Lemur researcher works to save endangered species

When researcher Erik Patel hiked into the mountainous rain forest of northeast Madagascar in 2001, he was a doctoral student embarking on a quest for basic scientific knowledge about one of the rarest primates in the world: a snow-white lemur called the silky sifaka.

More than a decade later, Patel, who was profiled by The Baltimore Sun in 2006, remains dedicated to the acrobatic animals he affectionately calls silkies. Only today much of his work is devoted to preserving the species from an array of powerful forces, such as poaching and destruction of habitat.

Silky sifakas live only in a swath of Madagascar, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. And while some kinds of lemurs can be found in zoos, the complexity of the silky sifaka's plant diet and other factors have made it impossible to keep any of them alive in captivity, he said. With their numbers estimated not much above 1,000, conservation is vital.

"It absolutely raises the stakes," said Patel, 42, now post-doctoral project director at the Duke Lemur Center at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Patel and his team have won admirers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where he has lectured and gotten to know zoo officials.

"I think what they're trying to do is terrific and worthy of support," said Karl R. Kranz, the zoo's chief operating officer and executive vice president for animal programs. He praised Patel for working with local populations so that people and lemurs can coexist.

"I'd like to find ways to support what he's doing," Kranz said in an interview at the zoo, as several lemurs known as Coquerel's sifakas cavorted behind him in their enclosure. "These problems are really complex. There aren't simple solutions."

Both the ethereal movement of the silky sifakas and the huge challenge to protect them are the subject of a film airing Tuesday at 8 p.m. on the Animal Planet television network.

The show, featuring Patel and timber smuggling expert Sascha Von Bismark, alternates between grim shots of illegal logging and scenes of furry lemurs grooming one another and hopping from tree to tree. Illegal logging of ebony and rosewood trees has eased at Marojejy National Park, Patel said, though it's still a problem in neighboring reserves.

Growing up in Illinois, Patel had little affinity for animals. For a time after high school he thought he would become a stockbroker. But on a long trip to India he became fascinated with primates. By 2001 he had a master's degree in primatology and was working toward a doctorate at Cornell University.

He decided to study how the silky sifaka communicates in part because so little was known about the species, one of 102 varieties of lemurs that live in Madagascar, a land of immense biodiversity and the only place on the planet where lemurs are found in the wild.

Some scientists believe that lemurs, which resemble monkeys but evolved long before they did, have been eating tree leaves and exploring the forest canopy in Madagascar for the past 50 million years.

It did not take Patel long to appreciate the importance of conservation. Without steps to save habitat and change behaviors such as hunting, there eventually would be no silky sifakas left to study.

He quickly developed an emotional attachment to the half-dozen lemurs that he and his research team tracked and observed from a rugged research station on a mountainside in Marojejy Park. That connection has not faded, he said.

"I'm always surprised that when I get back up to camp what a joy it is to see them again, particularly the two adult females who have been in the group since I started in 2001," he said. "They are as gorgeous as ever and I am as gaga over the new infants nowadays as ever."

A couple of months ago, a male lemur nicknamed Pink Face reappeared in the jungle, years after being driven off by another male. Patel had been fond of Pink Face and feared he'd died. Hearing about his return, "I felt a warm comfort come over me that he had been OK for all those years."

Patel's conservation work takes many forms. Hunting is a constant concern. When Patel and his team are out in the forest doing population surveys of silky sifakas, they sometimes find and destroy the hunting traps and shelters used by poachers.

The Duke center also tries to provide other protein sources by teaching local people to build fish farms and helping them get started. Even better, he said, the kind of tilapia they grow is native to the region but has become over-fished. So, 25 percent of the adult fish must be diverted to streams.

Patel also has been working on a new environmental school curriculum so that teachers in Madagascar can better educate students about lemurs. And as a representative of a nonprofit group called Seacology, he's helping build a three-room primary school.

Meanwhile, Patel and his colleagues have found previously unknown silky sifaka groups living in forests quite a ways from Marojejy Park. That is encouraging, but he said the situation remains highly tenuous, all the more so because of ongoing political uncertainty in Madagascar.

"To sum it up, their population numbers are declining for sure," he said. "Hunting is up. Habitat disturbance is up since 2009. Yet we have found some places where we didn't know there were silkies."

Soon Patel will soon return to Madagascar to keep looking for more.


The species

Silky sifaka – Propithicus candidus

Habitat: Rain forest in northeast Madagascar

Size: Weigh 11 to 13 pounds, adults measure 3 to 31/2 feet long

Status: One of the 25 most-endangered primates in the world, with estimated population not much above 1,000

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