New sightings of Madagascar’s “panda” brings hope

Posted on March 2, 2011


Madagascar has been separated from East Africa for more than 100 million years. It’s the fourth biggest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo.

Map of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean

You can just see Mozambique peeking out on the left-hand side of this map. It might not look far, but there’s just over 6,000km between the two countries.

The current three-part natural history series on BBC2 is all about this “curious wonderland” according to its narrator Sir David Attenborough. Most of the species here have evolved into many forms and lemurs have managed to diversify without competition from other primates from the African continent and fill a wide range of ecological niches.

But since people arrived in Madagascar around 1500 years ago almost one third of lemurs that existed then are now extinct; which is why a group of researchers are over the moon at learning that one of the endangered species –  Greater Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur simus) – has more populations on the island than first thought.

Thanks to the help of local people in the area, conservationists have confirmed sightings of 65 individuals and evidence of the lemurs’ existence in more than double the number of sites that were previously known.

Greater Bamboo Lemur

These lemurs are Madagascar’s “panda”. As their name suggests, they are completely dependent on bamboo; because it’s a low-energy food source, the lemur must lead a very sedentary lifestyle and spend much of its time eating.

Sounds like the ideal life to me. As with many specialist species, this lemur is unable to adapt to its rapidly changing habitat. Widespread clearing of its rainforest habitat has caused populations to become isolated in the few remaining patches of forest capable of supporting this species.

There were thought to be less than 300 Greater Bamboo Lemurs left in the wild but these “lost” populations have brought new hope to conservationists. It’s “one of the top 25 most endangered primates”, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The populations found extend the species’ known range 85 km further north than previously recorded. The researchers’ findings are published in the American Journal of Primatology.