the most endangered primate group in the world, with many species on the very brink of extinction due primarily to habitat loss.

This is the conclusion of leading conservationists from the IUCN Species Survival Commission who met in Madagascar last week to review the conservation status of the world’s widely endangered lemur population and their need for urgent and effective protection measures.

Slash and burn
Slash and burning forest for farmland in Madagascar. Photo © Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro

The conservation status of 91 per cent of the world’s lemur species have now been upgraded to either ‘Critically Endangered’, ‘Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species – an indicator of rampant forest loss which additionally endangers vital ecosystem services that support Madagascar’s people.

Of the world’s 103 different species of lemurs, 23 are now considered ‘Critically Endangered’, 52 are ‘Endangered, 19 are ‘Vulnerable’ and three are ‘Near Threatened’. Just three lemur species are listed as ‘Least Concern’.

A previous assessment carried out in 2005 as part of a Global Mammal Assessment identified 10 species as ‘Critically Endangered’, 21 as ‘Endangered’, and 17 as ‘Vulnerable’, already a very high number. However, given the recent increases in the number of new species and the fact that the level of threat has increased over the past three years, the experts decided to carry out a reassessment of Madagascar’s lemur fauna.

Lemurs are in danger of becoming extinct by destruction of their tropical forest habitat on their native island of Madagascar, off Africa's Indian Ocean coast, where political uncertainty has increased poverty and accelerated illegal logging. Hunting of these animals has also emerged as a more serious threat than previously imagined.

Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Head of Research at Bristol Zoo Gardens and a world leading primatologist said: “The results of our review workshop this week have been quite a shock as they show that Madagascar has, by far, the highest proportion of threatened species of any primate habitat region or any one country in the world. As a result, we now believe that lemurs are probably the most endangered of any group of vertebrates.”

The Indri, the largest living lemur. Photo © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Among the most spectacular species of lemurs assessed as ‘Critically Endangered’ is the indri, the largest of the living lemurs and a species of symbolic value comparable to that of China’s giant panda, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, at 30 grams the world’s smallest primate, and the blue-eyed black lemur, the only primate species other than humans that has blue eyes. Probably the rarest lemur is the northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis), of which there are only 18 known individuals left.

Dr. Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International, said: “This new assessment highlights the very high extinction risk faced by Madagascar’s unique lemur fauna and it is indicative of the grave threats to Madagascar biodiversity as a whole, which is vital to supporting its people. As the forests go, so do lemurs and a host of benefits derived from them.

“Madagascar’s unique and wonderful species are its greatest asset and its most distinctive brand and the basis for a major tourism industry that continues to grow in spite of the current political problems."

A more positive outcome of the conference has been the discovery of a previously unknown species of lemur – a type of mouse lemur – discovered by Peter Kappeler and his team at the German Primate Centre. The new species is found in the Marolambo area of eastern Madagascar. A formal description of the species has not yet been published, meaning it has not yet been given a name. This is the 103rd taxon of lemur known to man.