Romeo, a 19-year-old diademed sifaka lemur died early Saturday at the Duke Lemur Center. He was the only one of his kind in captivity outside of Madagascar, and had never been able to participate in the DLC's breeding program because a suitable mate was never captured.
"Romeo was an exquisitely beautiful creature, and was gentle and responsive to his caretakers," DLC Director Anne Yoder wrote in a blog post. He was a rich copper color with black highlights, and had a face ringed in soft white fur. "To see him was to be enchanted by him, and for those who cared for him day in and day out, he was a vivid presence. "
He was fond of having his back scratched, and would back up to the mesh of his enclosure to seek out friendly human fingers. "It seemed like he enjoyed us as much as he enjoyed other lemurs," said David Brewer, a research technician who was at DLC when Romeo arrived in 1993 and cared for him daily for many years.
DLC Conservation Coordinator Charles Welch said there are perhaps 6,000 diademed sifakas left in Madagascar. "They have a wide range in the eastern rainforest and are not a particularly rare species when compared to numbers of other Propithecus."
Still the threats to lemur habitat in Madagascar and unrelenting, and the DLC hopes to preserve and protect the animals, in part through a captive breeding program.
Welch had been involved in Romeo's capture in an upland rainforest area called Maromiza (many views), which is south of the protected areas at Perinet/Andasibe. The young sifaka was a juvenile still clinging to his mother but big enough to scamper away briefly during the capture. An unrelated male was also captured in a nearby area and the three were quickly brought to Durham in an attempt to bolster DLC's breeding program.
But the sifakas are exclusive leaf-eaters and did not fare well in captivity. The adults soon perished and Romeo was left alone. "All lemurs are fragile creatures, but sifakas are especially vulnerable," Yoder wrote.
Romeo was believed to be suffering some digestive difficulties, but the cause of his death is still being investigated. That he survived as well as he did is a testament to good care, Brewer said.