One reserve, three primates: applying a holistic approach to understand the interconnections among ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), Verreaux's sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), and humans (Homo sapiens) at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, Madagascar
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We applied cultural anthropological, ethological, and parasitological methodologies to investigate the interplay among three primate species, ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), and humans (Homo sapiens) who live within the same habitat (i.e. in sympatry) around the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, Madagascar. Through a fusion of these methodologies we hope to provide a holistic understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of human-nonhuman primate sympatry. Interviews and questionnaires provided us with initial insights regarding the local peoples' attitudes toward sympatric strepsirrhine primates. Origin myths indicate a close association between humans, ring-tailed lemurs, and Verreaux’s sifaka, which may serve as an important basis for positive conservation perspectives among the local people. These include lemur hunting taboos and special ancestral forests that are protected against deforestation. However, paleontological data indicate that these cultural perceptions may be of recent origin. Close human-nonhuman primate associations can also have negative effects. We found that some nonhuman primate behavioral activities appear associated with increasing parasite loads, and may act as potential avenues of parasite transmission. Fecal analyses revealed that groups of ring-tailed lemurs that frequented the camp, and interact on a regular basis with humans harbor more endoparasites. These lemur “camp” groups engaged in coprophagy (fecal ingestion) of human, dog (Canis familiaris), and zebu (Bos indicus) fecal matter. In contrast, analyses of Verreaux’s sifaka fecal matter revealed no parasites. Verreaux’s sifaka were rarely terrestrial, generally avoided humans, and were not observed engaging in coprophagy. This suggests that each strepsirrhines species’ behavioral patterns and socioecology directly affect its likelihood of acquiring parasitic infections, and this is currently being studied in more depth at the site. We feel that incorporating local people into conservation initiatives are vital for success. This requires an understanding of human-nonhuman primate interconnections, the perspective of local peoples regarding their surroundings, knowledge of nonhuman primate behavior, and epidemiological factors.