Projet Tsibahaka: Conserving the crowned sifaka Propithecus coronatus

 

By: Tony King, Laingoniaina H.F. Rakotonirina, Andoniaina H. Rakotoarisoa, Maholy Ravaloharimanitra, Christelle Chamberlan

Published in: Lemur News Vol. 16 (2012), pp. 32-34.

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 The Aspinall Foundation, BP 7170 Andravoahangy, Antananarivo 101, Madagascar

 

Introduction

 Created in 2009 with the signing of an “Accord de Siège” with the government of Madagascar, the mission of The Aspinall Foundation’s Madagascar Programme is to work with local partners for the conservation of endangered species and their habitats (King and Chamberlan, 2010). The initial focus of the programme has been developing a collaborative and wide-ranging conservation project to ensure the survival of the Critically Endangered (IUCN, 2011) greater bamboo lemur Prolemur simus (King and Chamberlan, 2010; Rakotonirina et al., 2011). Following a similar logical framework to that of the Prolemur project, we initiated our “Projet Tsibahaka” in late 2009. Aiming to ensure the long-term conservation of the Endangered (IUCN, 2011) crowned sifaka Propithecus coronatus, the project has five major objectives (TAF, 2009; 2010), which we discuss below.

 

1. To facilitate urgent conservation actions for the crowned sifaka in general

 An immediate priority identified in our original proposal (TAF, 2009) was the development of an information-sharing network to aid decision-making processes regarding the conservation of the crowned sifaka. In partnership with GERP (Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar) and the Madagascar government, and with funding from EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), we co-organised a two-day crowned sifaka workshop in Antananarivo in February 2011, which assembled participants from national and international organisations working with the species (MEF/GERP/TAF 2011).

 

2. To survey the probable historic range of the crowned sifaka to find currently unknown populations or potential reintroduction sites

 Our initial efforts at developing the information-sharing network resulted in a better understanding of the current known range of the crowned sifaka in the wild (TAF, 2010). In partnership with GERP we then organised several surveys throughout central Madagascar, discovering seven previously unknown sites with crowned sifaka in the Bongolava, Betsiboka and Boeny Regions, and one area where small numbers of sifaka resembling crowned sifaka occur sympatrically with larger numbers of the closely-related Decken’s sifaka (TAF 2010; Rakotonirina et al., in press). By adding these records to published distribution records of P. coronatus, Decken’s sifaka P. deckenii and Verreaux’s sifaka P. verreauxi taken from Wilmé et al. (2006), with three additional records of P. coronatus from Andranotongo (19.356°S 46.213°E; Tattersall, 1986), a site south of the Manambolo river (approx. 19.148°S 44.866°E; Thalmann and Rakotoarison, 1994), and Dabolava (Razafindramanana and Rasamimanana, 2010), it appeared that further surveys were necessary between the Mahajilo, Manambolo and Tsiribihina rivers to further ascertain the species limits in this region (TAF 2010; Rakotonirina et al., in press). We therefore organised a mission to this area in November and December 2011, discovering three new crowned sifaka sites in the Menabe Region (L. Rakotonirina and A. Rakotoarisoa, unpubl.). We will publish full details later, but to summarise, two of these new sites contained melanistic individuals (Fig. 1) living together with typical crowned sifaka, and therefore appear to be the only known melanistic crowned sifaka populations apart from a single group recently discovered at Dabolava (south-east of Miandrivazo; Razafindramanana and Rasamimanana, 2010). One of the new melanistic populations was found in a zone of highly fragmented forests 10 km south-east of Ankavandra (18.803°S 45.390°E, altitude 490 to 780 m), only 60 km south of the population of melanistic Decken’s sifaka we surveyed in 2010 (TAF, 2010; Rakotonirina et al., in press), but separated by the Manambolo river. Therefore there may be (or have been) gene flow here between crowned and Decken’s sifaka causing the melanistic tendencies on both sides of the river (although other hypotheses have been proposed; Petter and Peyrieras, 1972; Rakotonirina et al., in press). The other melanistic population is 90 km further south, in gallery forest 14 km south-west of Bemahatazana (19.611°S 45.288°E, altitude 85 m), closer to the range of Verreaux’s sifaka but again separated from the range of that species by a large river, the Tsiribihina. According to local people there are more sites supporting sifaka in these areas (L. Rakotonirina, unpubl. data), which we should consider surveying as soon as possible, incorporating the collection of samples for genetic analysis.

            Within the central region of the crowned sifaka range, GERP organised missions to some of the new sites we discovered in 2010, to add to the available information on population sizes and habitat descriptions, and to collect faecal samples for genetic analysis (Rakotondrabe et al., in prep.). We organised and funded an additional mission to Ankirihitra (16.782°S 46.480°E, altitude 30 to 90 m), a mosaic of fragmented forests in the Boeny Region, located 25 km south-west of the Anaboazo site we have reported previously (TAF, 2010; Rakotonirina et al., in press). The team found relatively large numbers of crowned sifaka remaining in this area (five forest fragments surveyed over three days from 31 October to 2 November 2011, 11 groups encountered comprising a total of 46 individuals including six infants, group size ranging from 1 to 7, mean 4.2, s.d. 1.72, seven of the groups encountered in the Iabohazo forest fragment), but also many threats including heavy hunting pressure, severe habitat destruction, and habitat fragmentation (Fig. 2; Rakotonirina and Rakotoarisoa, 2011.).

 [Figure 1. A melanistic sifaka photographed in the south-west of the crowned sifaka range in the Bemahatazana Commune, Menabe Region, December 2011 (Photo: L. Rakotonirina).]

3. To support the management of protected areas containing crowned sifaka

 The largest known populations of crowned sifaka exist in the fragmented dry deciduous forests between the Betsiboka and Mahavavy rivers near Mahajanga in north-west Madagascar (Mittermeier et al., 2010). The region currently benefits from significant technical and financial support from numerous organisations and therefore is not currently a priority area for further support from The Aspinall Foundation (TAF 2010).

 

4. To develop management mechanisms for unprotected sites containing crowned sifaka

 When we wrote our original project proposal (TAF, 2009), the only unprotected site we knew of was at Dabolava, but our collaborative surveys have now discovered several others in the Boeny, Betsiboka, Bongolava and Menabe Regions of central Madagascar. We remain technical partners for the Dabolava conservation project (Razafindramanana and Rasamimanana, 2010), coordinated by GERP with funding from various sources including EAZA, the crowned sifaka EEP, and Cotswold Wildlife Park. Unfortunately a fire in September burnt a large portion of the already small habitat here (GERP, 2011), and the long-term conservation of the site and the small group of sifaka remains challenging. The establishment of conservation activities at the sites we discovered in 2010 was included as an objective of an EAZA-funded project coordinated by GERP and named “Conservation of the crowned sifaka (Propithecus coronatus) through in situ and ex situ metapopulation management”. Within the framework of this project, research missions were undertaken at three of the seven sites during 2011, including some awareness-raising activities amongst local communities (GERP, 2011). We recommend that the development of conservation programmes at all or most of these sites should remain a priority for the overall conservation of the species. For the Boeny Region, we have contacted two potential facilitators to propose a budget for transferring the management responsibility of the Anaboazo site to the local community, which would then allow us to support the community to conserve the site and the sifaka. Conservation work is also desperately needed for the Ankirihitra forests west of Anaboazo (see above; Fig. 2), and the new sites in the Menabe Region.

 [Figure 2. Habitat destruction and hunting pressure in the Ankirihitra Commune, Boeny Region, November 2011 (Photos: L. Rakotonirina).]

 5. To ensure the survival of any crowned sifaka groups or individuals restricted to sites or habitats that can not be protected.

 This objective will be realised through the “metapopulation project” described above. The first group identified as a potential group for translocation within the context of the metapopulation project is one of the groups discovered in 2010 in the Bongolava Region, due to the isolation of the small forest fragment where it lives. We have been advising GERP on how to make translocation or reintroduction proposals based on IUCN guidelines (IUCN, 2002; Beck et al., 2007). A proposal has been submitted by GERP to the MEF, to use some of the individuals to reinforce the Dabolava population, whilst incorporating some others into the EEP captive-breeding population at Lemurs Park in Madagascar. The proposed translocation of the sifaka has been delayed whilst waiting for results of a genetic analysis, so from late November some local rangers have been hired temporarily to protect the group (GERP, 2011).

 

Conclusions

 Over the first two years of our Tsibahaka project our most significant contribution to the conservation of the crowned sifaka has been the surveying of large areas of central Madagascar to ascertain the true distribution of the species and to locate previously unknown populations. Such information is critical to allow realistic assessments of species abundance and status, and to design appropriate species-level conservation interventions (Rakotonirina et al., 2011). The challenge now is to ensure that this new-found knowledge is incorporated into the development of an effective collaborative programme to ensure the long-term conservation of the crowned sifaka across its full range.

 

Acknowledgements

 We thank everyone who has collaborated with us during this project, including the Government of Madagascar and in particular the Ministry for the Environment and Forests, the Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar (GERP), numerous regional and local authorities and communities, Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Josia Razafindramanana, Rose Marie Randrianarison and Mohamad Mbaraka.

 

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