5 Jan 2016

We’re hoping that eight-year-old male Raz and 29-year-old female Mamy can help to raise the profile of the highly threatened animals, which are a species of lemur. It’s the first time aye-ayes have ever gone on display here at the zoo.

Aye-ayes are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and experts believe there may be as few as 1,000 to 10,000 left in the wild.

Found on the African island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, ayes-ayes are under threat because of deforestation destroying their natural habitat, poaching and persecution from farmers who take umbrage with their night raids on sweet crops like coconuts and sugarcane. Some local Malagasy communities also believe them to bring bad luck and, a result, they are often killed.

Tim Rowlands, our curator of mammals, said:

Aye-ayes are weird but truly wonderful animals. They have many interesting attributes, one being a long, bony middle finger which they use to extract grubs from tree cavities. Unfortunately it’s an adaptation that’s as much of a curse as a blessing as they can be beaten and sometimes killed by Malagasy villagers who see their crooked claw as a bad omen.

The most severe threat to their survival though is deforestation – it’s taking an increasing toll. The habitat that aye-ayes depend on only exists in Madagascar but, tragically, less than 10% of the original forest on the island is left.

The pressure to clear the forests comes from a rapidly growing but extremely poor population seeking to open up new farmland.

A form of slash-and-burn agriculture known as ‘tavi’ sees trees chopped down and undergrowth set on fire to make way for fields of rice and other crops.

Tim added:

The zoo is actively working out in Madagascar to help protect the forests where aye-ayes live. A big part of this is focused on engaging local communities and persuading them that the forests – and the wildlife that live there – are worth safeguarding. Working with our conservation partner Madagasikara Voakajy, we’re also looking into helping locals to develop more eco-tourism, teach new techniques for growing crops that don’t involve expanding into the forest and maintain a permanent research presence in the area.

Back here in Chester, we hope Raz and Mamy will be an important part of the conservation breeding programme for the species and help to generate more awareness of aye-ayes, highlight what remarkable animals they are and, importantly, throw a spotlight on the many threats they are facing.

In January, a team of 12 from the zoo, travelled to the Mangabe forest in Madagascar to carry out on a range of conservation activities including habitat restoration, engagement with local community groups and running camera trap studies. The study in this area of forest is helping towards the creation of a conservation action plan for a host of threatened species that are only found on the island.

Aye-aye facts

  • Scientific name: Daubentonia madagascariensis
  • Aye-ayes are primates, native to Madagascar, that belong to the lemur family and were once incorrectly classified as rodents
  • Aye-ayes are listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meaning they face a very high risk of becoming extinct in the wild
  • Aye-ayes in zoos across Europe are managed by a conservation breeding programme (EEP) of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA)
  • They are threatened because their habitat is being destroyed, either to make way for crops or for timber
  • Aye-ayes have big, yellow eyes to help them see in colour, even in the dark – uncommon for a nocturnal animal
  • They have a long, thin middle finger which is used to tap along tree trunks to pinpoint the location of a grub
  • These animals have the biggest ears relative to the size of their head of any primate and they use them to pick up the sounds of grubs moving inside tree trunks. They can even rotate their ears independently
  • They have large incisors to gnaw through the bark of trees to extract grubs and sharp claws to helps them grip tree bark as they move around branches
  • They are the world’s largest nocturnal primate – measuring from 74-90cm in length including their large, bushy tails
  • Aye-ayes sleep in nests high up in trees which they make by weaving lots of twigs together and then adding a lining of shredded leaves