The new study, led by Bristol Zoological Society has found that the lemurs have been using chocolate bean plantations to survive
The research, funded by Conservation International working with the direct-trade company Madecasse Chocolate and Vanilla, investigated reports that lemurs were living in cacao plantations in Madagascar.
Scientists from Bristol Zoological Society and the University of the West of England spent six months on the study setting up camera traps, carrying out night time surveys, following the lemurs on foot, and using special equipment to identify their calls.
They found five species of lemur in the shade trees of the plantations in the north-west region of Madagascar.
Dr Amanda Webber, lecturer in conservation science at Bristol Zoological Society, said: “We have confirmed that lemurs are present in cacao plantations. We don’t know if they are living in the plantations or using them as a corridor to get between areas of optimum habitat.
“The findings are exciting as they suggest that these highly threatened animals can live in human-dominated areas and cacao could be an example of a crop that, when grown sustainably, has the potential to benefit wildlife and people.”
Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is produced, is a vital commercial crop for people living in Madagascar.
So too is vanilla, and a second BZS study, also funded by Conservation International, explored biodiversity in vanilla plantations.
Dr Sam Cotton from Bristol Zoological Society has been working with UK and Malagasy scientists, and the Malagasy NGO, Fanamby.
He said: “We found the highest number of species in those vanilla plantations grown close to areas of natural forest and amongst natural vegetation.
“Amazingly we can report that five different species of lemur call vanilla plantations home.
“These are the first documented observations of lemurs living in vanilla plantations, and are extraordinary, unexpected and highly encouraging. Appropriately managed and located vanilla plantations may therefore act as viable habitats for many species, including primates."
Dr Christoph Schwitzer, director of conservation at Bristol Zoological Society, said: “These studies are helping us to understand how lemurs cope in fragmented habitats and help farmers to make decisions that will benefit both sustainable agriculture and conservation.”
Curan Bonham, Conservation International’s director of monitoring and evaluations, said: “These are the first studies we have that shows the role that cacao and vanilla plantations can play as habitat for lemur species.
“This research underscores the importance of and need for greater investment to promote sustainable production systems as part of an holistic landscape conservation strategy.”
Tim McCollum, founder and CEO of Madecasse Chocolate and Vanilla, said: “Poverty is the root cause of habitat destruction in Madagascar.
“Any serious conservation needs to solve poverty at the village level. This research is the first step in linking lemur preservation and renewable income generation for cocoa and vanilla farmers. The most exciting thing is that it can be scaled.”
Dr David Fernández, Lecturer in Conservation Science, UWE Bristol, said, “Now that we have confirmed that lemurs regularly use cocoa and vanilla plantations, our next step is to develop rapid monitoring tools to quickly survey other areas that may have been overlooked as potential lemur habitats.”