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Lemurs part of Madagascar exhibit at South Carolina Aquarium

A new exhibit at the South Carolina Aquarium gives visitors a glimpse of creatures from Madagascar halfway around the world, with the message that protecting nature everywhere is important.

The exhibit, Madagascar Journey, opens for a three-year run on Saturday. It features creatures from Madagascar including ring-tailed lemurs, a Nile crocodile, giant geckos, boa constrictors and parrots.

“One of the things we realized is that while South Carolina is a very special place, it is not a unique place when it comes to the health of our natural places and sustainability of our species,” aquarium board chairman Ken Seeger told reporters at a preview on Tuesday.

“We felt it was very important to show analogues from around the world to compare South Carolina and our natural resources and our conservation issues to issues as they occur elsewhere,” he added.

The island of Madagascar is home to 250,000 species, but today less than 15 percent of the original native forest remains due to burning and cattle grazing.

The $69 million aquarium, with permanent exhibits portraying the natural habitat of South Carolina from the mountains to the sea, opened 12 years ago.

“For 12 years we have told the story of South Carolina,” said Kevin Mills, the president and CEO of the aquarium. “That's something we will continue to do. But we realized our local audience was also interested in the rest of the world. Madagascar is about as far as you can get from Charleston.”

“It's one of those exotic places people don't know a lot about except for the animated feature and we think it is a story our public will receive well,” he added.

The aquarium has just completed a 15-year master plan that includes, among other things, moving its sea turtle hospital from behind the scenes to the public galleries. The Madagascar exhibit is in a gallery where rotating exhibits are changed every few years.

Visitors enter the exhibit through an arch and pass a fountain near which two vasa parrots are perched. Then visitors see the ring-tailed lemurs behind a glass enclosure.

Other animals and sea creatures from Madagascar, including the croc, fresh water fish and blue spot stingrays are inside the exhibit that resembles a safari camp with a cream-colored jeep sitting between the display cases.

“We wanted to bring the focus on Madagascar because it's one of the most unique habitats out there,” said Jen Skoy, an aquarist at the aquarium.

“The fresh water fish, a couple of species I have are critically endangered and that's something I definitely wanted to show and let people know the lakes and rivers of Madagascar are having a hard time,” she said.