Dec 15

The decline of traditional cultural taboos in Madagascar is leading to unsustainable hunting of lemurs for bushmeat, according to a new study.

Photo of indri in rainforest canopy

The largest of the lemurs, the Endangered indri is a strictly protected species in Madagascar

Published in the journal PLoS One, the study looked at the eating habits of local people in eastern Madagascar. It found that illegal hunting of protected species was increasing, probably as a result of rapid social changes and an increased demand for meat.

Decline in traditional taboos

Taboos play an important role in traditional Malagasy culture, with lemurs in particular associated with strong taboos that have previously protected them from hunting. For example, many local people revere these unique primates, believing them to be family ancestors.

However, an influx of outside views appears to be eroding these traditional beliefs. As well as this, many people are moving into the remote areas around the country’s eastern rainforests to work at illegal gold mines, which is leading to an increase in the demand for meat.

Photo of brown lemur on a tree trunk

The brown lemur, listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN

Lack of alternatives

The study found that in the households surveyed, just over 10% of meals contained meat from wild-caught animals. Although only a tiny proportion of meat came from protected species, 95% of people admitted that they had eaten a protected species in the past.

However, the study also found that people preferred not to eat bushmeat, only hunting wild animals because of a lack of alternative meat sources.

If they want meat to eat, there is very poor availability of domestic meat in these rural areas,” said Dr Julia Jones, one of the authors of the study. “Chickens suffer terribly from disease in rainforest areas, so do not survive that well – so there is not much protein from domestic animals around.”

Photo of common tenrec which has been hunted for food

Common tenrec, another wild species hunted for food in Madagascar

Major concern for lemur conservation

Although it is illegal to hunt lemurs, species recorded as bushmeat during the study included the Critically Endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), as well as the Endangered indri (Indri indri) and diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema).

The level of hunting observed by the team is of major concern for the conservation of these and other highly threatened species.

According to Dr Jones, “Even if things are being eaten very rarely, if they are very slow-reproducing animals that can be having a huge impact. Species like the indri, for example, mature at seven to nine years and then only have one young once every two or three years.”

Providing a solution

If Madagascar’s lemurs are to survive, urgent action will be needed to reduce the demand for bushmeat. Although improved enforcement of existing wildlife laws can play a role, it will also be important to find sustainable alternatives to wild-caught meat.

Photo of two eastern lesser bamboo lemurs

Eastern lesser bamboo lemurs, another species which is strictly protected in Madagascar

One solution would be to improve the availability of meat from domestic animals, such as chickens. However, this would need to be supported by projects that help ensure poultry and livestock do not get wiped out by disease.

As Madagascar’s wildlife provides an important source of income through tourism, protecting its unique species will also be an important national issue.

If the indri and other lemurs disappear from the forests then you are going to get fewer tourists and much less international interest,” said Dr Jones. “It would be a really positive step and would be worth some investment from the government, given the importance of wildlife to Madagascar’s economy.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – Eroding taboos see lemurs end up on dinner tables.

Find out more about conservation in Madagascar at Madagasikara Voakajy.

View photos and videos of lemurs on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

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