Seneca Park Zoo volunteers traveled to Madagascar to see how their conservation and humanitarian efforts are paying off.
Lemurs are big-eyed, banana lovers and expert tree swingers. The smallest fits in your hand with room left over. And they only exist in Madagascar, an island nation off the east coast of Africa.
Volunteers at Seneca Park Zoo have grown quite an affection for the creatures, and have a hometown connection to world-renowned lemur expert and conservationist Patricia Wright, who was raised in Avon, Livingston County. When the zoo volunteers discovered they could help the lemurs' homeland and the Madagascar people, they dove in. They raised $500 to buy school supplies for the Saturday Classes program in Parc Ivoloina. Staff at the Madagascar forest reserve teach kids about nature and the academic basics they need to get into secondary school.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank. With few opportunities, families often turn to using the forests. They and the lemur habitat, are in peril.
“We thought this would be a good way to help the Madagascar people,” says Harris, a 26-year zoo volunteer from Penfield. “By helping the people, you help the environment.”
Since then the volunteers — called docents — have raised thousands for Madagascar conservation and community projects. Most of the money raised is through the Madagascar Fete, an annual celebration of all things Malagasy —food, steel band music, lemurs and a marketplace — at Seneca Park Zoo. The first celebration was in 2004. This year it’s on July 26.
They raised $5,000 in 2007 and topped it off with an adventure — a first-hand experience of Madagascar life, its culture and the furry lemurs. Wright, who leads National Geographic tours, invited them personally.
“We just decided that would be great,” says Harris. And being led by a foremost expert? “You couldn’t buy that.”
Last fall, 11 docents from Penfield, Irondequoit, Rochester and a former Brighton resident spent 17 days traveling along the coast, Madgascar’s capitol and in deep forest. The docents were able to see how their years of hard work and money they raised has been used and what it has accomplished for the wildlife, and people.
Despite being poor, the people they met “are very proud, hard-working people,” says Harris. “Everybody pulled together.”
They were also very resourceful, says Janet Drey, a seven-year zoo docent. With little opportunity to make money, they often saw people doing anything to earn a living. People dug dirt on the side of roads to fill in potholes, making money for each hole filled.
In Ivoloina, the Saturday Classes were not in session, but they got a full tour. The program has been so successful that other zoos have taken over fundraising so the Seneca Park Zoo docents can concentrate on other projects. One such program is the Famiova women’s weaving cooperative at Ranomafana National Park, which helps women earn money in a way that doesn’t impact the forest. Drey said the women bring in cocoons and unwrap them, then twist the silk into thread, making smooth scarves and other traditional cloth, which they sell at market — and at the Rochester zoo’s Madagascar Fete. Before, the women hunched over the floor for many hours; the docents provided money to buy an upright loom.
At Parc National D’Andasibe-Mantadia, the docents were treated to a rare sound. Harris and Drey heard a call and looked up to see an indri lemur — which looks a bit like a 4-year-old in a panda suit, says Harris. The tree lover also makes a large call.
“It was very eerie,” says Drey. “Like a whale call.”
At Ranomafana National Park — Wright’s headquarters — the docents got a full tour of the Val Bio Center, the preserve and ongoing work. They also rode in the new van, which they bought for the center with their donations. The van is used to take workers and students to the center and is vital because it’s out of town and there’s no transportation. Wright runs the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments there. The center also boasts composting and educational programs to help the Malagasy people raise crops more efficiently.
Wright saved the 160-square-mile area from a developer who was ready to bulldoze it. She also discovered the golden bamboo lemur; there are only 80 left in the wild.
Researchers immerse themselves in the forest, and the docents were excited to join them. On a night hike, researcher Anje Deppe showed them how they set up humane box traps for the itty-bitty mouse lemurs. She’s doing predator recognition studies, seeing if the lemurs recognize owls or other animals that pose threats.
“You’ll bait the trap with a banana and man, they keep coming back,” says Harris.
The docents watched them set a trap, then heard the shriek as the door closed on the hungry lemur just a few moments later.
“They catch the same ones over and over,” says Harris. “That’s why they call them banana junkies. They know some already. They name each one and each one has a little microchip.”
The crew carried the captured lemurs back to the lab in pillowcases, where they anesthetized them and gently weighed and measured them and checked their teeth for wear. They also implanted a microchip. Here, too, the local docents have made a difference. They have supplied money for 100 chips.
The mouse lemurs are important to understand, says Harris, because they are prey. If they are lost, a link in the food chain disappears.
Harris and Drey and the rest of the volunteers got to hold them in their hands and help wake them up.
“It was a privilege,” says Harris. “The whole thing was a privilege for me to be there, to enter (the researchers’) world.
On the road, it was clear their efforts have been successful, say Harris and Drey. Now that they are home, new projects are in the works.
The docents are funding a traditional medicine garden in Madagascar, which will help preserve ways of traditional healing.
“It keeps the culture from disappearing,” says Harris.
The docents will also help pay for replanting demonstration gardens at Parc Ivoloina, that taught residents how to grow greener and more efficiently. They were destroyed by a typhoon that hit Madagascar last February. Wright said the Malagasy people really want a better way to communicate so the docents will provide money to launch the Ranomafana newsletter. It will provide information about projects, stories about the neighboring villages and help people get vested, all for a few hundred dollars a year.
That’s what makes the efforts successful, says Harris. “It’s them determining what they’re going to do, and doing what they believe in.”
Kris Dreessen can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.