Saving the Silky Sifaka

In Madagascar, an American researcher races to protect one of the world’s rarest mammals, a white lemur known as the silky sifaka

Silky sifakas have long eked out an existence in rugged, high-altitude forests. Now the growing number of people nearby pose a threat to the furtive primate. (Kevin Schafer)
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Clustered in the mountains of northeastern Madagascar, they are known locally as “ghosts of the forest,” because they seem to flash through the trees. To scientists, silky sifakas are known as one of the world’s rarest mammals. There are fewer than 1,000 still alive, perhaps only 100, says Erik Patel, a PhD candidate at Cornell University who has spent years observing the an­imals in the island nation’s Marojejy National Park.

A type of lemur, a silky sifaka weighs between 11 and 14 pounds and measures up to three-and-a-half-feet long. Silkies “fly like angels,” local people say, leaping as far as ten yards from tree to tree. “You could be following them and suddenly you look up and they’re a quarter-mile away,” says Kevin Schafer, a Seattle-based wildlife photographer who spent two weeks with Patel documenting the elusive primate.

The bone-white animal (a.k.a. Propithecus candidus) is called silky because of its luxurious fur.The word “sifaka,” shared by several lemur species, echoes the screech—“shee-faak!”—made by some frightened lemurs, but not the silky.

People are the silkies’ main threat. Some hunt them for food. Others burn their forest habitat to make room for rice fields. Loggers also destroy silky habitat when they cut down, illegally, valuable rosewood trees.

Patel works with communities to discourage logging and the hunting of silkies. He has taken children to see them in the wild and hired villagers to track them. Unless destruction of their habitat ceases, he fears, the animal will become a ghost in fact. “Time is quickly running out,” he says.

Erica R. Hendry is an editorial intern at the magazine. Kevin Schafer specializes in wildlife. His photograph of a flying scarlet macaw graced the cover of the December issue.

Silky sifakas are found in the mountains of northeastern Madagascar and are known locally as "ghosts of the forest." (Kevin Schafer)
A silky sifaka weighs between 11 and 14 pounds and measures up to three-and-a-half feet long. Silkies "fly like angels," local people say, leaping as far as ten yards from tree to tree. (Kevin Schafer)
"You could be following them and suddenly you look up and they're a quarter-mile away," says Kevin Schafer, a Seattle-based wildlife photographer. (Kevin Schafer)
Silky sifakas have long eked out an existence in rugged, high-altitude forests. Now the growing number of people nearby pose a threat to the furtive primate. (Kevin Schafer)
The silkies' complex diet consists of some 150 types of flowers, leaves, seeds and fruits and is one reason the lemur has not survived long in captivity. (Kevin Schafer)
The silky sifaka is listed among the world's 25 most endangered primates, with only an estimated 100 to 1,000 individuals remaining. (Kevin Schafer)
Erik Patel, a PhD candidate at Cornell University, has spent years observing the silkies in Madagascar's Marojejy National Park. (Kevin Schafer)
People are silkies' main threat. Some hunt them for food and others burn their forest habitat to make room for rice fields. (Kevin Schafer)
Loggers also destroy the silky's habitat when they illegally cut down valuable rosewood trees. (Kevin Schafer)
Patel works with communities to discourage logging and hunting of silkies. He has taken children to see them in the wild and hired villagers to track them. (Kevin Schafer)
Animals outside the protected areas are at an even greater risk, says Patel: "It's hard to be optimistic about silky sifakas we find there." (Kevin Schafer)
Patel fears if the destruction of the silkies' habitat doesn't cease, the animal will become a ghost. (Kevin Schafer)
Silkies have long toes and an opposable big toe that lets them grab branches with their feet. (Kevin Schafer)
Of the 100 or so types of lemurs, all in Madagascar, only two are mostly white, including the silky sifaka, which has long luxurious fur. (Kevin Schafer)
Usually traveling in groups of two to nine, the animals spend much of their day grooming one another and playing. (Kevin Schafer)
"It must be one of the most difficult places to work in Madagascar," Patel says of the mountainous rain forest where he studies silkies. (Kevin Schafer)
Silkies are so arboreal they even sleep aloft among the trees. (Kevin Schafer)
Within a troop, parenting duties may be shared; females have been observed feeding infants that aren't their own or carrying them through the treetops. (Kevin Schafer)
The word "sifaka," shared by several lemur species, echoes the screech—"shee-faak!"—made by some frightened lemurs, but not the silky. (Kevin Schafer)
The pinkish face silkies have is a unique trait. (Kevin Schafer)
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