How to Find Wild Lemurs

The first question every morning is, “Which group are you chasing today?”  The capture team has first dibs on which groups they dart each day, and after they make their choice, Jim and I would usually hold a quick conference on who was going to go after whichever groups were left.  Then off everyone went – Me to Forest Location A, Jim to Forest Location B, and the capture team to Forest Location C.

With ten groups of lemurs in a 1.6 by 1.0 km tract of forest, you would think, “how hard can this be?”  Well, most days it’s easy, and other days, you may as well have just stayed home.  Some groups have small ranges, some groups have large ranges, and one group, Yellow was the nomadic group that you could never predict where they would be.  If you found Yellow somewhere, you stuck with them because it could be days before anyone found them again.  Ring-tailed lemurs have homeranges, or a part of their habitat where they are most often found, but the boundaries are very loosely defined and are more like “suggestions” than boundaries.  Knowing a group’s ‘normal’ homerange was no promise of finding them.  They could easily be off in a completely different part of the reserve, just because they felt like being a pain in the butt that day.  For example, Hot Pink group usually hangs out in the middle of the reserve, except for the several days I found them up North, or the one day I followed them out of the Reserve to the West, you get the idea.  In other words, you pick a group, head to their normal area, and then tromp up and down the paths for 20 minutes, or for 2-3 hours looking for that group. Or really, after 2 hours, any lemurs at all.

How do you find lemurs?  Simple – stop, look, and listen.  Obviously you look for the lemurs, but 30 m up in the tree, a 2-3 kg animal is really difficult to find in dense foliage.  Sometimes you get lucky and see a head poking out of the top of the leaves, or a ringed tail hanging from a crook in a branch, so keep your eyes peeled.  Otherwise, your best option is to listen for them.  My strategy was to walk about 30 steps down the trail, stop, and listen for 1-2 minutes.  Then repeat. Again. And again.  And again.  When searching for either ring-tailed lemurs or sifakas, you’re listening for two things.  The vocal sounds they make, and the noise they make moving through the trees or on the ground.  If you get out at the right time of day, and happen to find your group while moving, you’ll hear two things.  The first are the contact calls between group members as they spread out through the trees.  The stragglers call to the ones in front, and the babies call their mothers.  If you’re good, can make the calls yourself and sometimes they respond.  Their responses can be a huge helping in finding them.  Getting the pitch right can take a little practice, but Michelle makes baby lemur calls like a pro.  I’m decent, but not amazing, so I only got responses if I was right on top of them.

Alternatively, you hear them moving through the trees.  With sifakas, it’s like listening for a ghost.  You hear nothing unless they jump from tree to tree, so you listen for one or two crashes.  If they’re not moving, however, you can walk within 2 m of them and never see them.  Ring-tailed lemurs are a little more clumsy.  And by a little, I mean a LOT.  Every few days you would see one try to jump between branches and miss, or frankly just fall right out of the tree.  So when they move through the forest, you can definitely hear them.  Assuming, of course, that they’re moving and not napping, and that it’s not windy, which it was often.  On windy days, you are a little screwed.  You’re listening for branches and leaves rattling, and watching for branch movement, and the wind is making EVERYTHING rattle and everything move.  So you spot a shaking branch and hear crashing!  Hooray!  Crash through the thorns to get a lot closer, only to see nothing and hear the trees snickering.

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