What the heck’s a lemur and, more importantly, what the hell is on that guy’s head?
We’re glad you asked. In fact, it’s the entire point.
Environmental scientist Ivan Steward hopes his unique cycling outfit (which actually isn’t much more outrageous than the neon-Lycra ones we typically see cyclists wearing) will inspire those questions, and some donations too.
Earlier this year Steward quit his day job to bike 1,500 miles around New Zealand’s south island—in lemur costume. The Auckland resident, who has been on the road for more than a month, dresses in an outfit resembling the white lemur he’s aiding with his journey, which is intended to raise awareness about the critically endangered silky sifaka whose population is estimated at only 250 members. Proceeds raised from Steward’s trip are being donated to Simpona, a nonprofit organization devoted to researching and protecting silky sifakas and their habitat.
So what is a lemur anyway?
The critter is a type of prosimian primate—some of the oldest on earth, predating monkeys and great apes—and wild only on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. The word lemur means “ghost” in Latin, a moniker bestowed on the animals by the Malagasy people, who thought them similar to spirits or ghosts because of their nocturnal activity.
Due to their natural geographic confinement on Madagascar, significant habitat destruction, poaching and hunting for bush meat, nearly all species of lemur are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Which is why people like Stewart see the need to dress in strange costumes to raise awareness.
But you don’t need to make a spectacle of yourself to help. Instead, consider a trip to North Carolina. The Duke Lemur Center in Durham is home to more than 200 lemurs representing 15 different species. This 85-acre swath of forest shelters the largest population of lemurs outside their native habitat and is the world’s largest sanctuary for rare and endangered prosimian primates.
“What gets me up in the morning is that I want my grandchildren to live in a world where there are lemurs,” a staffer remarked to us when we stopped by the Center. “It’s a real possibility that lemurs could cease to exist, and we want to do our part to see that doesn’t happen.”
The Center welcomes the public, seeking to spread the message about its conservation efforts as well as offer animal lovers an up-close look at its residents. Serious work is done here, but it’s also a fun, lively place. We saw a ring-tailed lemur lounging in a green plastic patio chair, watched black and white ruffed lemurs feasting on dishes of broccoli and Purina monkey chow, and observed the playful interaction of a mongoose lemur and her baby.
The Behind-the-Scenes Tour allows visitors to mingle with the lemurs in areas normally accessed only by staffers. “It’s a completely different experience to see an animal from two inches away as opposed to twenty feet. The subtleties that guests pick up on and the nuances completely change the paradigm, which is exactly what we’re striving to do,” said Keith Morris, our tour guide. From scientists to children who have seen the movie Madagascar and everyone in between, “there is something for everyone here.”
In addition to the Behind-the-Scenes Tour (November–April), the center offers a Walking with Lemurs excursion (May-October) that goes into the forest. Other options include a Photography Tour and a Painting with Lemurs experience. During the photography tour, visitors wield the equipment while in the painting one the lemurs do. It seems the aspiring Monets love to paint.