MYAKKA CITY -- Ikoto is the poster child for the Lemur Conservation Foundation.
The 23-year-old Sanford lemur is the last of his kind in captivity, said Lee Nesler LCF executive director and chief executive officer. To find another, you would need to search the rapidly disappearing forests of Madagascar.
"It's a reminder of the importance of what we are doing. It's a reminder that we can't let this happen again," Nesler said.
The 110-acre Myakka City conservation habitat is home to Ikoto and 44 other lemurs, including ring-tailed, red-ruffed, collared, mongoose and common brown species. Most are endangered or critically endangered. Lemurs as a whole are the most threatened mammal on Earth, according to some scientists.
Ikoto is a staff favorite
with his outgoing, friendly personality.
He doesn't hear as well as he did in his younger days and now lives in an enclosed shelter to protect him from predators. His companion is a common brown lemur named Merlot.
Ikoto was born at the Duke Lemur Center and came to Myakka City on Nov. 11, 2006.
Duke contributed the first 11 lemurs to the reserve Nov. 19, 1999.
Lemurs are prosimians, a group of primates considered more primitive than monkeys and apes.
Lemurs date to the time of dinosaurs. The only place they are found in the wild is Madagascar.
"They offer a glimpse into our evolutionary past," said Alison Grand, animal care manager at the foundation. "They did in Madagascar what old world monkeys did in parts of Africa. There are 103 species of lemur in Madagascar. They come in every size, shape and color. They filled every environmental niche in that country."
Foundation staff members take their work in providing a genetic safety net very seriously. To keep the focus on its mission, the conservation habitat is closed to the public, except for an open house in the fall. Research scientists and educational groups may schedule an appointment.
Former Broadway actress-singer Penelope Bodry-Sanders founded the foundation. She went to Madagascar, saw the deteriorating conditions and decided something must be done before lemurs go extinct, Nesler said.
Bodry-Sanders bought land in Myakka because it was available at a good price and was warm enough the animals could be outdoors year-round. In addition, Myakka residents were already accustomed to having exotic animals in the neighborhood because of the many circus folk who lived in the area.
High drama is provided at the foundation during breeding and birthing season. Staff recently celebrated the birth of six babies, five of which survived and are thriving.
The lemurs at the foundation offer gene diversity valuable for breeding programs around the country. Animals from Myakka go to other lemur collections to help with their breeding programs.
Captive populations and organizations such as the foundation provide a safety net for lemur species vulnerable to extinction in the wild.
In 2013, the foundation sent five lemurs to Association of Zoos and Aquarium facilities based on the Prosimian Taxon Advisory Group's breeding and transfer recommendations.
Nesler said foundation work is not for everyone.
"It's a soul's mission," she said. "When you're connected to animals, it's 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But if you're dedicated to the mission, you can't imagine being anywhere else."
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.