For years now, conservationists have warned that many Madagascar’s lemur species risk extinction due to rampant deforestation, the illegal pet trade, and the emerging trade in the primates’ meat. Now three disturbing new studies reveal previously unknown details about how the bushmeat trade threatens lemurs, and they’re not all what you may have expected.
The first study found—perhaps not surprisingly—that Madagascar’s extreme poverty is driving the poorest people living near Masoala National Park to hunt and eat lemurs and other wildlife. The park is home to ten of Madagascar’s 110-plus lemur species, including several critically endangered species. Local hunters know that killing lemurs is against the law, but that doesn’t stop them, and it’s easy to see why. The study, published March 17 in Biological Conservation, found that “almost all children in lemur-hunting households were malnourished.” Wild-caught meat, tragically, is the only readily available solution to that problem. The authors concluded that “unless lemur conservation efforts on the Masoala [peninsula] prioritize child health, they are unlikely to reduce lemur hunting or improve lemur conservation.”
Although poverty is endemic in Madagascar, it’s not the only factor driving lemur consumption. Two additional studies published February 29 in PLOS One and April 8 in Environmental Conservation revealed that Madagascar’s wealthier and middle-class citizens are equal participants. The studies uncovered a massive supply chain that transports bushmeat from lemurs and other endangered species into urban and semi-urban areas, where they are sold in restaurants, open-air markets and even supermarkets.
The studies, the result of almost 2,000 interviews throughout the northern half of Madagascar, found that the bushmeat trade in these more urban areas is not about poverty. Instead, it’s because people have a preference for wild-caught meat over more commercially grown livestock.
Combined with the first study, the two new papers reveal a complex answer as to who is eating lemurs and why. “It’s not just poor, rural people and it's not just rich, urban people,” says Temple University researcher Kim Reuter, the lead author of the two papers and a co-founder of the Lemur Conservation Network. “There are a lot of people in the middle, your average Malagasy person living in semi-urban areas for example, who eat bushmeat.” In fact, Reuter and her colleagues found that these urban consumers eat twice the amount of bushmeat as people living in rural areas. They’re also willing to pay more for it.
Reuter’s studies conclude that this trade, which hasn’t been well-understood until now, could be enough to push several species closer toward extinction. She also points out that it’s important to study what happens to lemurs outside of natural habitats and protected areas, and that conservation programs need to address the bushmeat trade in addition to other efforts such as forest preservation. The two studies also reveal a need to enforce Madagascar’s all-but-ignored laws about the bushmeat trade while there’s still anything left to protect.
Previously in Extinction Countdown: