The Post – Chris Kardish
Even though the only lemurs in the United States are in zoos, an Ohio University professor hopes her research will protect the endangered and exotic primates living halfway across the world.
Nancy Stevens, an assistant professor of functional morphology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, travels to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, to study the adaptation of these native creatures to a shrinking habitat.
“When you go there for the first time, it’s impossible not to be touched by the place,” she said. “The animals are found no place else in the world.”
Studying the locomotion — the mechanics underlying movement — of lemurs occupying a region plagued by natural disasters and the encroachment of humans, Stevens aims to put her research to practical use in
Exploring the sequence and timing of lemur movements in an environment that forces them to travel greater distances for food because of disappearing forests benefits conservation and gives further knowledge of adaptation, Stevens said.
The ongoing question for Stevens, who was last in Africa for a 2006 primate symposium, is how to transfer sophisticated laboratory methods for understanding movement patterns to the areas in which the animals actually live.
Stevens’ focus on the practical application of her research opened up in her first year of graduate school after meeting Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a native of Madagascar who has since established himself as a preeminent lemur expert on the forefront of conservation efforts. Ratsimbazafy, who spearheaded the creation of a national forest in southeastern Madagascar, recently visited Athens to meet with students and faculty in OU’s African Studies Program.
The goal for Stevens and Ratsimbazafy is simple: preventing the extinction of native lemurs. The strategy is to involve one of the major sources of habitat encroachment in the conservation of critically endangered species.
Lemurs inhabit the forests of Madagascar, an area that is home to 75 percent of the human population and a major resource base, Ratsimbazafy said.
“The forest is the grocery store,” Stevens said.
Convincing people without adequate food, health care and education of the importance of local wildlife is the greatest obstacle, Ratsimbazafy said.
“It is always difficult to save something if you don’t know the value of it,” Ratsimbazafy said.
The lemur plays an invaluable role in forest regeneration as a seed disperser, he said.
Once the fertile ground — a riot of plant life bursting from rich soil — is laid barren by de-forestation, complete renewal is extremely difficult, Stevens said.
Recovering patches of forest lack canopy-cover and are susceptible to invasive plants that proliferate in the sun, creating a labyrinth of vines that makes traveling even the shortest of distances grueling and adds another obstacle in studying lemurs, Stevens said.
“Any kind of basic scientific research that we can do to understand their interaction with the environment … and how that helps support this conservation effort is important,” Ratsimbazafy said.
Providing for the subsistence of local populations while securing the survival of a species inhabiting their main resource is no easy balancing act, he said.
One way to turn a threat into a source of protection is to enlist poachers as forest guides, he said.
Conservation and research groups can pay $500 for an entire year for a guide to work 40 hours a week, which involves surveying the forest, locating animal groups, recording data and making sure there has been no habitat
disturbance, Stevens said.
Poachers and regular citizens alike clear strips of forests, leaving only branches lined with snares that are designed to capture lemurs, a forest species naturally inclined to travel along tree limbs, Stevens said. Leading teams directed by Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization that promotes education and action necessary for a sustainable environment, Ratsimbazafy is devoted to dismantling these traps.
“You don’t want to take away people’s livelihoods, but at the same time the long-term success of that entire community depends on having a forest there so that perhaps one day there can be eco-tourism,” Stevens said. “Once those trees are gone they’re gone.”