Endangered lemur hunting prevalent in Madagascar despite local taboos, laws

What’s wrong with this picture?

Photo © Madagasikara Voakajy

It’s a boy in Madagascar. His face is blurred to preserve anonymity, and he’s carrying a freshly killed indri lemur, a source of bushmeat.

The problem—and it’s a big one—is that indris, like many other lemurs, are endangered, and hunting them is illegal. Someone caught killing a lemur can face up to two years in prison and fines up to about $10,000 US dollars.

Moreover, hunting and eating indris have been long considered “taboo” or off-limits for many locals. According to the legend behind the taboo, a man looking for honey in the forest fell from a tree during his search, but was caught by an indri before splatting onto the ground.

So why is this boy so nonchalantly sporting his illegal, endangered, and taboo kill?

This indri is alive and about.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A study published today in PLoS ONE shows that despite conservation laws and taboo customs, there is a lot of illegal bushmeat hunting in Madagascar.

In one surveyed village, at least 96 indris were brought in over a period of 21 months—an average of four to five slaughtered lemurs a month. “That’s an awful lot of indris for a very, very small village,” said Julia Jones, a conservation scientist from Bangor University and one of the paper authors. “Some of these villages have twenty households, forty households. That’s extremely worrying.”

Overhunting has already caused extinctions in Madagascar, and continued illegal hunting threatens to do more damage.

Enforcement against the hunting of protected species is not strict enough, and many Malagasy (people from Madagascar) are not fully aware of the law or of the need for conserving threatened species. “Many rural people in Madagascar have no idea that indris aren’t common in New York City,” said Jones.

In addition, taboos that have long helped protect species like the indri are fading away.

In Madagascar, taboos originate from a resemblance to humans, as with sifaka lemurs, or from some ancestral connection, as with indri lemurs. Taboos also vary from location to location. For example, the fossa (a cat-like mammal found only in Madagascar) are considered taboo in some circles of eastern Madagascar, whereas the fossa are heavily hunted in areas of northeastern Madagascar, according to Jones.

Left: A sifaka lemur. Photo originally from Outdoorphoto.
Right: A fossa. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The PLoS ONE study suggests that taboos are eroding partly from an increase in illegal gold mining. “It seems that when you’ve got these gold miners moving in, you’ve got some people willing to break the taboos,” said Jones. It only takes a few people to do a lot of damage to a threatened species, she said. Not only that, but the immigrant miners also bring in an increased demand for meat with their extra cash from gold mining.

Bushmeat isn’t even the most preferred meat in Madagascar, as domesticated meat often beats it in taste surveys. However, domesticated meats are more expensive, and many poorer households rely primarily or exclusively on bushmeat as their meat source, often turning to illegal and unsustainable hunting to acquire it.

Raising more domesticated animals may seem like a solution to decrease illegal bushmeat hunting, which is what researchers like Jones are angling for—chicken in particular.

However, while chicken ranks high in taste surveys in Madagascar, poultry husbandry in developing countries like Madagascar are often plagued by diseases that wipe out flocks of chicken.

Harvard researcher Chris Golden and a team of San Francisco Zoo veterinarians are traveling to Madagascar this month to investigate the cause of chicken deaths in a northeast area of the country. (More on their work here.) They suspect the disease is caused by Newcastle disease, a bird disease that causes decreased egg production and death. Newcastle has no cure, but its vaccine is cheap and easy to administer—a penny a dose and an eyedropper to administer, according to Golden.

Once the disease problem is fixed, chickens might make a real difference in increasing availability of domesticated meat and reducing the amount of illegal bushmeat hunting.

“The beauty of chickens is that they’re pretty self-sufficient,” said Graham Crawford, one of the veterinarians involved in the project. “If you can prevent them from getting diseases, they kind of feed themselves. I think that they’re a really efficient food source for these rural economies.”

This kind of initiative is very exciting to Jones, who called it “fantastic.”

Meanwhile, Jones and the Madagasikara Voakajy, a conservation organization in Madagascar, are working to spread bushmeat conservation awareness among the Malagasy. One outreach effort involves a poster campaign depicting unsightly lemur carcasses, the words “’Lemurs are our national heritage, not meat!’” and a reminder of the hefty fine associated with killing lemurs.

Think twice before you go bushmeat hunting, the sign is telling the Malagasy.

With that, I leave with you a picture of a baby indri.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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