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Ring-tailed lemur
Lemur catta

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CITES: Appendix I (What is CITES?)
IUCN Red List: L. catta: NT (What is Red List?)
Key: NT = Near threatened
(Click on species name to see IUCN Red List entry, including detailed status assessment information.)

Lemur catta
Photo: Herbert Gustafson

Madagascar is often considered the single highest priority conservation area on Earth. The only other island with more endemic species is Australia, which is 13 times the size of Madagascar (Mittermeier et al. 1994). While ring-tailed lemurs are not the most threatened prosimians in Madagascar, they certainly are among the most recognizable and preserving them is necessary because of their role as a flagship species (Mittermeier et al. 1992). The threats facing ring-tailed lemurs in the wild are not unique, like many other threatened primates, habitat destruction and hunting are causing the wild population to dwindle (Mittermeier et al. 1994).


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

Since the arrival of humans on Madagascar approximately 2000 years ago, roughly 80% of the total forest cover has been lost due to extraction of precious hardwoods, fuelwood and other products as well as to clear land for agricultural and grazing lands (Mittermeier et al. 1994). Specifically, in the southwest, forest loss can be attributed to supplying urban centers with fuel wood, charcoal, and construction wood for the quickly growing human population (Fenn 2003). Forests are also destroyed by fires ignited to clear grasslands (Harcourt and Thornback 1990). At higher elevations, where the soil quality is much better, the forests on which ring-tailed lemurs depend are threatened by slash-and-burn agriculture, fires that burn uncontrollably, and exploitation of firewood (Mittermeier et al. 1992). Ring-tailed lemurs depend on gallery forests and open forests with tamarind trees to survive the harsh seasonal environmental conditions (Jolly et al. 2002; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 2003). Population density is directly linked to habitat quality, and as these forests are destroyed, ring-tailed lemurs are unable to recover efficiently (Sussman 1991; Sussman et al. 2003). Focusing on conserving these resources is necessary because if they are altered too drastically or destroyed completely, ring-tailed lemurs are not likely to survive (Mittermeier et al. 1994).

Potential Solutions

Fortunately, ring-tailed lemurs occur in all of the protected areas within their range. Many of these preserves offer differing levels of protection, though, and focused conservation efforts should revolve around increasing awareness of the seemingly common species that is in reality, threatened (Mittermeier et al. 1994). Another important conservation strategy has been undertaken at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. Authorities there, with the help of Yale University, have worked to develop and promote the site as a research and training center for international students as well as local people. They also collaborate with local communities to ensure long-term conservation of the unique fauna and flora. Everyone from school children to college students and professionals have been trained in research activities at Beza Mahafaly, focusing on applied field biology as well as management of natural resources (Ratsirarson 2003). In the peripheral zones of the reserve, livestock breeding and management occurs, alleviating some of the pressure of traditional patterns of clearing land and grazing. Furthermore, Beza Mahafaly is being developed to attract tourists interested in enjoying the regions unique flora and fauna, bringing economic opportunity to the people living near and within the reserve. Empowering local communities to become actively involved in conservation of this and other reserves are driving forces in maintaining habitat for ring-tailed lemurs and other Malagasy primates (Ratsirarson 2003).

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

In some regions, ring-tailed lemurs are hunted with dogs for food. They are also kept as pets (Mittermeier et al. 1992).

Potential Solutions

Though the more serious threat to ring-tailed lemurs is human-induced habitat loss, the success of captive breeding programs could be important to restocking forested areas if hunting pressure becomes too great and ring-tailed lemur populations drop significantly. Easily bred and raised in captivity, there are about 2000 ring-tailed lemurs in zoos around the world ( This large population can serve as source lemurs to be reintroduced if necessary. Experimental release programs on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia reveal that captive ring-tailed lemurs released into a natural environment readily adapt to their new environment and begin to exhibit the broad repertoire of behaviors seen in wild ring-tailed lemurs (Keith-Lucas et al. 1999). At this time, release programs are not part of the conservation plan for ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar , but knowing how captive animals will adapt to natural conditions maintains release as a future option, if necessary.

Threat: Natural Disasters

Drought is a periodic but serious concern in southern Madagascar. Where rainfall levels are scarce in normal years, in years of drought, the near absence of rain has had serious consequences for ring-tailed lemurs (Gould et al. 1999). From 1991 to 1992, a severe drought was responsible for higher than normal mortality rates among females and infants and changed the demographic make-up of the subpopulation at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. Two years after the end of the drought, the adult population of ring-tailed lemurs had decreased by 31%, but within four years, the population seemed to be recovering. Decreases in food resources and subsequent malnourishment are thought to be the primary cause of population decline during and after a drought (Gould et al. 1999).

Potential Solutions

While nothing can be done to prevent a naturally occurring drought, researchers at Berenty Private Reserve noted that during the same time period, ring-tailed lemurs were not as adversely affected because of provisioning practices. At Berenty, where tourism is the major source of income, ring-tailed lemurs have access to introduced fruit trees and ornamental vegetation in addition to watering troughs (Simmen et al. 2003). Researchers must make a difficult choice in the future whether or not to allow the natural population fluctuations caused by severe drought to occur or to supplement populations suffering from inadequate resources as was done at Berenty. Ring-tailed lemurs have high levels of fecundity and their reproductive patterns probably evolved because of the harsh environment in which they live (Jolly 2003). Unless there are serious concerns for the survival of the population, it is likely that nothing will be done to interfere with natural catastrophes such as drought.

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

When small subpopulations are isolated from one another because of some sort of barrier, limited dispersal can lead to inbreeding and a host of associated problems (Sussman et al. 2003). Additionally, natural disasters may have more serious effects on small populations (Gould et al. 1999). Maintaining gene flow between subpopulations of ring-tailed lemurs is necessary to ensure their long-term viability in the wild and their ability to deal with the harsh environment of southern Madagascar.

Potential Solutions

The forest cover remaining in southern Madagascar is patchy, at best. Many forest patches have been protected because of their sacred spiritual value to local peoples (Sussman et al. 2003). These have no official government protection, but they exist, undisturbed, and are often quite good habitat for ring-tailed lemurs. Focusing conservation efforts on reconnecting these 1400 forest patches and making the most of their cultural status could be one way to preserve more land for ring-tailed lemurs and create contiguous corridors between patches to stimulate gene flow.





Content last modified: September 21, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Michelle Sauther.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 September 21. Primate Factsheets: Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2014 April 19.