05/08/2020

Lemurs’ love of chocolate is a step towards their survival

Endangered lemurs have discovered a liking for chocolate and it may help safeguard their future.

The lemurs don’t eat chocolate but are living on plantations in Madagascar where cacao beans, from which it is made, are grown.

Now researchers here at Bristol Zoological Society are hoping they can help the lemurs venture into the neighbouring forests to develop larger populations and increase their habitat size.

To do that they may need to build artificial trees or other structures to help bridge the gap between the plantations and the forests.

The work, which will continue until the end of 2021, is being funded by Beyond Good, a U.S. based company producing heirloom dark chocolate in Madagascar, trading direct with cocoa farmers and producing it at origin.

It is the second phase in a study involving experts from Bristol Zoological Society and the University of the West of England which began more than three years ago.

Then scientists from both organisations found five species of lemur in the shade trees of the plantations in the north-west region of Madagascar.

Lemurs are only found in the wild in Madagascar and the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 95 per cent are threatened, making them the world’s most endangered mammals.

This is because their natural forest home has been cut down or lost through fire and they now have limited places where they can live. So the work involving Bristol scientists and a team from Madagascar is crucial.

Dr Amanda Webber, lecturer in conservation science here at Bristol Zoological Society, said building artificial trees or structures could help the lemurs move.

She said: “Some of the lemurs like tall trees and unfortunately there are not many left near the plantations. We want to create structures they can use to bridge the gap and help them reach the forest whilst we begin reforestation in this area.”

Dr Webber said a design was still being drawn up but it would use wood and natural materials available in Madagascar.

Her Bristol Zoological Society colleague, Dr Sam Cotton has been working on reforestation to help replace trees that have been felled for agriculture.

He has had considerable success in growing saplings and it is hoped to plant these to help establish natural corridors for the lemurs.

Dr Webber said: “In the meantime we are hoping the lemurs could use the artificial structures. If it works, breeding populations will be better connected via the artificial structures which act as bridges between forests.”

She said if the lemurs stayed in the plantation their breeding population would be too small so it was important to encourage them to move between the plantation and the neighbouring forest.

Dr Webber said if the idea was successful it could be used in other parts of Madagascar to help lemur populations to grow and improve their long-term survival prospects.

Depending on travel restrictions Dr Webber and Dr Cotton are hoping to travel back to Madagascar to carry more research. In the meantime their Malagasy counterparts on the ground will send back regular reports.

Dr Webber said: “It’s not going to be easy but I do feel there’s a lot of hope.”

Tim McCollum, founder and CEO of Beyond Good, said: “When we began working with farmers in Madagascar, we sensed reforestation could play a major role in preserving heirloom cocoa. The fact that cocoa agroforestry also impacts lemur conservation makes the work even more exciting for us.”

“So while our original mission was to address poverty, together with Bristol Zoological Society, we’re also developing a blueprint for conservation in one of the most environmentally challenged countries in the world.”

We are a conservation and education charity and we rely on the generous support of the public not only to fund our important work at Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project, but also our vital conservation and research projects spanning five continents.

In March 2020 we launched an appeal to ensure the future of our work ‘saving wildlife together’. Click here to find out more about the appeal, or to make a donation.

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