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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Looks to die for? The rare Madagascan aye-aye driven to extinction... because of native belief that it brings death to a village

By Matt Blake

With its bulging yellow eyes and giant floppy ears, this cute baby aye-aye just wants to be loved.

But the six-week-old lemur is considered an evil omen in parts of its native Madagascar and must be killed on sight to avoid bringing bad luck.

It is believed by that if one points its long and narrow food-foraging finger at you, you are condemned to death.

Some even say the appearance of an aye-aye in a village predicts the death of a villager.

Elphaba the aye-aye: The six-week old lemur was born at the Duke Lemur Centre in Durham, North Carolina and named after the young girl in the musical Wicked who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West

It is considered by many to be the strangest primate in the world with unusual physical characteristics including incisors that never stop growing, something unique among primates, extremely large ears, and a middle finger which is skeletal in appearance and is used by the animal as a primary sensory organ.

The six-week old was born at the Duke Lemur Centre in Durham, North Carolina and named Elphaba, after the young girl in the musical Wicked who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West.

It has a very specialised diet including grubs, nuts and animal matter. It walks along a branch tapping it with its bony finger and cupping its huge ears to listen to any movements within.

When it finds an insect tunnel, it rips the bark away and inserts its finger into the hole to hook the grub.

Unlike many lemur species that are hunted for food, aye-ayes are sometimes killed as crop-threatening pests in agricultural areas.

Recent research shows the Aye-aye, the only living member of the family Daubentoniidae, is more widespread than was previously thought, but it is still categorised as 'near threatened'.

One of the reasons it was thought to be so rare was because it is so elusive. They are nocturnal, solitary foragers who spend up to 80 per cent of the night feeding and travelling through the forest canopy.

The Duke Lemur Centre is home to 20 of the world's 32 captive aye-ayes.

For millions of years, lemurs, the ancient relatives of monkeys, apes and humans, evolved in isolation on the island of Madagascar.

With only a few natural predators, expansive habitat, and lush vegetation, lemurs flourished on the island paradise until slightly less than 2,000 years ago when humans began to settle there.

Since the first immigrants arrived, one third of the lemur species have become extinct and more teeter on the brink of extinction.

As Madagascar's population is currently doubling every 25 years, there is ever growing pressure for land, mainly for slash-and-burn agriculture.

Therefore, the protection and preservation of these truly unique primates requires an approach both in Madagascar and internationally.

To this end, the Duke Lemur Centre was established in 1966 and today is the world's largest sanctuary for rare and endangered prosimian primates.



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