Durham County

For the first time in 24 years, Madagascar sends endangered lemurs to United States

Pictured are Velona (left) and Mangamaso at the Duke Lemur Center.
Pictured are Velona (left) and Mangamaso at the Duke Lemur Center. Duke Lemur Center

The Duke Lemur Center has two new residents.

A pair of blue-eyed black lemurs arrived on Thursday from Madagascar after three years of planning. It took about 60 hours for the lemurs to make the 9,000-mile trip from Madagascar to Durham. They will be used to improve the gene pool of captive members of the critically endangered species.

A 5-year-old male named Mangamaso and a 3-year-old female named Velona came from Parc Ivoloina, a nonprofit nature center in eastern Madagascar.

Their arrival marks the first time lemurs have been exported from Madagascar to the United States in 24 years. Strict import and export regulations protect the animals.

“The addition of two lemurs genetically unrelated to our current animals is a huge asset to our conservation breeding program,” said Duke Lemur Center curator of animals Andrea Katz. “The more genetic diversity we have, the better we can maintain our role as a safety net for this species.”

The blue-eyed black lemur is one of the world’s 25 most threatened primates. Fewer than 1,000 individuals remain in the wild, said Sara Clark, director of communications at the Duke Lemur Center.

The species faces extinction in the wild in as little as 11 years according to a 2015 estimate.

Only three small populations of blue-eyed black lemurs exist in zoos and conservation facilities around the world. There 12 animals in Madagascar, 34 in Europe and 28 in the US.

Prior to the arrival of Mangamaso and Velona, every blue-eyed black lemur in North America descended from seven wild-born animals imported by the Duke Lemur Center in 1985 and 1990.

The current captive population is healthy but more genetic diversity is needed to grow and sustain it, Katz said. Greater genetic diversity is linked to better health and immune responses and increased ability to adapt to environmental pressures.

“The success of the transfer is the result of a unique international collaboration, three years in the making,” Katz said. “In my 40 years at the lemur center, this may have been the most difficult and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

It took complex negotiations between the government of Madagascar, Parc Ivoloina and other lemur conservation centers to make the transfer occur. Two blue-eyed black lemurs were transferred from the Duke Lemur Center to a center in France. Parc Ivoloina received two blue-eyed black lemurs from other facilities in Madagascar to bolster its breeding program.

Duke Lemur Center veterinarian Cathy Williams escorted the lemurs on their 60-hour journey from Madagascar to the US. They were quarantined for two months to monitor their health and make sure they were disease-free before settling into their new home here.

“These exchanges are absolutely critical to the genetic health of all lemurs, and the partnership and cooperation with other institutions that we enjoyed over this long process have been truly inspiring,” said Duke Lemur Center director Anne Yoder. “It takes a global village to save lemurs, and we are grateful and proud to be part of that village.”

Joe Johnson: 919-419-6889, @JEJ_HSNews