DURHAM, N.C. -- Five lemurs from the Duke University Primate Center were resting safely in a cage in the depths of a Madagascar rain forest preserve Friday, sampling local foods, after an arduous four-day journey by air, truck and being hand-carried in traveling cases through miles of trackless jungle.
The captive-born, black-and-white ruffed lemurs have begun an historic journey, the first of their species ever to be returned to the wild. They are part of a project by the international Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG) to systematically repatriate as many as 20 of the adaptable lemurs to their ancestral island nation over the next three years.
The first five lemurs, after being held in an outdoor cage to allow them to acclimate to local foods, will be released about Nov. 10, to join a dwindling population of their wild cousins. The MFG researchers said they hope the lemurs will interbreed with the threatened local population of about 30, enhancing the gene pool of ruffed lemurs in the preserve.
Black-and-white ruffed lemurs, known for the fur that frames their faces and the lush coats of black and white fur, are among Madagascar's most endangered. They are regularly hunted for food on the island.
The five Duke lemurs -- Janus, Letitia, Praesepe, Sarph and Zuben'ubi -- departed from the Primate Center on Oct. 17 for the 5,000-acre Betampona Natural Reserve in Madagascar. They were accompanied by veterinarian Graham Crawford of the San Francisco Zoo.
Charles Welch, the MFG project's director, reported that the air leg of the journey, which included layovers in Atlanta, Paris, the Madagascar capitol Antananrivo, and the city of Tamatave, went well, with the animals readily accepting food and water.
In Tamatave, "the lemurs and Graham happily settled in for one night of peace and sleep at our house, after the lemurs were pampered with morsels of their first fresh tropical fruits (mangos, papayas and tiny mandarin oranges)," wrote Welch in an e-mailed report.
The next morning the lemurs in their carrying cases and their human companions departed for the Betampona reserve.
"It rained and rained," reported Welch. "The drive from Tamatave was slow going on a bad road, lots of mud and deep ruts ... We arrived at the village of Fontsimavo at the end of the road, about 2:30 p.m. There, we were met by project research coordinator Adam Britt, all five of our conservation agents and a bevy of 11 local porters. After everyone in the village had a chance to ogle the lemurs, we all left on foot for the base camp at the edge of the Betampona reserve.
"The lemur crates were each tied to the end of a long thick bamboo pole with a proud conservation agent hefting the middle part of the pole on his shoulder. After a slippery 1 1/2 hour walk up in intermittent rain, wading the same river seven times, we arrived at the Rendrirendry base camp. The ruffed lemurs were immediately transferred to the small cage at the camp, where they could stretch their legs, eat and settle down on perches for their second night in the country of their ancestors." The next morning, the lemurs were examined by Crawford and fitted with radio collars, Welch wrote.
"After the exam and radio collar fitting, each animal was put back into his travel crate, again attached to bamboo poles, and carried another 1 1/2 kilometers into the reserve where they were released into the recently completed habituation cage," Welch wrote.
"In the forest cage, the lemurs are being fed bananas, mangos, pineapple and monkey chow, but will get increasing amounts of native forest fruits in the days to come, as the chow and cultivated fruits are gradually reduced.
"Their appetites are good. Two keepers from Zoo Ivoloina are camped out next to the cage (rather miserably right now, with all of the rain, mud and leeches), and a rotation of Ivoloina keepers will have lemur duty on through until the release to assure security and full-time care and observations of the lemurs.
"Already in the first day, the lemurs are feeding on wild "Romendafa" fruits, so we're optimistic that they will readily adapt to wild foods," Welch wrote. "Careful records are being kept of all food offered and eaten, and the animals will be weighed when they're examined again in a week," he wrote.
Primary collaborators in the Betampona restocking project include some of the MFG's key member organizations: the Duke Primate Center, Philadelphia Zoo and Roger Williams Park Zoo in the United States; and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, Marwell Preservation Trust and Zoological Society of London in Great Britain. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association also support the project.
Madagascar collaborators include the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas, the Malagasy Department of Water and Forests, the University of Madagascar and Parc Ivoloina.
The total budget for the first three-year phase will be $300,000. Almost half that money is already in hand due to fund-raising efforts -- principally by the Jersey-London-Marwell group, which has raised $120,000.
In one notable example, actor-producer John Cleese donated the proceeds from the London premier of his comedy film Fierce Creatures, which featured captive lemurs in addition to its human cast.
Other MFG members include: Aktiengesellschaft Zoologischer in Koln, Germany; Baltimore Zoo; Brookfield (Ill.) Zoo; Cincinnati Zoo; Colchester Zoo in Essex, England; Columbus (Ohio) Zoo; Denver Zoo; Fort Worth (Tex.) Zoo; Institut d'Embryologie, Strasbourg, France; Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments in Stony Brook, N.Y.; Knoxville (Tenn.) Zoo; Los Angeles Zoo; Micke Grove Zoo in Lodi, Calif.; Oklahoma City Zoo; Orgrod Zoologiczny Poznon in Poland; Parc Zoologique et Botanique Mulhouse in France; Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash.; San Antonio Zoo; San Francisco Zoo; St. Louis Zoo; Transvaal Snake Park in South Africa; Wildlife Conservation Society in Bronx, N.Y.; Zoo Atlanta; Zoological Garden Zurich in Switzerland; and Zoologischer Garten der Landes in Saarbrucken, Germany.
The Duke Primate Center, located in an isolated off-campus forest, is now home to 16 different endangered lemur species, as well as six other "prosimian" (pre-monkey) species such as lorises and bushbabies. The center is supported by the National Science Foundation, Duke University and private donations.