Do lemurs love chocolate? New study to understand primate use of cacao plantations in Madagascar

Issue date: 13 December 2016


UWE Bristol conservation biologists have teamed up with Bristol Zoological Society, in a ConservationInternational (CI) funded study to increase understanding of the interaction between lemurs and cacao farms. The study aims to help scientists and farmers develop agricultural and land-use planning practices that favour the conservation of these important and iconic species.

Led by Bristol Zoological Society — with the support of Madécasse Chocolate & Vanilla, a company that single-sources its cocoa and vanilla from Madagascar and works directly with cocoa farmers — the research will build upon local farmers' anecdotal evidence of lemurs using cacao plantations in the northwestern region of the island.

"With 94% of primates in Madagascar threatened with extinction, it is vital to understand the interface between people and primates in increasingly fragmented landscapes, for the future development of sustainable cacao farming and the conservation of biodiversity in Madagascar," said Curan Bonham, CI's director of project monitoring and evaluation who oversees CI's Verde Ventures program, which is funding the study. Verde Ventures was established in 1999 to boost small and medium-sized businesses that support human well-being by protecting the important services — like fresh water, food, energy and more — that communities receive from healthy ecosystems.

The interdisciplinary research team, from Bristol Zoological Society and UWE Bristol, brings together a wealth of experience. Through interviews with plantation owners, vegetation inventories, animal surveys and behavioral observations, bioacoustic monitoring, and the use of camera traps, the researchers aim to identify which lemurs are present on two cacao plantations near Ambanja, where 88% of potential species are classified as threatened — and understand lemur behavior in these human-dominated spaces. Core habitats will also be mapped, which will enable a preliminary assessment of preferred habitat for the different lemur species (e.g., are they found more often in fruit trees, native trees or cacao) and how this connects with surrounding vegetation.

"This study is important as it will help us to understand how lemurs cope in fragmented habitats and could aid the development of habitat corridors," said Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Director of Conservation at Bristol Zoological Society. "It will also help farmers to make decisions that will benefit both sustainable agriculture and conservation."

"For conservation efforts to move forward, you have to tackle economic issues that smallholder farmers face, but not at the expense of the environment," added Tim McCollum, Founder & CEO of Madécasse Chocolate & Vanilla. "Ultimately, both conservation progress and economic progress have to coexist and we're excited to be at the intersection where these efforts collide."

"We will use this work not only to alleviate tensions between cocoa farmers and lemurs but also to develop a rapid surveying method that could be applied to other areas of Madagascar," shared Dr David Fernández, Lecturer in Conservation Science at UWE Bristol.

The research team aims to conclude the study in April 2017, with results announced in June 2017.

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