Primate Conservation Limelight
DR. MARNI LAFLEUR
Dr. Marni LaFleur is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of San Diego, the Founder and Director of Lemur Love, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Primate Specialist Group, and a member of the Editorial Board for the journal Folia Primatologica. Her area of interest is the behavioral ecology of ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), more specifically, the unusual female-dominance patterns exhibited by this species and the implications for feeding behaviors, energy balance, and social dynamics.
In 2010–2011, Dr. LaFleur spent the better part of a year in Tsimanampesotse National Park, Madagascar, tracking wild lemur troops and collecting data for her doctoral dissertation. She founded Lemur Love in 2012 to protect lemur species and continue her areas of scientific inquiry. Lemur Love has grown and now also includes commitments to Malagasy people living in proximity to the lemurs and support of local scientists and conservationists. During the COVID pandemic, Lemur Love’s operations pivoted to provide significant humanitarian aid to Malagasy women who are heads of households. Lemur Love believes that funding essential community members will prevent resource extraction from the nearby forests of Tsimanampesotse.
Additionally, Dr. LaFleur’s research examines the wild-capture and trade of lemurs within Madagascar. Lemur poaching and trade—for tourism, pets, and bushmeat—occurs in the region both legally and illegally. Her research and expertise regarding lemur species and human-primate interactions inform species’ endangerment status and Red List classifications for the IUCN. Dr. Marni’s work within her many roles promotes understanding of primate conservation and encourages young learners and aspiring conservationists to understand, engage with, and innovate in the field.
What is your country of origin?
Canada. I grew up in Victoria, BC, which is on Vancouver Island. I now live in San Diego, CA.
What’s the first primate you saw in the wild?
The eastern gray bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus). This was in the Itampolo Forest Station in eastern Madagascar. My advisor and I nicknamed him “Bob.” He would sit on the edge of a main trail and munch on grass.
How did you find yourself involved with lemurs?
My first love within primatology was for orangutans. However, my undergraduate primatology professor studied lemurs. That professor also became my master’s advisor, and she had funding for research in Madagascar. After spending some time with wild ring-tailed lemurs, I became fascinated by the unequivocal female dominance this species exhibits. Female dominance is such an unusual trait within mammals and is completely socially mediated within lemurs, and I found this very interesting. In every aspect of these animals’ lives, the females run the show. And how can that be? How and why are they so different than most of the other species of mammal?
For my doctoral dissertation, I examine feeding and nutrition in female and male ring-tailed lemurs. I wanted to know if females gain more calories than males as a result of their dominance. It seems as though they do, but the methods that I used to assess this (which were the best available at the time) have a large error range. I am now working to refine testing the hypothesis with metabolic markers in lemur urine.
Can you think of a favorite moment during the time you’ve spent in Madagascar?
I really love being with the animals in general. I love being out in the forest with lemurs when they completely ignore me and go about their lives. I am privy to all the drama and consider this such a luxury and privilege.
One memory I have involves a female infant ring-tailed lemur. When lemur babies are born, females and males are essentially equal in terms of social dominance. But then at a certain point, the girls realize that they are girls and that this means something. I once saw a female infant, who was about 4 months old, boop a full-grown male on the nose. He recoiled in horror, gave a submissive grumble, and ran away! I don’t think he was actually afraid of her. I think he was afraid of her mom. Regardless, that is the kind of power that a baby female holds over full-grown males in her troop!
How did you come to be involved in primate conservation?
Initially, I wasn’t really keen on conservation. But once I had spent a significant amount of time in the field, it became obvious to me that if I didn’t do something to protect the animals, I wouldn’t have anything left to study. So, it became really important to try and protect them. In learning how to try and protect them, you really have to know the local climate for conservation and understand what the challenges are. What are the reasons that the animals are disappearing? What are the reasons why the forest has been cut down? What can we do to mitigate that?
Also, I was really worried that the animals were going to get poached because I habituated them. This means that I got them used to human presence and caused them to not fear humans. Sadly, in 2014, ring-tailed lemur babies were getting poached from the groups I habituated because poachers could walk right up to the groups and snatch them. I deeply regret that my actions allowed for this to happen and am committed to prioritizing the safety of these animals in the future. For example, I now have camera traps in the troops’ home ranges and a local team monitoring their numbers. This will allow me to act if the animals are being exploited.
I also now feel obligated to try and help the communities living next to lemurs. After all, conservation is a human issue. Imagine this: my dissertation work cost around $60,000 USD. That is for everything from paying my tuition to traveling and living in Madagascar. Realizing that while I was spending all this money to study lemurs there were children suffering life-threatening malnutrition just a few kilometers from me, I soon felt this disparity was deeply unfair. In my more recent reflections on the legacy of colonialism, my own behavior, and ethics, I committed to spending roughly the same amount of time undertaking humanitarian work in Madagascar as I’ve spent on animal research and conservation.
When you think about the state of primate conservation today, what causes you the most concern?
The sheer number of species that are facing imminent extinction is pretty daunting. When you think 94% of lemur species are at risk of extinction, it just becomes quickly unmanageable in your mind to even consider, what difference can I make? I try not to think of things in that way because it can be crippling.
I feel like the Grim Reaper trying to teach sometimes. I’m like, I have to tell you the state of conservation for these amazing species we are discussing, and it is not good. Things are bad and only getting worse. And, again, conservation is about humans, not animals. Many of us get into conservation because we love animals, or we think they are important to preserve, but humans are the ones destroying habitats. Our focus, therefore, needs to be on humans. We can understand that some people need to exploit natural resources for daily subsistence. I would do the same if it was my only option. If your only way to eat is to poach wildlife, then that is what you’ll do. At the end of the day, we need to work with people, especially the world’s most economically impoverished who live next to endangered wildlife. Only then can we find appropriate and viable alternatives for their wellbeing, if we want to preserve biodiversity.
See, I just made it a little bit more sad, didn’t I?
What brings you the most hope?
The thing that I try to remember, and I try to encourage my students to keep in mind, is that sure, maybe we can’t save every species. Maybe you can’t fix all of the poverty in Madagascar. But you can definitely help one animal. You can definitely help one person. And that makes a difference. Say you save one female lemur. She could have 15 babies in her life. And if you support one family in a village, well, they could send their kids to school. Then their lives, or their life trajectory, is totally different. In order to not get completely overwhelmed, I try to stick to individual animals and individual people and go from there. I can do something meaningful for a few of these. We all can.
My life goal is to make sure that these animals and their descendants outlive me. I can’t personally save every species of lemur, or every population of ring-tailed lemurs, but I can work to protect these specific lemurs in this specific forest where I work. And if we have enough people working in a similar capacity at different locations, then we have a chance of being successful. So being able to take ownership of one small part of primate conservation is what brings me hope. You feel a sense of control over that. That’s the thing you think about when it becomes really overwhelming.
Also, the animals are resilient. They can come back from literally the brink. Alison Jolly, the first person to study ring-tailed lemurs who passed away in 2014 said that these animals are “tough as old boots.” And it’s true—they’re just so tough! It’s amazing what they can live through and then start over with. They really can bounce back. So, if we allow them the time and the space to do so, they can recover. If we leave them alone, they will be fine. We just have to make sure that we leave them alone.
What are your favorite aspects of your current roles? Both as the founder of Lemur Love and as a teacher?
It has been really good to bring in Malagasy people into the organization and to train and provide opportunities for them. I don’t really care to be in charge, and I don’t really even like being in charge. My bigger goal is to eventually hand over Lemur Love, so it is completely under Malagasy control. I envision continuing to find funding for programs and providing advice if needed, but my goal is to help train local scientists and conservationists so that they can lead the way. For a really long time Malagasy people have been nearly excluded from conservation of their own biodiversity. Only foreigners had the money and training to undertake studying Malagasy flora and fauna. Malagasy people were research assistants or staff but not involved in publications, or intellectual design of projects. This is changing, and we are working to stop this colonial-esk mindset. Malagasy people are best suited to save Malagasy species. With a little help, they will.
As a professor, I really love sharing all the wonders of primates, especially lemurs, with my students. I mean, what’s not to love about the aye-aye? How can one not enjoy learning about stink fighting? How amazing is it that male giant mouse lemurs seasonally have testicles larger than their heads? It’s the best.
When did you start Lemur Love? What’s the main focus of the organization?
It started in 2012. I incorporated in 2012, but I didn’t actually really do anything until about 2015. It really has been in the last three or four years that we’ve done a significant amount of work. We’re not big. We have five people on our board and an additional three volunteers. In Madagascar, we have two full time staff, two rangers and two community advisors.
With Lemur Love, primarily, we work with ring-tailed lemurs, and our bases in the southwest work around scientific research—long-term data collection of ring-tailed lemurs at Tsimanampesotse. This location is important because it has the lowest rainfall and primary productivity of any ring-tailed lemur habitat type. With climate change, the populations existing here are like “canaries in the coal mine.” Understanding their ecology here will help us understand what to expect with other lemurs in other locations.
We are also interested in the trade of wild-captured lemurs. When I lived at Tsimanampesotse in 2010–2011 someone drove into the park, on a motorcycle, with a wild-captured pet lemur (Sid) on a rope. The individual feared that Sid would be killed by villagers because of his perceived bad behaviors. The lemur had already had several fingers amputated as punishments for raiding food and knocking household items over. Sadly, Sid escaped from my tent—I had no way to keep him safely. I am certain that he died within a few days and that he likely suffered significantly. I failed to save Sid, but I aim through my research and through Lemur Love to decrease live capture of wild lemurs and the practice of keeping lemurs as pets.
Lastly, Lemur Love’s mission is to protect lemurs, empower women, and further science. An integral part of this is working closely with people living in proximity to lemurs. We cannot expect local people, many of whom have trouble subsisting daily, to place the same value on wildlife and wild habitat that we do. What we can do is work with these people to improve their quality of life, explain why we care about them and the local habitats, and ask that they don’t exploit the habitats if we provide viable alternatives. This is hard work. Much more challenging than studying lemurs. But it is what has to happen for long-term conservation.
How has Lemur Love evolved into what it is today?
Much of Lemur Love’s evolution reflects my own coming of age, along with that of my Lemur Love comrades. We’ve worked really hard to learn about areas outside of our individual areas of expertise, such as sustainably developing rural and mostly illiterate communities, supporting the aspirations of women in developing world circumstances, and understanding our own positions and roles when working in a formerly colonized and economically poor nation. All of these areas are far more challenging than scientific endeavors on wild animals, which are also challenging! We are dreaming big and trying to live up to our dreams.
Can you speak a little bit more about the initiatives and successes of Lemur Love in the past year?
The Lemur Love board had an emergency strategy meeting in May 2020. We knew that if we didn’t act quickly, the forest where I’ve followed lemurs for nearly 15 years could disappear within days or weeks because local people may have no alternative but to exploit protected resources to survive. We’ve been increasing our community work every year, but this year, everything just came to sort of a screeching halt because so much of Madagascar is fueled by tourism dollars. Tourism is actually the number one GDP for Madagascar. With there being no tourists, literally overnight, everything just stopped. In remote villages, cash stopped flowing. Also, there was a government lock down on the transportation of goods, such as food. So, all of a sudden, nobody had money, nobody had any food, and nobody had any transportation. And nobody, in these rural communities where people often work each day to secure food for that day, had any prospects to get any money, food, or a way out. This is a disaster situation for the people and the local wildlife.
So, the Lemur Love board prioritized several areas that we knew were important for preserving habitat, preventing human suffering, and keeping both children in school and early career Malagasy conservationists working. Then we fundraised to make our programs viable. I am really pleased and proud to say that we met each and every goal and are continuing to provide term-limited support to these initiatives.
Do you think this is something like you’ll want to continue into the future?
This is my life’s work. I hope to be able to go back soon.
A Lemur Died from Tuberculosis—A Likely Victim of the Flourishing Illegal Pet Trade, National Geographic, February 23, 2021
Best Practice Guidelines for Responsible Imagery of Non-Human Primates, IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group
Illegal Trade of Wild-Captured Lemur catta within Madagascar, ReseachGate, March 2019
ABOUT LEMUR LOVE
Lemur Love is a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that conducts scientific research and partners with Malagasy women to build capacity and promote conservation. Lemur Love was founded in 2012 with a focus to support conservation around the Tsminanampesote National Park (southwest Madagascar). In the years since, the organization has mobilized more than USD $150,000 in funding from small grants, donations, and merchandise sales, to support a range of work both in the southwestern part of the Madagascar, and for national issues like increasing the visibility of Malagasy women in science, and to combat the illegal wildlife trade of pet lemurs. At the local level, Lemur Love’s activities have ensured the ongoing collection of one of the longest-running field datasets on ring-tailed lemurs in the spiny forest (important for their conservation in the wild!) and have provided small-scale and finite assistance, including training, to community associations in the village of Efoetse (a 3,000-person village close to the National Park). At the national scale, Lemur Love supported the first nationwide outreach campaigns to combat illegal pet lemur ownership, have advocated for inclusion of Malagasy researchers in international conferences, and in 2019, it co-organized the first national conference on women in science together with local partners (Ikala STEM). With the exception of our within-Madagascar Director, Lemur Love is a volunteer run organization.