Madagascar's Most Famous Species Is Near Extinction


Ring-tailed lemurs  perhaps the most iconic species on the tropical island of Madagascar  are declining significantly in numbers due to habitat loss, hunting and illegal capture. Frans Lanting/Getty Images
Ring-tailed lemurs perhaps the most iconic species on the tropical island of Madagascar are declining significantly in numbers due to habitat loss, hunting and illegal capture. Frans Lanting/Getty Images

Even if you don't know much about Madagascar, an immense, oblong tropical island nation off the eastern coast of Africa, you're probably familiar with the 2005 animated movie of the same name. The film stars a pompous but charismatic ring-tailed lemur named King Julien XIII, voiced by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. But the actual animal that inspired King Julien's antics is in big trouble.

About 100 different lemur species exist in the world, with about 60 on Madagascar itself, but the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) may be the most recognizable. It's also the lemur most at risk for extinction. According to newly-published research by scientists from the University of Victoria in British Columbia and University of Colorado Boulder, the critically endangered population of the ring-tailed lemur has plummeted to fewer than 2,500 on Madagascar, the only place where the species exists.

Only three habitat locations on the island are known to contain more than 200 of the animals, and another 12 sites are down to 30 or fewer lemurs. In 15 sites where they once were found, the animals either have become extinct or are on the verge of disappearing in the near future.

University of Colorado professor Michelle Sauther, a co-author of the study, said in a press release that lemurs are declining because of loss of habitat, and because they are being hunted — either to be killed and sold as meat, or to be peddled on the illicit pet trade. Other researchers unrelated to the study have amassed information and photos on hundreds of captive lemurs in homes, resorts and hotels on the island.

The ring-tailed lemur's plight is all the more disturbing because the species is highly adaptable, and capable of thriving even in harsh habitats. So if even it's not doing well, that spells danger for even more. "Ring-tailed lemurs are like the canary in a coal mine," says Sauther, and their disappearance is an ominous sign for other lemur species and the rest of the island's animals alike.