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What do lemurs, elephants and cotton-top tamarins have in common? They’re all members of an exclusive club, where female bosses are the norm. With International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day both around the corner, it’s the ideal time to celebrate the feisty females that pack a punch at the AWCP.

9am – One of the first animals to be fed every day at the AWCP is the cotton-top tamarin. Situated at the very top of the park, they usually receive their breakfast first. The cotton-top tamarin is a highly social primate that typically lives in groups of two to nine individuals, but may reach up to 13 members. These small familial groups tend to fluctuate in size and in composition of individuals and a clear dominance hierarchy is always present. At the head of the group is the breeding pair. Dominant pairs are the only breeding pair and the female generally has authority over the breeding male and over the other females of the group. The females actually hormonally suppress the other females of the group. At the AWCP it is Catalina that often has the upper hand over Kenco in our Cotton top pairing. The sad reality here is that due to Brexit and other delays, these animals were unable to fulfil their breeding potential as part of the European Breeding Programme for endangered species. Instead, they live in two pairs of non-breeding siblings. After years of trying to import a female for Kenco and to export Catalina to a zoo in Italy, their older age (10 & 11) means they probably won’t get to fulfil this important role for the conservation of their critically endangered species. A huge blow for the AWCP and for the conservation of this enigmatic primate.

12pm – There are two species of lemurs at the AWCP: brown and ring-tailed lemurs. In lemur society it is often the females who rule the roost but this is not a rule for all. Brown lemurs are not generally female dominated but the small family group at the park is ruled very much by the mother and daughter duo, Mama and Bouclette. A female lemur is called a ‘princess’, but given their reputation, perhaps they should more appropriately be called ‘queens’.

In lemur society it is often the females who rule the roost.

Female dominance in lemur species has been a bit of a puzzle to researchers over the years. Female lemurs are no bigger than males, and they don’t have antlers or bigger fangs to give them a physical edge over their mates. … But when six lemur species were compared, it was found that females of some species have higher testosterone levels than others, this explains their dominance over the males. Efatra (aka ‘Fatty’) is the dominant female in the AWCP group. Mahomby (her male) is a relaxed and popular male. Being the only male of the group, he suffers relatively little grief from the ladies, but Efatra still regularly slaps food from his hand and reminds him of his place. Most of the time the two are very much the ‘happy couple’. A far cry from wild lemur groups, where each breeding season will see one or two males violently ousted, often never to return.

‘Bou’ the brown lemur (c) Karin Tièche

“Females do tend to beat up the males,” says Primate Keeper Nicola Campbell. To avoid smacks to the face and bites, males call out submissively when females approach — a submissive ‘chi chi chi chi’ vocalisation. At feeding time, it is almost always ladies first: If a male jumps ahead, the feasting female may aggressively lunge or glare, and he’ll often retreat to the ground. “In our training sessions, Efatra is very much in charge, always first in line to perform for her treats”, says Head Keeper, Steve Bryant.

For more than 20 species of 107 species of lemurs, including ring-tailed lemurs, female rule is the rule, not the exception. 

4pm – The mothers of the group are important in the multi female, multi male social groups of the macaque. Although the larger males are more dominant, in groups where there are fewer females, the females hold more clout than they usually would as they are more precious to the survival of the group. The AWCP’s group of long-tailed macaques is heavily male-biased, with just 2 females to 6 males, the two females may not rule the roost but they do get their way much of the time, through wily female charm. The old matriarch, La Vieja certainly always finds a way, through cunning and experience, to get the best pickings at feeding time.

Elephants are famously matriarchal but their prowess comes in the form or experience. Female elephants can live into their 80s in matrilineal societies, comprising up to four generations of mothers and offspring. With the most accumulated wisdom about local resources and dangers, female elders lead group movement and food pursuits. These are long-lived females with greater experience, it makes sense that they are the leaders. 

Humans are part of the mammal majority; our leaders are mostly male. Less than 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. In zoos, only 21% of Directors and Managers are female, despite a majority of around 70% female zookeepers. Worldwide, fewer than two dozen women are heads of state or government, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. In about 90 percent of non-industrial societies studied by anthropologists, only men hold political posts. An important aspect to gender inequality is its clear impact on the environment.

Ring-tailed lemurs 
(c) Jess Leaper

International Women’s Day is held on March 8, and this year’s theme is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” So, what does gender equality have to do with the environment?

Mounting evidence shows that advancements in gender equality could have a profoundly positive impact on social and environmental well-being. But if not managed properly, environment projects can actually spur gender inequality. when gender inequality is high, forest depletion, air pollution and other measures of environmental degradation are also high. 

The AWCP has been headed by females for over 16 years. Park Manager, Jess Leaper has been at the helm since 2008, taking the role over from previous Manager, Charley Walker, after. A strong believer in equality, fairness and opportunity for all, Jess encourages all staff to strive for self-development, regardless of their gender or background. “The majority of our interns, volunteers and staff do seem to be female and that is definitely reflected in the applications we receive. We now have two male and two female keepers, I guess that makes it more of a macaque society! But seriously, equality is not about favouring women over men, quite the contrary, it is about bringing balance and fairness to the workplace, allowing individual strengths to shine through, regardless of gender. Although, if we are to progress and create a sustainable balance, it is crucial that equal opportunities are afforded to all and that the imbalances and prejudices of the past are addressed and put behind us”.

Why not treat that special female in your life this Mother’s Day, with a gift of a lemur experience or an animal Sponsorship at the AWCP? Visit the website for more information: awcp.gi/adopt-an-animal. Each experience and sponsorship package from March onwards will plant a tree in a conservation hotspot, with JustOneTree.

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