February 24, 2011

Graduate Student Works with BBC to Film Rare Madagascar Lemurs

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Erik Patel grad will travel to Madagascar’s Marojejy National Park in less than two weeks to assist the BBC’s Natural History Unit on a film that documents how illegal rosewood logging in northeastern Madagascar is affecting critically endangered silky sifaka lemurs.

Patel is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the scent marking and vocal communication of the silky sifaka lemur, a species native only to Madagascar. After the country experienced a political coup two years ago, illegal logging increased in Madagascan forests, causing the impacts of deforstation on lemur populations to become concerns.

“This is the biggest [media] exposure we’ve had. It’s sad that it takes a crisis, but the media came through for us,” Patel said.

Patel has traveled to Madagascar more than 15 times and is organizing future trips there. He has traveled with groups, including some Cornell students. However, Patel mainly works with Malagasy men from a village near Marojejy National Park, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. Patel and Eric Mathieu, a local ecotourism operator, travel to local villages to educate people in Madagascar about the value of their forests and alternative ways to protect the land.

One of Patel and Mathieu’s long-term goals is to make the public aware of the threatened lemur species that currently resides in the forest and “to engage local communities in a variety of ways to try and reduce their dependence on forest resources,” Patel said.

“The [human] population is getting larger and the forests are becoming scarce. Slash-and-burn agriculture, known as ‘tavy,’ is damaging a lot of what’s left,” Mathieu stated in an e-mail. “Every year, we are the witnesses of thousands of hectares of forest vanishing in smoke.”

In addition to their education efforts, Patel and Mathieu travel to locations where a number of silky sifaka lemurs live, in order to study their communication and scent marking.

Patel said he hopes to expand his research to assess the lemurs’ population size and determine what they eat. Currently, he is working on population surveys in unexplored forests to find out how many of these lemurs remain. This data would help to prioritize sites that have “a considerable number left and are in very threatened habitats,” Patel said.

Last year, Patel founded Simpona, a fundraising organization that works towards more community development for silky sifaka protection. “Simpona” is also another common name for silky sifakas.

Patel also holds a position as the Madagascar Country Representative for Seacology, a small environmental non-governmental organization in Berkeley, Calif. Through Seacology, Patel is building a school near a high-priority forest for silky sifkas close to where he works.

“In exchange for the school, they will engage in less forest destruction,” Patel said.

In the past, Patel also worked with Prof. Michael Owren, Georgia State University at the Psychology of Voice and Sound Laboratory. Their work at the laboratory consisted of researching and documenting the silky sifaka’s vocal communication.

Owren recognized the sense of urgency in researching these lemurs and gathering as many observations as possible.

“There is no guarantee that they are going to be even in existence in 20 years,” Owren said. “Part of the importance of the work that [Patel] is doing is that these are species that are really imminently threatened with extinction and about which very little may be known.”

When Patel earns his Ph.D., he will begin a three-year post-doctoral appointment from the Duke Lemur Center at Duke University. The center is planning a conservation education effort where it will conduct teacher training in Madagascar to “institutionalize conservation” and make it a regular part of the curriculum in the primary schools. Patel will be spending 10 months a year in Madagascar.

The air date of the BBC film is yet to be announced.

Original Author: Rebecca Friedman