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.


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