With their striped black-and-white tails, ring-tailed lemurs are one of the most iconic and easily-recognizable lemur species. Yet a recent Duke study reveals that there are only about 2,000 ring-tailed lemurs left across 32 sites in Madagascar—a 95 percent decrease in their population since 2000.

“It’s a wake-up call. If we don’t act now, they may be gone,” said Tara Clarke, one of the study’s authors and visiting assistant professor at Duke.

The researchers visited 10 sites in Madagascar. For 22 other significant sites the researchers could not visit, they communicated with other researchers and examined recent literature to determine the population of ring-tailed lemurs.

While in Madagascar, Clarke and fellow primary investigator Marni LaFleur looked for signs of life—such as poop or spur marks.

However, Clarke said the group had trouble finding much evidence of a lemur population. The researchers noted that this dramatic decline stems from a combination of factors.

“Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, hunting lemurs for bushmeat and illegal in-country pet trading [are major culprits of the lemur population drop],” said Andrea Katz, animal curator at the Duke Lemur Center.

Clarke noted that the pet trade has been an emerging market in Madagascar. Although the pet trade is outlawed in the country, people use lemurs for photo-ops, and hotels even advertise lemurs because tourists want the “lemur experience.”

Ring-tailed lemurs are not the only lemur species facing extinction—59 lemur species are either endangered or critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Clarke added that lemurs are the most endangered vertebrate group in the world. 

The researchers also emphasized that lemurs play a vital role in their ecosystems.

“Lemurs eat fruits, they disperse seeds…they’re incredibly important in maintaining the health of the forest,” Katz said. “If you remove [lemurs], the forest changes and becomes less healthy over time.”

Potential solutions?

Both Katz and Clarke stressed working with the locals in Madagascar to stop the population loss.

“Certainly it’s going to take a multifaceted approach,” Katz said. “Increasing the level of protection for forest fragments where ring-tailed lemurs are is certainly an important part of the strategy.”

Calling for a community-based approach, Katz recommended efforts to improve the social and economic qualities of life for people living on the island.

“If you can’t provide alternatives to the need for food and for wood resources—if you can’t address those human needs at the same time—your chances of long-term success of protecting lemur habitats are going to be less,” Katz said.

Lemurs are also threatened by the pet trade, a source of income for some in Madagascar. 

Clarke suggested that poverty alleviation could help combat the pet trade and that there needs to be a clear plan in place for how to rescue and rehabilitate illegally traded lemurs.

Few facilities in Madagascar are ready to house lemurs, Clarke said, noting that they need additional resources, equipment and training. She added that zoos help the situation, managing breeding programs and informing the public about lemur conservation.

Katz explained that the Duke Lemur Center aims to educate the public about lemurs, their habits and the dangers they face. Duke also sponsors conservation efforts in Madagascar. 

The Center is currently home to 227 lemurs—34 of which are ring-tailed lemurs, according to Katz—the most lemurs anywhere outside Madagascar.

Looking to the future

Although Clarke acknowledged the difficulties of enforcing regulations and providing protection to lemurs, she remains optimistic about the future of ring-tailed lemurs.

Clarke said she hopes to enlarge the study to examine more lemur sites and continue counting their populations. She also wants to continue working with the local community and educating the public. Greater promotion will help bring attention to the plight of ring-tailed lemurs and secure more funding for conservation, she explained. 

“[Ring-tailed lemurs are] one of the species that everyone knows. It could be a flagship species for conservation,” Clarke said. “If the ring-tailed lemur can drop so dramatically in a decade…then what does that mean for other species that might be more sensitive to climate change or habitat fragmentation?”