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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2 Responses to Endangered lemur hunting prevalent in Madagascar despite local taboos, laws

  1. 1. In 2004, Jessie Young & I published a paper in Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on hunters’ (Belizean men’s) attitudes and behavior. Unless I am mistaken, this paper is available at no cost online at the journal’s website.
    2. With a questionnaire tool, Young interviewed >50 self-described hunters in one village.
    3. We were, in particular, concerned to evaluate possible hunting pressure(s) on the black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra); although, our study yielded information on quite a few additional taxa, nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular, some of these inhabiting riparian areas.
    4. Similar to the conditions in the new report on lemurs, Creole’s have historically honored a taboo prohibiting monkey hunting. Young and I suggested that the convention derived from Mayan beliefs whereby monkeys embodied dead relatives. It is interesting to note that most of the Creoles don’t believe the Mayan tale but follow the proscription anyway.
    5. Though Young and I found no evidence that the Mayan tradition was eroding, we found a strong effect for the influence of “opportunity costs” as determinants of prey choice. In other words, decisions to kill prey were a partial function of relative costs and/or benefits of searching for and killing a different, more preferred, prey item. Put another way, our data suggested that hunters weighed what they might be missing if they settle for an opportunity in hand. These decisions (some part of them unconscious and/or automatic ones?) were strongly influenced by food preferences, and black howlers were not very high on the list. Spider monkeys, however, are considered tasty; however, they were not present in our study region and hunters denied hunting Ateles as well as A. pigra.
    6. We were able to determine hunters’ food preferences and to rank these from most to least preferred. These and other results indicated that decisions to kill were primarily opportunistic. Discussing the implications of this strategy is beyond the scope of this brief reply. However, it is worth noting that paca was very high on the list of preferences, a species highly regarded as a tasty source of food for many groups throughout the Neotropics (eg Colombian Amazon: CB Jones, personal observation). This animal is, indeed, delicious and, in BZ, is considered a special meal for special occasions for special guests. To the contrary, at least in some areas of the Colombian Amazon, paca is eaten not infrequently by families in informal conditions.
    7. It may be interesting to some readers to note that, though some carnivores (especially canids & felids) exhibit coordinated group hunting as is common in humans and that may occur in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), on balance temporal, energetic, and other costs, ceteris paribus, constrain hunting strategies to opportunism (CB Jones, unpublished). Again, long story.
    8. It may be interesting to some readers, also, to be reminded that body mass for large mammals usually correlates with generalist strategies eg opportunistic hunting (niche breadth may be either relatively narrow or relatively wide).
    9. Caveats are in order relative to comparisons and contrasts between the two cases: among habitat countries, Belize is among the wealthiest and most environmentally conscious (these factors are, self-evidently related to each other). Unless I am mistaken, BZ has the highest proportion of remaining forest cover compared to any other CA country (including MX in NA, also). One obvious point is that many more citizens in Belize are able to procure an adequate diet, including protein components, compared to The Malagasy Republic.
    10. I do not recall reading about this topic in the report on lemur hunting; however, in my experience, I received much more support for the project described here from the BZ department of wildlife and resources than from NGOs. This, also, is a long story.
    11. The hunting landscape and story have changed rapidly and radically in the past 15 y by immigrants to BZ who do not honor the Mayan Code. Some of these immigrants are legal (Chinese), some are not (illegals crossing the border from Honduras). A serious border dispute has persisted for decades with Guatemala in SW Belize. Hunting is likely to occur in this region, also, and, as well, because Guatemalan campesinos cryptically cross the “border” along this N-S “border” to cull the valuable xate plant, sometimes remaining on the BZ side in makeshift campsites. Clearly, these men must eat.
    12. An added detail, BTW, is that British soldiers stationed in BZ reputedly kill monkeys recreationally. I have often seen these men at the airport, on the streets of Belize City, in San Ignacio and other hamlets, as well as in bars. They are a bored young lot seeking many diversions.
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  2. Pingback: Madagascar’s Lemurs, Sacred No More – New York Times (blog)Nouvelles du monde | Nouvelles du monde

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