Erik Patel’s fascination with lemurs has the lowliest of origin stories: he first encountered the arboreal primates on a 2000 trip to Madagascar, when he volunteered to gather fecal samples for a fellow grad student’s research project. “I signed up to help collect poo—and I had a great time,” the 2011 PhD alum recalls with a laugh. “And I was blown away by how many different species of lemurs there were on one island.”
Patel—who also recorded lemur calls for the Lab of Ornithology’s natural sounds library on that memorable excursion—went on to devote his doctoral work in biological psychology to the animals. He returned to Madagascar annually for lengthy field work stints and eventually became an authority on one of the most critically endangered lemur species: the silky sifaka, which Patel calls “among the rarest animals in the world.”
Today, Patel is conservation and research director of the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF), a nonprofit based in Florida and Madagascar that works to save the primates—whose roughly 115 species are found in the wild only in that island nation, a former French colony 250 miles off the coast of East Africa where economic, political, and other forces have had dire impacts on wildlife.
“When I started work in Madagascar, only 65% of lemur species were threatened with extinction; now we’re at 98%,” Patel notes. “Lemurs are completely helpless about what happens to their habitat—and it doesn’t seem right, because they didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just trying to survive. But due to forces out of their control, they might not.”
Since 2001, Patel’s work has been based in Marojejy National Park, a roughly 200-square-mile refuge in northeastern Madagascar whose rugged, mountainous terrain is home to the silky sifaka. While the park—which is reached by several days of tough trekking—is officially a protected area for them and other lemurs, they still face threats there.
Widespread poverty drives a trade in illegal bushmeat hunting and trapping, and slash-and-burn agriculture for rice cultivation has encroached on Marojejy’s borders. Due in part to political corruption as well as a severely underfunded parks system with few resources for enforcement, exotic rosewood trees have been illegally logged, destroying habitat.
And as Patel notes, “There’s no question that climate change has been and is affecting lemurs”—not only impacting their food sources and living conditions but potentially driving them outside the boundaries of protected areas.
“Climate change seems like it may be more pronounced on small land masses like Madagascar than on larger continents,” Patel observes. “It’s common knowledge that people there are planting at different times of the year than they used to, and rains are shifting.”
A broad approach to protecting lemurs
After earning his doctorate, Patel continued his research and conservation efforts in Madagascar as a postdoc at Duke Lemur Center; part of Duke University in North Carolina, it’s one of the world’s leading facilities for lemur research and breeding. At LCF (on whose board he served before joining the staff in 2016), Patel’s work to protect lemurs is multi-faceted—targeting not just the animals themselves but the root causes of the threats they face.
One of those is human overpopulation, which exacerbates poverty and drives both illegal bushmeat consumption and forest clearing for agriculture: in the two decades that Patel has been working in Madagascar, the population has grown from 16 million to 26 million—a figure that the U.N. predicts will double by 2050.
Since those increases are driven in part by a lack of available birth control, LCF partners with a group that sends nurses to offer education sessions and implantable contraception; the program, Patel says, has been highly popular and successful in the region around Marojejy, where residents often struggle to feed their large families.
LCF has also supported efforts at reforestation—planting some 25,000 trees annually—and has promoted alternative ways for people to make a living and produce food, such as fish farming and yam cultivation. At its U.S. facility about seventy miles southwest of Tampa, Florida—which features acres of fenced forest where the animals can roam—it also breeds five species including the red ruffed lemur, the mongoose lemur, and the ring-tailed lemur.
(The latter, the national animal of Madagascar, is familiar to fans of the eponymous animated films—whose characters include the dance-crazy lemur King Julien XIII, voiced in the original by Sacha Baron Cohen.)
But unfortunately, the silky sifakas—whose numbers in their native Marojejy have fallen to the hundreds—are not among the species able to be bred at LCF or in other managed programs.
“They’re a more challenging species to breed outside their natural habitat, and they don’t do well in zoos,” Patel explains, noting that a major obstacle is that their health is dependent on a highly diverse diet of indigenous flora. “In the rainforest, they might eat a hundred different foods,” he says. “How do we do that in Florida?”
Studying the elusive silky sifaka
An Illinois native, Patel holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Indiana’s Earlham College and a master’s in biological anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley; he came to Cornell planning to study primate vocalizations before falling for lemurs during that 2000 trip.
When he returned to Madagascar the following year—this time to Marojejy—he and his research assistant grappled with living conditions that were several notches below rustic, with little in the way of infrastructure.
“We kept running out of food—and we couldn’t find any animals,” Patel says, recalling his early days of struggling to study the silky sifakas. “But there are very few large, charismatic, day-active primates that haven’t been studied yet, and that was the case for these guys. And they were the flagship animal—not just for this national park but for the entire region; when you’d fly into the airport, you’d see a big picture of the silky sifaka. And I thought, That’s pretty special; people come here just to see this animal. That made it worth investing all the time it took to work in that difficult place.”
Eventually, after two long months of tramping through the rainforest, they finally sighted a group of silky sifakas. “They would flee from us, and they’d be alarm calling the whole time,” Patel remembers. “But lemurs habituate to the presence of humans much more quickly than other primates—with great apes it can take five years—and that made our job much easier. Within a few months, we started finding them fairly regularly. They stopped alarm calling and started treating us like we didn’t exist. It was a huge relief.”
In the intervening two decades, Patel and his colleagues—including staff drawn from the local community—have vastly expanded the research infrastructure in the park. That has not only provided employment for area residents, he says, but played an essential role in supporting ecotourism—starting with the fact that the researchers’ presence in Marojejy helped accustom the silky sifakas to humans, so they wouldn’t hide from visitors eager to spot them.
“A lot of people see ecotourism as one of the big hopes for Madagascar and one of the big hopes for lemurs, because it provides a way for local people to earn money,” Patel says. “That’s especially true at our park: to get there you usually hire a cook, a guide, two silky sifaka trackers, and 10 to 20 porters to carry all the supplies up to the different camps. Unlike in many other parts of Madagascar, you can’t go in and see lemurs in an hour or two and then exit the park.”
Despite those challenges, Patel says, ecotourism was thriving in Marojejy—until the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the global travel industry. It also forced Patel, who normally spends three to four months a year in Madagascar, to cancel research trips; with the country now reopened to visitors, he has plans to return for two months starting in late February.
During the closure, he says, local staff made the most of the downtime by renovating campsites and other infrastructure for research and tourism, including a large new dining area, built into a cliff face, that offers spectacular mountain views. They’ve also stepped up park patrols to locate and destroy bushmeat traps as well as illegally planted vanilla plots that harm habitat—ways in which desperate residents try to earn a living, but at the expense of endangered lemurs.
“The silky sifakas are very peaceful, beautiful animals; it’s just nice to be around them,” Patel observes. “They don’t fight very often, they play a lot, they’re incredibly acrobatic, they’re fun to watch. Once every five or ten years we capture the group for health checks—and when you actually hold one in your arms, it’s just over. They’re warm, they’re soft and fuzzy. They’re just the sweetest things.”