Silky sifaka use this low, rumbling call when they want to be moving on. One
of the four sifaka we worked with today made this particular call when it
began to come out of the anesthetic.
56k | ISDN
June 4, 2000
A Great Day for Silkies
Today was an important day for the silky sifaka. First, Marojejy, one of their
two homes within Madagascar, officially became a national park. And second, we
took the first body measurements and blood samples ever taken of the silky
sifaka. Scientists, conservationists, and government officials can use the data
we collected today to help preserve this strikingly beautiful creature and its
equally beautiful habitat.
With Malagasy graduate student Felix Ratelolahy looking on, Loret Rasabo,
Mireya Mayor, Jacinth O'Donnell, and Pat Wright embrace still awakening silky
sifaka before setting them free in their home range.
The day began before dawn, when Loret Rasabo and Malagasy graduate student
Felix Ratelolahy headed out of camp to find the sleeping trees of the troop of
silky sifaka we've been following for several days. By about 7:30, Rasabo had
anesthetized four animals and begun the long trek back to camp to work them up
in our makeshift lab and then release them.
But he never made it to the lab. Around 9:30, Pat Wright came huffing up the
trail to the lab, which lies just down the hill from my tent.
"We've got four animals," she said, out of breath. "It's too slippery to bring
them down, so we're going to process them in the forest."
She didn't need to say "You coming?" I had my gear on my back inside a
minute, just in time to follow Wright and a few others back down the trail with
the necessary lab equipment.
We crossed the stream and headed up along a trail slick from rain. Long
brushstrokes in the mud showed where others had slipped before us. Placing our
feet only on roots and rocks, we soon reached a narrow ridge where the team had
assembled in an airy glade of thin-boled trees.
There on burlap sacks lay four silky sifaka, three males and one female. They
were sleeping quietly, with broad green leaves laid over their faces to keep
the sun out of their still open eyes. I could see their white-furred chests
gently breathing in and out. Silkies are the quintessence of lithe and lanky,
all arms and legs and long white tails. They had heads round and big as
softballs, with black and pink skin on their faces and large, brown eyes with
black pupils resembling our own. Their ears were all but lost in the thick fur,
which was soft as cashmere and smelled remarkably clean, "like a stuffed toy
straight out of F.A.O. Schwartz," as Wright remarked.
Both hands and feet featured opposable digits which allow the silkies to grip
tree trunks. They also had thick pads with finger- and toe prints similar to a
human's; the "thumb" on each foot bore a toe pad as big as an American quarter.
On the hands, it was interesting to see that the longest finger was the ring
finger, while the smallest was the index finger. "These nails need a manicure
as badly as mine do," Mireya Mayor joked, but I thought they looked
surprisingly well shaped. All nails on the hands were short, but one or two on
each foot was long and sharp.
Though they were asleep, the silky sifaka had their eyes open and drank water
freely from a syringe. Here, a drop of water still clings to the furry chin
of a silky.
When I arrived on the scene, the team was already at work getting the first
measurements ever taken of a silky sifaka. The smell of alcohol hung in the
air. The only sounds were the low voices of the team at work and the occasional
dog-like bark out in the forest of what our guides assure us is a barking crab.
Wright immediately asked whoever took a measurement to relay the figure to the
one recording the data and, when the recorder repeated the measurement, to
respond "okay." "It is so important," she said, "because if we get the wrong
number, it's the wrong number for this species."
While Mayor recorded, Rasabo and Ratelolahy laid a measuring tape along key
body parts. They measured the lemurs' sharp teeth with calipers, weighed each
animal with a hand-held scale, and took blood, skin, and hair samples. Safia
Salimo, another Malagasy graduate student, and Desiré Rabary picked
parasites out of the sifaka's fur and placed them in vials full of alcohol.
The blood will help decide this animal's relatedness to the
other four sifaka species on the island. It will also aid in determining
whether any genetic deterioration has taken place in what is presumed to be a
small population here at Marojejy. Researchers can also use DNA in the
follicles of the hair to investigate the species' genetics, while a study of
isotopes in the hair can reveal differences in diet and habitat between this
and other diademed sifaka.
While Mayor and Rasabo did most of the work on the animals, Wright kept a close
eye on things, helping with blood samples and occasionally offering advice.
Most everyone on that hillside, whether Western or Malagasy, was her student.
"Is everybody ready for a lesson?" she said at one point, dropping down before
the lone female. "When they're in reproductive condition, they're very pink
around here," she said, pressing her fingers lightly into the lemur's groin.
Moving her hands up, she added, "Look at her nipples. They're very small and
not extended. I'd say she's a very young female who has never had babies. When
they have them, the nipples get longer."
On the trail high above Camp Two, the team takes the first measurements ever
taken of the silky sifaka.
When most of the work was done, I was one of several fortunate people given a
sifaka to hold as it slowly came out of the anesthetic. I had a male perhaps 10
or 12 years old. He was the old man of the group, with a wrinkled pink face and
droopy eyes. Because of his age, he recovered more slowly from the anesthetic
than his younger relatives and mostly just sat there unmoving in my arms. I
could feel his heartbeat pulsing beneath the thin fur of his chest. Now and
then he swung his round head around to gaze quizzically at me with his watery
eyes, and once when shifting he suddenly ringed my wrist in a tight grip, the
fleshy pads of his long fingers cool to the touch.
Later, one of the younger sifaka began grunting in what Wright said was the
"moving" call. "It's a good sign," she said, "because it's what they use when
they want to be on the move." By now it was mid-afternoon, and the sifaka would
be fully awake within an hour or two and ready for release. To keep them calm
until they were fully restored to consciousness, Rasabo placed them delicately
into the gunnysacks.
After a late lunch of rice and vegetables, we returned to the ridge under a
darkening sky. As we all gathered around, Rasabo carefully opened the sack
containing my elderly friend and offered him a sapling with which to climb to
freedom. The old lemur came out slowly and moved off only a short way to rest
and watch us with those watery eyes. Rasabo then let the others go. Unlike
their elder, when they saw the offered tree trunk, they eagerly wrapped fingers
and opposable thumb around it and dashed up eight or ten feet in the blink of
an eye. There they paused to look back at us as if to say, "Are you really
letting us go?"
Absolutely. By tomorrow they likely will not remember that anything out of the
ordinary happened today, and they will go back to their obscure lives in the
trees. But the information we gathered today will help others go about the
business of protecting Propithecus diadema candidus, as the silky sifaka
is known scientifically.
With Wright looking on, Mireya Mayor records a blood sample taken from one of
the silky sifaka, one of which begins to awaken.
"Tomorrow, June 5th, is the National Day of the Environment in Madagascar,"
Wright said earlier as she cradled one of the slowly awakening silkies in her
lap. "It's a big celebration. The Prime Minister will be there, and many other
important Malagasy officials. We're so happy at this auspicious moment to be
helping to conserve these beautiful animals in the new Marojejy National
Mayor, for her part, appreciated the culmination of a project long in the
planning. "We've been waiting for this moment for months," she said. When
Wright laughingly suggested years, Mayor said, "Right, years, years."
The most unexpected reaction to our success today came from Desiré
Rabary. As night fell and I had just begun to write this dispatch, Rabary
appeared at my tent in the usual polite way Malagasy have of approaching
slowly, as if ready to retreat at a moment's notice.
He stuck his jovial face through the opening and said, "You have done a very
great thing." It took me a moment to realize he meant the team as a whole. "I
want to thank you. You have shown us guides something we would never see, and
we can tell other visitors about it. It was very special."
All in all, not a bad first day in the life of Marojejy National Park,
wouldn't you say?
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Forest of Hope (June 7, 2000)
A Great Day for Silkies (June 4, 2000)
Camp Life Unveiled (June 3, 2000)
Three Hours with the Silkies (June 1, 2000)
Angels of Marojejy (May 31, 2000)
Wildlife (May 30, 2000)
Into the Marojejy Massif (May 28, 2000)
Croc Cave (May 26, 2000)
Fossa! (May 25, 2000)
Bat Cave (May 24, 2000)
Update: English Camp (May 23, 2000)
Update: Sunken Forest (May 21, 2000)
Update: Night Walk (May 20, 2000)
Update: 70 Feet Up (May 19, 2000)
Update: Tropical Downpour (May 18, 2000)
Photos: Peter Tyson.
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