What’s white and fuzzy and about to go extinct?

The silky sifaka lemur. But not if Yale researchers have anything to say about it.

Rachel Kramer FES ’12 will be conducting research this summer to help save these rare lemurs that inhabit the tropical rainforests of northeastern Madagascar, after the Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship awarded her $5,000 to carry out the three-month project. With remaining global population estimates between 300 and 2,000 individuals, Kramer said the silky sifaka stands as one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, and needs to be protected using local human and natural resources. The survival of the lemur will ultimately depend on the land use and conservation attitudes of communities that border their habitats, she said, a challenge that she will work on this summer with the non-governmental organisation SIMPONA.

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“What makes silky sifakas so fascinating is how little is known about them, due in part to how challenging studying them in their mountainous forest habitat can be,” Kramer said. “They have rather large home range sizes and are astoundingly fast at navigating through the canopy.”

The silky sifaka, she added, is the flagship species for Marojejy National Park, a high altitude forest in Madagascar that was officially designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. The region is noted for its elevated levels of species that are unique to defined geographic locations. But despite official protection, the lemurs, still face dire threats, Kramer said.

Forest loss presents a significant threat to the survival of silky sifakas and many other endemic species in Madagascar because it compromises ecological services that human communities depend on, she said.

“In Madagascar, fire plays an integral role in agricultural production and … is widely applied by [local] farmers in landscapes surrounding Marojejy National Park to adapt regions for raising crops [such as rice],” she added.

In addition to deforestation, the silka sifakas are being threatened by hunting and a growing human population, said Erik Patel, a doctoral candidate in Cornell University’s psychology department. Patel, who founded SIMPONA — a non-governmental organization created to research and conserve the silky sifaka — described how many impoverished local residents hunt the lemurs as a source of protein because they lack economic alternatives. He added that Madagascar has one of the world’s fastest growing populations, with its population doubling between 1975 and 2000 to nearly 21 million people, and predicted to double again by 2035.

Silky sifakas, he said, are known to be quite sensitive to disturbances in their environment and have never survived in captivity, so breeding them in zoos will likely never be possible.

“We, as humans, are responsible for driving [the silky sifaka] near to extinction,” Patel said. “If no action is taken in Madagascar, they could all be gone in 50 years.”

Kramer plans to focus her efforts on forest-bordering communities and conservation initiatives that give locals a voice in equitable regional development. Her research, she said, will attempt to evaluate Marojejy National Park’s investment strategy for communities bordering silky sifaka habitats and encourage their input on options for designing effective conservation strategies in remote regions of Madagascar.

“Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing a silky sifaka bound through the forest canopy or take turns grooming a wide-eyed infant cannot help but fall in love with this charismatic, highly social primate,” Kramer said. “I think [they have] a rather endearing name for [such] a mysterious animal.”

Similarly, Sharon Pieczenik, an independent filmmaker who produced a documentary about the sifakas called “Angels of the Forest,” said that she thoroughly enjoyed seeing the lemurs up close. She added that although the filming was physically demanding, the experience taught her how important it is to care about animal conservation efforts.

“Having the silky sifaka be the first lemur I ever saw was magical because you really have to work for it,” Pieczenik said. “You have to live in very high altitude ranges and do some hiking, but once you find [the lemurs], you realize that they’re these gorgeous, magical animals.”

Pieczenik said that people should care about conservation efforts not only because animals should be respected, but also because animals often shed light on human behavior.

Conservation is important because animals can serve as red flags for problems that can affect public health, she added.

“We all live in the same environment and I think that people tend to take that for granted,” Pieczenik said.

Sifakas are named after a sound they make in which they emit an explosive, hissing “shee-faak” call several times in a row.