Sifaka Lemurs Listed as 'Critically Endangered' Amid Mysterious Die-Off
By Edward Carver
Lemurs in Madagascar have been under pressure from deforestation, poaching, drought and other challenges for years. Now, in the much-visited Berenty Reserve near the island's southern tip, one species faces a mysterious new threat.
In the last month and a half, at least 31 Verreaux's sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi) have died in the reserve. Most were found already dead; others were found gravely ill and later died from respiratory failure. Berenty staff and local scientists have reached out to veterinarians and primatologists across the world. The experts believe that a parasite or tick-borne disease is likely to blame, but the exact cause remains unknown.
This is the one of largest lemur die-offs that scientists in Madagascar can remember. "We haven't seen something like this before," Patricia Wright, a lemur expert and the founder of Centre ValBio, a research center in eastern central Madagascar, told Mongabay.
A Verreaux's sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi)Rhett A. Butler
Verreaux's sifakas were struggling long before this outbreak. The white, fluffy lemurs were already listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is highly fragmented and has been declining for decades, according to the IUCN. The species is found in the dry areas and spiny forests of southwest Madagascar.
By coincidence, a large IUCN Red List Primate Specialist Group meeting took place last week in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, and reassessing the endangerment status of all lemur species was a top agenda item. The group decided to uplist all nine sifaka species from endangered to critically endangered, according to people in attendance. The status change is not yet official, but during the meeting the Facebook page of the specialist group's Lemur Conservation Network project mentioned it: "We are very sad to announce that all sifaka species are now under the Critically Endangered criteria."
Verreaux's sifakas travel in groups of up to 14 individuals, and at least two of these groups have been killed off in Berenty since late March. Berenty is a private reserve run by a French family that owns a local sisal business. For decades, it has been a research site and a popular ecotourism destination. Lemurs are the main attraction.
Scientists have pieced together clues about the cause of death by assessing the afflicted sifakas that were found still alive. Several of those sifakas had paralyzed hind legs; to move, they had to drag themselves by their hands on the forest floor. (Normally, Verreaux's sifakas have powerful hind legs that allow them to bounce sideways on the ground or jump as far as 3 meters, or 10 feet, from tree to tree.) Within a day, in most of the cases, the paralysis moved up the body and into the lungs, causing death from respiratory failure.
Verreaux's sifakas in a heated territorial chaseRhett A. Butler
Most of the dead sifakas were found covered in ticks, which scientists say may have caused the paralysis by transmitting a neurotoxin or some type of infectious rickettsial bacteria to the sifakas. However, in 2014, scientists found many other Verreaux's sifakas covered in ticks, and they showed no signs of disease.
Another possibility is that the recent deaths were caused by single-cell toxoplasma parasites, which affect the nervous system and which, like rickettsial bacteria, could have been brought to the area by humans. The parasites could have been in the local soil or in cat dung. Tissue and organ samples from the dead sifakas' bodies have been sent to the Institut Pasteur de Madagascar, in Antananarivo, but the test results have not yet come back.
Almost all of the dead sifakas were male, and this at first led scientists to believe that perhaps the deaths were due to aggressive territorial disputes. Because outside threats have forced Verreaux's sifakas and other lemur species to crowd into small areas, this wouldn't be surprising. "When we found the first 9 [dead sifakas] we thought it might be due to an overpopulation," Claire Foulon, the reserve manager, told Mongabay. However, the dead bodies showed no signs of violence, and that theory has now been ruled out. Experts are not sure why most of the dead sifakas are male.
A Verreaux's sifaka nursing her babyRhett A. Butler
Whatever the cause of the illness turns out to be, other types of lemurs do not appear to be as vulnerable to it as the Verreaux's sifakas. So far, none of the many ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) in the same area have been affected. However, one brown lemur (genus Eulemur) was found dead, apparently from the same illness.
No sifakas have been found sick or dead since April 30, so experts are hopeful that the worst may be over. "As most of the news has been pointing to this localized event within a timeline, I am hoping that whatever has caused the 37 deaths (which is the number that was discussed at the IUCN meeting) has ridden its course," Edward Louis, director of the NGO Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership and director of conservation genetics at the U.S.-based Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, said in an email to Mongabay. (Louis and other experts cited a death toll in the high thirties, but Foulon, the reserve manager, later told Mongabay that only 31 sifakas had died in the outbreak.)
A team of veterinarians from Germany is now on site to support the Malagasy veterinarian working on the case.
A Verreaux's sifaka dancingRhett A. Butler
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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