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September 27, 2004
BY Eric Rangus
In Madagascar, Ben Freed is a rock star. As much as a guy who studies non-human primates can be a rock star, anyway. The lanky, 6-foot-7-inch anthropology lecturer already cuts a pretty distinctive figure, but in Madagascar—an island nation 248 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa where the average height of its inhabitants is 5 feet 4 inches—he’s a giant.
From January 1989 through November 1991 Freed, then a doctoral student at Washington University at St. Louis, lived in a tent in the middle of a rainforest on Mt. D’Ambre (Amber Mountain) in the northern part of the country. He was studying the habits of two species of lemurs—crowned and Sanford’s lemurs.
While there was no concerted effort on Freed’s part, he made a name for himself. In some places he may have made the jump to legend status.
This past summer, during Madagascar’s winter, Freed returned to the country to take his dissertation research in a slightly different direction. He wanted to explore other lemur areas, review their living conditions and also collect information that could be used by conservation groups looking to protect the habitats of the 32 species and subspecies of lemur that are native to Madagascar—all of which are endangered.
He spent 10 weeks in Madagascar doing just that, funded by a grant from the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS). While in country, he would walk past strangers, some of them children, who would stop, turn, point and yell, “Ben!” When Freed returned to his old dissertation site on Amber Mountain, he found that it had been renamed “Camp Ben.”
“Every place I went, it was just utter, pleasant shock,” said Freed, who had not been back to Madagascar since 1991. Much of the fun this time was reconnecting with some of the Malagasy he had met during his first visit. But the emotions that came with his return to Camp Ben were more than he imagined.
“There must be muscle memory, because there were footholes I remembered,” he said. “I knew the footpaths by heart even though the areas had overgrown; we found the exact same trees. We even saw groups of lemurs in roughly the same places.”
Lemurs live for about 30 years in captivity, although their lifespan is unknown in the wild—finding that out is part of the reason Freed continues to research them. So it is possible that Freed may have seen some of the same lemurs he first observed some 13 years ago.
“I’d like to think I did,” he said. “One of the groups moved right from a tree at exactly the time I thought they would.”
Freed began studying lemurs as almost an afterthought while an undergraduate at Duke University. A computer science major, he was looking to double major, and anthropology shared the building. Duke’s primate center had a number of lemurs; Freed gravitated toward them and continued his work as a doctoral student.
“They were three of the best years of my life; I was really fortunate,” Freed said, recalling his earlier fieldwork, in which much of his duties entailed, literally, sitting and watching the lemurs do what they do from dawn to dusk. While Freed returned to the United States at the end of 1991, the data were so numerous that his dissertation was not completed until 1996. For the last six months of Freed’s time in the rainforest, he was joined by his wife Rose Anne, an IT professional by trade but an amateur primatologist on the side as a result of her husband’s onsite training.
“Every day, I feel as though I was blessed to work in the forest,” Freed said. “I got to see the primates function as a group, and it’s a daily soap opera so it’s terribly addicting. You’ve got this wild primate over there who doesn’t care about you, and you’re actually seeing a lot of the things in action that you’ve studied in the classroom.”
But returning to Camp Ben was only a small part of his summer trip. Freed spent most of his time exploring smaller forests in northern Madagascar, many of which had not been researched previously. To do that, he and his group spent a lot of time hiking (often in the downpours). It wasn’t easy, either. With full backpacks, Freed estimated he hiked about 625 kilometers over the 10 weeks. Despite eating relatively well, Freed lost 45 pounds.
“But we had a blast,” he said. “It was just incredible to do this. You meet a lot of people, and you see fantastic scenery.” Freed and his group trudged from rainforest to savannah to the rocky coast and back again. His only tools of observation were a notebook and camera—not even a digital one.
While lemurs are endangered and not very large (a grown lemur is a foot long plus tail and weighs between three and five pounds), they are social creatures, so observing them is not difficult. They can be an arm’s length from a human and completely go about their business.
“I’ve got friends who work with other primates, and it takes them several days, months—or even years, in the case of gorillas—to habituate them; mine were, like, five minutes.” Freed said.
Lemurs are a somewhat understudied member of the primate family; research was first conducted on them in the 1960s. They are considered “lower” primates, meaning that they are most similar to the earliest primates. Lemurs have different brain organization than monkeys, apes and humans, yet they are socially complex creatures, some living in small, monogamous groups, others in large groups.
Although it is known that all lemurs are endangered, researchers and conservationists do not agree about how many are left. Crowned lemurs and Sanford’s lemurs, for example, range between 10,000 and 100,000 per species, although Freed believes the number is closer to the low end.
Current research, he said, extrapolates the relatively high number of lemurs that live close to humans and assumes those numbers are similar in remote areas. This belief is one of the reasons Freed wanted to visit remote areas to study.
What he found was surprising. In the larger rainforests, the highest densities of lemurs were found in heavily populated areas (Madagascar, with a population of 17 million, hasn’t become overly urban, but cities have begun encroaching on the rainforest), but the interiors did not show commensurate numbers.
However, in smaller forests, which have long been ignored by conservationists, lemurs are thriving. The key, Freed said, is the local populations’ relationships with the lemurs.
“The lemurs are protected by local traditions,” Freed said. One legend Freed learned during his dissertation work is that, during colonial times when the French colonists would move through the mountains, the crowned lemurs would give a distinctive call warning the townspeople. “People don’t eat them and they don’t trap them,” he said.
Freed doesn’t intend to wait another 13 years for his next visit to Madagascar. Encouraged by how quickly he was able to pick up where he left off, Freed hopes to return next summer—this time with students from Emory and Madagascar’s University of Antsiranana as company, provided he can find the funding. Specifically he hopes to investigate the crowned and Sanford’s lemurs’ social organization.
He already has taken the next step with his most recent research. He passed his finding on to conservation groups in Madagascar and hopes to present it to other wildlife groups with the intent of establishing some long-time research efforts there.
Freed’s interests extend beyond non-human primates. He likes the human ones, too. A Crystal Apple Award winner, Freed devotes a great deal of time and energy to his teaching on the Emory campus. Off campus, he mentors about a half-dozen high school students students and tries to help them with ecology. Freed also gives guest talks for honors and advanced placement biology classes in east Cobb County, where he lives. He brings in examples from his field research and shows them how science relates to what they see every day.
His work has an activist edge as well. In 2002, in response to efforts to remove the word “evolution” from biology teaching, Freed—along with faculty from other area colleges and concerned parents and teachers—co-founded Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education (GCISE) to promote scientific literacy and excellence in science education.
While GCISE’s work to counter plans to change the way evolution is taught in schools (the plan never was enacted) may make the newspapers, most of the organization’s work is of the grassroots variety. The group does community outreach. Freed himself has met with Cobb County’s director of science instruction to design creative ways to get students interested in science.
“What GCISE is trying to do is protect good science education, facilitate these opportunities and put out a voice when science is questioned,” said Freed, who has an 8-year-old daughter. “Providing opportunities for parents to hear voices of people who deal with science every day is important. What is science, and what meaning does it in everyday life? These are things that we try to bring to teachers, administrators, parents and students.”