When Madagascar drifted away from Africa and India tens of millions of years ago, wildlife on the island spun off on its own unique evolutionary path, producing the world's only lemurs (including one extinct line that produced lemurs 12-feet tall). Nearly the size of Texas, it is the fourth-largest island in the world and 80% of its wildlife is found nowhere else.
At least, nowhere else in the wild. Now, visitors to the Bronx Zoo in New York can get amazingly up close and personal with some of Madagascar's extraordinary wildlife.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, owner of the Bronx Zoo, opens Madagascar! Thursday, June 19. The exhibit is free with admission ($15 for adults, less for children, seniors and members) and was opened for a press preview last week.
From any perspective, it's a masterwork of an exhibit.
History buffs can appreciate that it is built in an 105-year-old nationally listed historic building, the Lion House (where Theodore Roosevelt started the Bison Society and some of the first captive breeding of American bison took place). Environmentalists will like that it will be the first landmark gold-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program, thanks to its geothermal heating and cooling system, on-site fuel cells and the like. Engineers will marvel that the building no longer sits on any of its original foundation, now that a basement has been created to fit the exhibition. Artists can appreciate a beautiful mosaic tile entry that highlights Madagascar in a brilliant gold on a blue-hued world map.
But most people will care only about the wildlife on display, and the up-front view visitors get to enjoy. The design employs mesh screens so fine it seems that the lemurs could jump right out into the audience. Curious, quick and prone to ecstatic springing, it's not hard to imagine them enjoying some mischief with the crowds of admirers. (As a legend in Madagascar has it, lemurs and humans are different only in that lemurs choose not to speak "so they don't have to work.") But the barrier is real, if invisible. Mirrors provide additional trompe de l'oeil effect, making some habitats appear much more expansive than they are.
Of Madagascar's 36 lemur species, one-third are endangered. The signature species, predictably and appropriately, is the star of the first station in the exhibit, and different species make appearances throughout. Their enclosures are frenetic dances of hopping, leaf-munching and quick bright eyes that dart around with curious glances at the on-lookers. Radiated tortoises, which like Madagascar's other native tortoises, are seriously endangered and characteristically unhurried, are an often hilarious contrast to the lemurs in the spiny forest habitat.
Large (800 pounds) Nile crocodiles are the star of the next station, which is infused with natural light filtered through the stalagmites and stalactites of a faux cave. Education takes center stage at the third, as massive videos play loops of the deforestation that threatens so many of Madagascar's unique wildlife. Since the first Indonesians colonized Madagascar 2,000 years ago, bringing with them rice and a fear of the forest, Madagascar has been losing its forests. Since 1953, half its tropical forests have disappeared, at a rate of about 2,000 square miles every year (about the size of Delaware).
The exhibit isn't heavy handed with this lesson. It makes its point and moves on. During the press tour, Wildlife Conservation Society folks were more pointed about the purpose of the exhibit. Having worked in Madagascar on conservation issues for about 15 years most recently it negotiated a landmark deal to preserve forests and sell its carbon credits on the world market to benefit local communities the group hopes the the exhibit and zoo do more than provide a pleasing diversion for families on vacation.
The United States, which unlike countries that have implemented the Kyoto Protocol, does not put a price on carbon, will not help preserve Madagascar's forests, at least not yet. The Senate recently defeated a measure to set up a trading scheme for carbon pollution, but both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama support it, so many assume a global warming law will be part of the next president's agenda. "It's bizarre to think," said James Deutsch, director of the WCS Africa Program. "You look at lemurs here, and the connection to American politics is very strange, but very real." Whereas zoos once thought of captive breeding (so endangered species could be re-released into the wild) as being their most important contribution to conservation, now their best purpose is seen as quietly building a constituency to support political action on environmental issues. "We hope this will have a catalytic effect," Deutsch said.
One way to build that constituency is through sheer terror. At least, many New Yorkers, particularly, will find the hissing cockroaches that follow the deforestation videos memorable. A hollowed-out baobab tree allows visitors to step inside cockroach habitat. Yes, they will swarm around you in massive numbers, separated from your face only by plexiglass. The buggers fit neatly in a fist (one of the rare pleasures offered by a press tour: you get to hold them and hear them hiss) and the sight of hundreds crawling over each other is sure to give the willies to many who enter their domain.
Soon after comes a highlight of the exhibit: The Fossa (pronounced "foosh," according to John Robinson, vice president of international conservation for WCS). It's a predator with a weasel's slender arched body (and pedigree) and a cat's face. About half its golden brown, four-foot-long body is tail. Its head seems to be about 50% eyes and 90% intensity. It's sleek. It's strange. It's beautiful. And, as Robinson said, "It's seriously fierce." Absent any barriers it would feast on the red-ruffed lemurs nearby, but in the Bronx commercial zoo-grade carnivore food will have to suffice. (That is, cat food, or something very like it, Pat Thomas, curator of mammals, admitted; lemurs, of course, get lemur biscuits.)
If you're lucky, you will be harangued at the exit with the cacaphonous barking of the red-ruffed lemurs. Their orange tufts of hair behind each ear would give them the appearance of little old men, were it not for their otherworldly yellow eyes. The six males and one female, Thomas said, is not a grouping you would find in the wild. "It's not normal, but they were raised together," she said. "They get along like brothers," Bob Cook, the zoo's general director, said reassuringly.
Whatever their feelings, they seemed to have happily settled into their new home in the Bronx. The territorial whooping told the zoo keepers as much. "They were basically looking at the crowd," Cook said, "and saying, 'Hey, back off man! This is ours.' "
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