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Land of the Lemurs

Jun 11, 2013

Calgary Zoo Visitors to Meet Lemurs Up-Close

Follow the path through Destination Africa, beyond majestic lions, braying zebras and long-legged ostriches, and you’ll reach the eastern tip of St. George’s Island. Here, huge trees create a canopy where leaves rustle and sunlight dapples through the branches. In only a few short years, construction will start here on the new Land of the Lemurs exhibit. 

Lemurs are arboreal – wild lemurs live up in the trees – so making the most of the vegetation that already exists on this end of the island just makes sense. It also lets the lemurs do what lemurs do best:  play, groom, leap between trees, search for leaves and shoots to eat, soak up the sun and interact with their social groups.

Listen Up, Lemurs Are Loud

When the lemurs decide to socialize, you won’t be able to miss it. Black-and-white ruffed lemurs communicate using a distinctive – and very loud – call.

“Visitors will be able to hear them calling from quite a distance. It will really change the whole feeling of the zoo,” says Dr. Jake Veasey, the zoo’s director of animal care, conservation and research.

When visitors answer that call, and make their way to the lemur habitat, they’re in for quite an experience. Land of the Lemurs could include more than 20 individuals. Consistent with the zoo’s new approach to habitat design, the exhibit will immerse visitors in the lemur’s space, turning the zoo experience inside-out and breaking down barriers.

“If the lemurs choose to do so, they may get very close to their human visitors,” says Jake, who has designed three other lemur walk-through exhibits in the UK.  “People are confined to a pathway, but the lemurs can go wherever they want. We will have staff in the exhibit at all times – the same as in Penguin Plunge.

With the penguins’ new home, we’ve seen just how powerful the ability to get close to the animals can be and look forward to the seeing the learning that takes place when people feel that kind of strong connection to wildlife.”

Island life

Like many of their lemur relatives, black-and-white ruffed lemurs are critically endangered. Their biggest challenge is space. Because they only live on islands off the eastern coast of Africa, lemurs can’t move out of the way when people start to use up their habitat with slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, mining and other development.

Last summer, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) met to update the status of lemurs on their Red-List of endangered species. The news wasn’t good. The number of critically endangered lemur species almost tripled (from eight to 23) and endangered lemurs rose from 18 species to 52. Sadly, almost all of the world's close to 100 lemur species are now in trouble. Their new status makes lemurs among the most threatened group of animals in the world, according to the IUCN Red-List. Experts believe that, if things don’t change, many lemurs could be extinct in the wild by 2050. It’s time to take action.

Helping People Help Lemurs

The good news is that taking action to save lemur habitats helps a lot of other species at the same time. “Madagascar is home to one in eight species on the planet – it’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world,” says Jake. “But the average income of a person living in Madagascar is two per cent of the average Canadian’s income. We have a duty to put something back and help these people help the wildlife in their backyard – it’s part of a global natural heritage that we should all cherish.”

We have a duty to put something back and help these people help the wildlife in their backyard – it’s part of a global natural heritage that we should all cherish.

Jake says that a critical part of Land of the Lemurs will see the zoo teaming up with conservation projects that work with local communities and scientists to help safeguard lemurs and their habitats across Madagascar. “We need to help in a way that benefits local communities. We need to link conserving lemurs with helping communities – not unlike what we’ve seen at the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary. It’s the only way to really achieve conservation in the long term.”