The Lemur Conservation Foundation is mourning the recent passing of Sanford’s brown lemur Ikoto. His loss is significant as the last of this Endangered species (International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List) in human-care and an LCF favorite for his sweet personality and celebrity. In 2015, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore visited LCF to photograph him for the Photo Ark, his project to save species and habitat. In 2017, Ikoto’s portrait, a painting by LCF founder Penelope Bodry-Sanders, graced the promotional materials for our gala that year to bring attention to the conservation status for this species.
We are grateful to Dr. Gina Ferrie, Science Operations Manager at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, for her article capturing his relevance in ex situ conservation, his history at Duke Lemur Center before his transfer to LCF in 2006 and, since that time, as a lemur in our care at the reserve. We invite and encourage you to learn more from her informative article.
By Dr. Gina Ferrie
The actions taken to conserve species fall on a continuum, from those that work to directly address threats in a species’ native habitat, to the extreme, including ex situ breeding programs, where individual animals are removed from their natural ecological processes and are managed by humans (IUCN 2014). Sometimes these actions to bring animals under the care of humans are credited as the complete salvation of a species, such as the well-known California condor or black-footed ferret programs in the United States.
More often, zoos and breeding centers are caring for the relics of an era of the past, when endangered species flowed out of their native habitat into these centers, where thoughtful planning and the application of scientific principles in caring for and breeding animals are a relatively recent construct. The Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) in Myakka City, Florida is an example of one of these organizations, with a strong mission to preserve and conserve the primates of Madagascar, where some of these examples of historical efforts in the name of conservation still reside.
LCF was home to Ikoto, the last Sanford’s brown lemur (Eulemur sanfordi) in human-care across the globe. A species listed as Endangered by IUCN, the forested areas in which they occur in the wild covers less than 5,000 km², or an area slightly bigger than Rhode Island. Their geographic range is severely fragmented and undergoing continuing decline in size, extent, and quality of habitat. They also face threats from hunting and being trapped for food and the pet trade, all tied to the explosive growth in human population on Madagascar. The number of mature Sanford’s lemurs is known to be in decline (Andriaholinirina et al. 2014).
The Sanford’s brown lemur is a medium sized lemur and both males and females of this species are easily distinguished by their creamy-grey beard. Males, however, have prominent ear tufts giving them a ‘maned’ appearance, distinguishing them from other brown lemurs. This species of lemur can be found living in groups with multiple males and multiple females, numbering between three to six individuals per square kilometer in some rainforests (Mittermeier et al. 2010), but groups as large as 15 have been observed in dry forests. These densities are quite low compared to other species (Banks et al. 2007).
The majority of the Sanford’s brown lemur’s diet consists of fruit but they have also been observed eating leaves, flowers, bark, sap, soil, and insects. Their role in seed dispersal and germination is integral to the forest ecosystems in which they reside (Freed 1996; Chen et al. 2016) and Dr. Ben Freed, one of the few people to spend time following the species in Madagascar, has learned that the Malagasy communities where they are found describe them as “tree farmers.”
Sanford’s brown lemurs are extremely under-studied in Madagascar. There is a paucity of published scientific literature describing the natural history, behavior, and other facets of this species. The species is found in the northernmost area of the island in Montagne d’Ambre National Park, Ankarana Special Reserve, Analamerana Special Reserve as well as additional protected areas further south (Banks et al. 2007). Dr. Freed has discovered that they form associations in the forest with another species, the crowned lemur, which is a rare behavior for lemurs, and the two species can often be found foraging in the same trees.
This species has a short history in human-care. The first Sanford’s brown lemurs were brought from Madagascar to Durham, North Carolina to reside at the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) beginning with a female who arrived at DLC in 1969, and, later, four individuals (two males, two females) arrived in 1984. A total of 17 Sanford’s brown lemurs were born at Duke Lemur Center from 1985 to 1993. Andrea Katz, current Madagascar Conservation Initiatives manager for DLC, was primate technician supervisor when the Sanford’s lemurs arrived in 1984. Katz recalled that Dr. Elwyn Simons (director of the Lemur Center at the time) was passionate about lemur diversity and his vision included casting a wide net to bring a variety of poorly studied lemurs to DLC for research and conservation breeding while keeping an eye toward possible reintroduction.
Even in the 1980’s, Simons’ decisions focused on the risk that all lemurs could go extinct in the wild. However, at the time, the ability to import lemurs from Madagascar to the U.S., while difficult, was a part of Simons’ management planning, and if a species were successful in human-care, he had every intention of importing more to support a population. Retired DLC Registrar David Haring wrote recently “One can only make an educated guess as to why Simons selected the species he did to bring to Duke so long ago, but make no mistake, it was his decision. This was before the days of long range strategic planning and endless committee meetings: Dr. Simons drove the Lemur Center’s mission to save and study lemurs, nearly single-handedly. Certainly a species’ perceived level of endangerment, its rarity and level of taxonomic uniqueness played roles in Simons’ decisions.” Unfortunately for the Sanford’s brown lemur, Simons did not make additional imports a priority for DLC and the species never gained a stronghold to establish a population in human care.
Providing a home to Sanford’s brown lemurs was an easy decision for LCF. From conception and its earliest days, science and research, core tenets of the LCF mission, were drivers of the decisions around which species to bring to LCF to be a part of conservation breeding programs. The decisions were made to satisfy the Prosimian Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which LCF is a Certified Related Facility, as well as LCF’s desire to concentrate on less charismatic species which were not the flashy lemurs found in a typical zoo, but those with conservation importance nonetheless. At this point, DLC was hoping to reduce the number of species and lemurs in their care, and with LCF’s interest in brown lemurs, the transition from DLC to LCF was a perfect fit.
In 2006, four of the eight remaining Sanford’s brown lemurs arrived at LCF, including one male named “Ikoto”. The word “ikoto” means “boy” in Malagasy, and is a common name given to male children. However, “Ikoto” is also a young child in a Malagasy story, known as “the doomed child”, who was taken from his parents at a young age by a large bird, only to be reborn to his parents after their demonstration of love (McElroy 2001). With the transfer of these Sanford’s lemurs, LCF was fulfilling the recommendation of their scientific advisors (including prominent lemur biologists Dr. Ian Tattersall and Dr. Robert Sussman) to make brown lemurs a priority for ex situ conservation.
Ikoto and his family resided and thrived in one of the large forested habitats at LCF for years. However, in 2013, it was noticed by his caretakers that Ikoto began losing his hearing, and after this, he transitioned to living in one of LCF’s lemur shelters. As Ikoto was impacted by more age-related ailments over time, the care provided to him was what we can only hope for in our twilight years. LCF Curator of Primates Caitlin Kenney explains that “Ikoto received his daily medication presented in a small piece of banana at dinnertime. This became his favorite time of day and he was guaranteed to make sure the staff knew it was time for his daily treat by starting to vocalize loudly at about 4pm each day. Ikoto was so insistent that care staff ensured that he was close to the first individuals fed dinner, to calm his insistent croaking.” Ikoto’s vocalizations were easy to identify as they differed from the other species of similar brown lemurs, ranging from long, loud croaks, to short grunting snorts.
Ikoto’s appearance was also quite striking with long, flowing, cream-colored cheek tufts and a velvety nose, making him one of LCF’s most handsome lemurs. He also easily formed relationships with lemurs of other species, demonstrating this rare behavior studied by Dr. Freed, and becoming a great companion to other lemurs who needed a roommate and friend.
Sadly, Ikoto, the last Sanford’s brown lemur in human-care, passed away at LCF in May 2020. Ikoto was an LCF favorite, heavily featured in print materials such as annual reports and fundraising initiatives. He was the subject of multiple artistic and creative projects, supporting LCF’s mission which includes art as an integral tool used to educate people about the challenges faced by lemurs.
In 2014, journalist Adam Davies (with photographer Kim Longstreet) won multiple awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Society of Professional Journalists Florida Pro Chapter for their feature The Loneliest Lemur on Earth in Sarasota Magazine. The colorful article, both in language and images, introduces the mission and day to day operations of LCF, ending with a contemplative view of Ikoto’s life, leaving the reader empathetically aware of what it means to be the last of a species in the Western hemisphere, with an ocean, a disappearing home, and numerous other challenges facing the rest of Ikoto’s lemur family in Madagascar.
Ikoto’s significance was further captured in 2015, by Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer and founder of the Photo Ark, when he visited LCF to photograph him for the project. The Photo Ark is dedicated to photographing every species maintained in human care in order to inspire the public to care and protect these species into the future.
Finally, in 2017, Ikoto was memorialized as the subject of a painting by LCF Founder Penelope Bodry-Sanders which was featured during the organization’s gala that year. The artwork, titled Ikoto’s Vision – Longing for Lost Forests, represents LCF’s commitment to the prevention of the extinction of lemurs. To Bodry-Sanders “Ikoto was, and is, a symbol for me of everything we are losing.”
Each and every lemur has their own individual personality. Ikoto was a sweet lemur, much loved and favored by all who knew him. Bodry-Sanders recalls that he “mourned for days after his mate died, uttering sad staccato uh-uh-uh-uh sounds, calling out for her.” This was especially impactful for his caretakers, knowing that he would live out his life without the companionship of another Sanford’s brown lemur.
The LCF staff mourns every individual lemur that passes, but losing Ikoto is especially devastating. LCF is contributing in a way that is bigger than their small footprint in Myakka City, Florida, leading in the conservation of species. However, in the case of Ikoto and the Sanford’s brown lemurs, there were too few animals to serve as an assurance population, or safety-net, for their wild counterparts. This is not a new challenge faced by those that manage ex situ conservation breeding programs, and highlights the difficulty in choosing this strategy to save a species. There are times that species have to be let go, and the drive, energy, resources, love, and passion are redirected to another.
Ikoto is a vivid symbol in the battle to save as many lemur species as possible, and in the bigger picture of conservation breeding programs. When Ikoto was named, his original caretakers had no idea that he would fulfill his prophecy being named after “the doomed child,” but we can only hope that, like in the conclusion of the story, Ikoto is reborn, and this time, we recognize the need to give more protection to the species with which we share the planet, acting as the parents and stewards to the wildlife in our care.
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