11th June 2010

Either way, they flourished on Madagascar, due to an abundance of indigenous flora and a lack of natural predators. Only the mongoose-like fossa, some birds of prey and boa constrictors posed any threat to lemur evolution until the arrival of human settlers around 2,000 years ago. Since our interference, 96% of the original forest cover has been destroyed and half of an estimated 60 species of lemur have been driven to extinction. Due to fossil finds, we know today that there used to be giant lemurs who weighed around 200kg, and that each food source and environment on Madagascar brought with it a specialised lemur to appreciate the island’s magnificent ecological diversity. Lemurs are in fact extremely adaptable species, many of which have recently learnt to subsist on such human introductions as eucalyptus flowers and tourists’ bananas.

In total, around 30 fascinating species remain for us to admire. The adorable mouse lemurs are the world’s smallest primates, weighing in at a mere 45-90g when fully grown. Another particularly endearing creature is the golden bamboo lemur, who was only recently discovered and is probably the most critically endangered of all. Their hilarious relatives, the sifakas, are famous for bounce-hopping along the ground like furry little pogo-stick dancers. An additional fascinating lemur is the otherworldly aye-aye, who possesses an elongated, almost stick-like middle finger with which it drums on branches to establish whether any delicious wood-boring insects can be picked out from hollow cavities within.

Any trip to Madagascar should include at least one encounter with this diverse group of entertaining primates. Eco-tourism is the main contributing factor to keeping the various lemur species alive, since tourism offers the rather poor local population an alternative to destroying the animals’ habitats for agriculture or other means of subsistence. As long as there is sufficient international interest in lemurs, then rewards from tourism encourage the creation and protection of sanctuaries and reserves, therefore ensuring their survival.

Since insufficient native Malagasy habitat remains to release all the world’s captive lemurs into their natural environment, many remain locked in zoos, laboratories or the backyard of peoples’ homes, even though the latter is internationally illegal due to their highly endangered status. However, there is a special place where ex-captive lemurs can roam free in 12 hectares of indigenous South African forest, which is extremely similar to the original forests of Madagascar, because the island was once attached to the very land that today boasts the world’s first free-roaming multi-species primate sanctuary.

Two species of lemur are bouncing around the forests of the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, 16km East of Plettenberg Bay on South Africa’s famously stunning Garden Route. In the following text I will describe these distant relatives of ours, with particular attention to the individuals I introduce to the visiting public during my daily safaris as a Monkeyland ranger.

 Ring-tailed Lemurs

 Ring-tailed lemurs live in spiny deserts, scrub or in both dry and gallery forests in the Southern part of Madagascar. They also thrive in zoos across the world, where they are popular attractions due to their delicately gothic faces, eye-catching striped tails and sweet temperaments. Watching them in captivity does not compare to the wealth of behaviours they exhibit in the wild. Bert Vos, curator at Monkeyland, recalls several visiting lemur experts and keepers who were surprised that here they could observe behaviours they had previously only read about, but never encountered in sterile zoo environments filled with man-made objects rather than natural features. One such behaviour is the use of a specialised claw-like horny spur situated on a leathery patch on the inside of male ring-tails’ forearms. They make neat cuts into tree bark with it, which they then anoint with smells from an adjacent scent gland, in order to mark their territories and establish boundaries that are highly effective in keeping out neighbouring troops. Females opt for a sexier approach: they smear genital juices onto saplings from a rather acrobatic handstand position. Bert is pleased to observe such natural behaviour amongst his charges: “Even animals without much ability to reason quite obviously find satisfaction, or even happiness, in living by their instincts and making full use of their physical abilities.”

Another astonishing behaviour that can often be observed at Monkeyland is the ring-tails’ comical “stink-fight”. In fact, it is this species’ ingenious way to avoid true fighting and potential bloodshed. The males rub smelly glandular secretions all over their tails, then advance towards each other with their tails wafting above their heads, until the loser just cannot tolerate the smell any longer and runs away.

During the mating period in April, the females only go into oestrus for one day. This results in a female-dominated sexual frenzy and in the birth of a single offspring five months later. Infants begin their lives clinging to the mother’s underside, but after about a week’s time they learn to enjoy the world from a comfortable piggyback position. 

Our five resident ring-tailed lemurs are eagerly awaiting the early-April arrival of ten one-year-olds of their kind from a zoo in Sweden. We are looking forward to observing the newcomers’ integration into Monkeyland. At present, one of our males is getting all the attention from our two females, so six young Swedish ladies are sure to cause a bit of a stir amongst our two bachelors!

Black and White Ruffed Lemurs

This gorgeous species with its fluffy white beard originally comes from the Eastern rainforests of Madagascar, where it feeds mainly on fruit from the tops of native trees. Here at Monkeyland, twenty black-and-white ruffed lemurs regularly announce with near-deafening territorial roars that this is their forest, and they are busy building nests and rearing young. Initially, five individuals came to us from diverse backgrounds, one of which unfortunately died of acute arthritis (primates are susceptible to a baffling amount of similar illnesses to humans, which is why they are such popular laboratory specimens).

Since the eight years of Monkeyland’s existence, 16 healthy lemurs have been born here and survived to adulthood. They usually grow up in cosy treetop hideaways, since black-and-white lemurs are expert nest-builders. Nests are even lined with a soft fur covering, which mothers pluck either from their own hides or from subordinate males – the females are dominant in most lemur societies.

At Monkeyland, a special female by the name of Cleo once built her nest on the ground, and an interesting behaviour was observed which appears not to be described in the literature about wild lemur populations, possibly because observers are normally too far away from the high nests to take note of it. Each time Cleo came home to her three little ones, she stopped dead in her tracks just before entering the nest to make a short, soft vocalisation. She would only enter once she had received an enthusiastic reply from her offspring. Presumably, this conditions the young not to move or make any noise if an unannounced, predatory visitor enters.

When the young are carried to a different nest or resting place, they do not cling to her back or chest as is the case with monkeys and some other lemur species, but are carried in her mouth one at a time, similar to kittens and puppies. In fact, lemurs are more like our canine and feline friends than like us in several ways, such as their heavy reliance on the sense of smell, which culminates in a long, wet snout and relatively poor, dichromatic colour vision.

Like furry trapeze artists, the black-and-white lemurs’ daily tree-climbing involves literally “hanging around” in some of the animal kingdom’s most hilarious poses. These lemurs make full use of their opposable thumbs and big toes for a tight grip, and are not frightened to push themselves off a branch with their hind legs and jump to a distance of up to 25m. Their jumping is so impressive that the entire fencing concept at Monkeyland had to be revised to accommodate them. The female dominance was again demonstrated when three of them escaped over the 6.5m, partially electrified fence at once, with the males watching them timidly from inside. They managed to jump so far since they have no fear of launching themselves off the tops of the highest trees, so long as there is a leafy mattress on the other end to break their fall. Therefore, the original strategy of trimming down vegetation around the inner boundary of the fence was not the answer.

We had to create a narrow buffer zone of tree- and shrubless land outside the enclosure to deprive them of landing pads. Since this was done, there have been no more lemur escapes.

Despite their strength and agility, lemurs are very gentle creatures who only seriously fight amongst each other during mating season. The lone danger they present to our visitors stems from their atrocious digestive system – they defecate around 25 times per day and require much sunbathing in the treetops to aid their digestion. So, if you come to visit them, please remember not to stand directly beneath them, and keep your mouth shut when looking up at them in awe!

At the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, we witness a wealth of natural lemur behaviour and enjoy watching them live like the wild animals that they are. It is a solution that enables all the primates, including humans, to enjoy freedom. There are many cute, cuddly, funny, enlightening and truly amazing moments to be enjoyed in our beautiful forest.

However, there is also a very serious aspect to our work: the need to educate people about the sad facts, the imminent extinctions and the wanton destruction. If you have enjoyed reading about the lemurs and their antics, please take a moment to consider the following brief information on what you can do so that your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren may also one day be fascinated by such diversity of life on earth.

Buy wood and wood-products conscientiously.

The greatest threat to nonhuman primates, and indeed to most endangered wildlife, is the destruction of their native habitats by humans. It is quite simple to aid their survival by buying furniture or other wood products from environmentally friendly sources, or better still by opting for second-hand items or antiques. You can find out more at www.fsc.org or www.nrdc.org/land/forests/qcert.asp

Avoid cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that have been tested on animals.

It is a shocking fact that more nonhuman primates live in our laboratories than in natural primate habitat. You can reduce their suffering by reducing the amount of pharmaceuticals you consume… couldn’t a hot bath, some herbal tea or a good night’s sleep also do the trick sometimes? There are some makers of medical potions and several cosmetics companies who take pride in using common sense rather than animal testing. A compassionate shopping guide is available at www.saav.org.za. 

Do not keep primates as pets and support ecologically sound alternatives for ex-captives.

Just like humans, primates are social animals who need love and attention from their own kind.

Primates are healthiest when they can live out their instincts amongst their peers and exercise their bodies to their full natural potential. There are several sad examples of emotionally damaged ex-pets at Monkeyland who never learn to act like proper monkeys. Many arrive obese and forever try to steal fattening pizzas from the restaurant or reject their own young because they were bottle fed and therefore do not know how to raise a monkey. Some even live in permanent fear of trees and other monkeys.

So please: if you encounter anyone who owns a non-human primate, encourage them to find out more about Monkeyland or a similar local sanctuary, and thereby help to provide our precious cousins with a more dignified life.

Text by Felicia Ruperti

 For more information about the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, please visit www.monkeyland.co.za  and www.tamhf.org.za