Reaching toward the camera, a little-known species reveals one of its most important adaptations: its hand. Like nearly all primates, the indri (Indri indri), the largest of Madagascar’s living lemur species, possesses not feet or paws at the ends of its forelimbs, but hands capable of grasping and manipulating objects. Featuring long, slender fingers and a nearly opposable thumb, the indri’s dexterous appendages are particularly well suited to an arboreal life spent foraging for leaves and fruit in Malagasy forests.

Vulnerable to predators when on the ground, indris prefer to stay aloft. But rather than swinging from tree to tree to make their way through the forest as many primates might, indris instead leap and grasp repeatedly in a peculiar form of locomotion that biologists call “ricochetal leaping.” Typically, these leaps, which span as much as 10 meters (33 feet), begin with the indri’s back to where it wants to go. But then, after pushing off with powerful hind limbs, the indri swivels its body in mid-air, like a springboard diver completing a twist, in order to face its intended landing site. The indri’s elongated hands, which are capable of executing a vice-like grip around even large objects, are critical to a successful touchdown, especially given that vertical tree trunks are often the only perches available.

Of course, none of the indri’s adaptations—from its specialized hands to its robust, leaf-processing digestive system—are particularly useful without trees to latch onto in the first place. And unfortunately, in Madagascar, forests have been shrinking for decades. Without a more developed economy, Malagasy people are too often left with no other option than to cut trees for fuel, for income from timber, or to make space for agriculture. Years of rampant deforestation have decimated Madagascar’s wildlife, including lemurs like the indri. In response to the indri’s precariously low population—somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 individuals—and the continuing threats they face, the International Union of Conservation of Science (IUCN) now lists the species as Critically Endangered.

Fortunately for the indri, conservation organizations and local communities have joined forces to protect what’s left of the species’ habitat. For instance, the IUCN’s Save Our Species program is now working to improve local agricultural practices, provide alternative cooking technologies, and facilitate community-led reforestation initiatives. They are also helping to grow the country’s ecotourism infrastructure in order to create new economic incentives for protecting wildlife and the habitats they depend on. With 60 percent of the country’s population under the age of 25, many of the most promising conservation efforts are focusing on Madagascar’s younger generations, with the hope of instilling both a greater appreciation for the country’s unique wildlife and a desire to ensure its survival.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar

Nick Garbutt

Nick Garbutt is an award-winning wildlife photographer and critically acclaimed author best known for his work in tropical rain forests. A zoologist by training, Garbutt's travels have taken him from the Poles to the Tropics, photographing wildlife in many of the world's iconic locations as well as in less glamorous and more unusual spots. Borneo and Madagascar are among his favourites. Garbutt’s images appear in publications including National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, Terra Mater, and Geographical.

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