Anyone who describes Madagascar as "unearthly" comes close to speaking scientific truth. There are approximately 8,000 endemic species, and over three fourths of Madagascar's plants, reptiles, and mammals exist nowhere else on the planet. The faces most closely associated with this Texas-sized island 200 miles off the coast of Eastern Africa belong to the lemurs, the family of primates that is currently starring in Disney's Island of Lemurs: Madagascar having already taken an animated turn in Dreamwork's Madagascar. And it's a very good thing these climbers have charisma: Their future will be determined by whether or they can attract tourists to a less-than-convenient corner of the world.
"Today, over 90% of lemurs are threatened with extinction," says Travis Steffens, a primatologist and founder of the Planet Madagascar conservationist project. "At least 16 types of lemur have already gone extinct – one nearly the size of a gorilla." Steffens explains that from the palm-sized Lavasoa Dwarf Lemur to white furred, "dancing" Sifaka Lemur, the biggest issue the creatures face is the rapid loss of their habitat, the forests of Madagascar.
Deforestation on Madagascar began in earnest 2000 years ago when humans first settled the island, but since the mid-20th century cash crop farming and wood-exportation have kicked it into hyper-drive. The problem has been exacerbated by a 2009 military coup that put a halt to previous conservation efforts. It's still rocky politically, but the IMF has finally restored ties with the country and tourists (and IMAX filmmakers) are returning. They can't come soon enough.
"Tourism can help by making intact forest that contains healthy populations of wildlife worth more than the value of chopping it down," says Steffens, a international Fellow of the Explorer's Club, who will start leading 15-day eco-tours to the island this June for Kensington Tours. Up-close encounters with the island's most photogenic animals is a major part of the draw. In addition to Madagascar must-sees like Andasibe-Mantadia National Park and Masoloa National Park, which hosts 50 percent of the island's species, the itinerary Steffens' curated heads to two lesser-known, community owned wildlife reserves called Mitsinjo and Anja that Steffens says wouldn't exist without tourism.
"Lemurs don't just stand out because they are one of the most threatened mammals in the world, or even because they live almost exclusively on Madagascar," says Steffens. "Lemurs stand out because they are part of the group of primates that are the closest to humanity's most distant primate ancestor."
Those genetic ties are fascinating largely because lemurs look more like squirrels than anything simian, but also because lemur behavior patterns are unique among primates. Females are the dominant sex and raise young in communal nests. And if community is what saves lemurs from the jaws of marauding Fossas, it is also likely to be what saves them from extinction. By empowering the people to exploit their natural resources for sustainable tourism dollars, tour services are giving lemurs and locals hope.
"Typically a place as special as Madagascar should be able to provide its people with more income from tourism than they ever could through the multiple reasons for cutting down forests," says Steffens, "The trick is that people have to go."
More information: Kensington Tour's four-day Lemur Fever safari costs $1,204 per person. Travelers looking to enjoy Madagascar on their own can head to Berenty Reserve and stay among the famed Ringtail Lemurs.