By John R. Platt
For years now conservationists have warned that many of Madagascar's iconic lemur species face the risk of extinction due to rampant deforestation, the illegal pet trade and the emerging market for the primates' meat.
Yes, people eat lemurs, and the reasons they do aren't exactly what we might expect.
One 2016 study found — perhaps not surprisingly — that Madagascar's extreme poverty drives the poorest families to hunt and eat lemurs and other wildlife. The study was conducted in Masoala National Park, 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 there's a reason that doesn't stop them. The study, published in Biological Conservation, found that "almost all children in lemur-hunting households were malnourished." Wild-caught meat, tragically, is the only readily available solution for hungry families. 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 that year in PLOS One and in Environmental Conservation revealed that Madagascar's wealthier and middle-class citizens are equal participants. The studies uncovered a massive supply chain that transports meat from lemurs and other endangered species into urban and semi-urban areas, where it is 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 meat 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 supply-chain 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," said Temple University researcher Kim Reuter, the lead author of the PLOS One and Environmental Conservation 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, these urban consumers eat twice the amount of wild-caught meat as people living in rural areas, and they're willing to pay more for it.
Reuter's studies concluded that this trade could be enough to push several species closer toward extinction.
She also pointed 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 meat trade in addition to other efforts such as forest preservation.
Three years after those studies were published, some progress is being made on the bushmeat front. Again, it's probably not what you expect. According to a report in Mongabay, several ongoing projects aim to produce a new protein-heavy cash crop to help wean people off of lemur meat.
Insects, it turns out, may fit that bill.
Insect consumption in Madagascar is already fairly common, with locusts and beetles being among the most popular choices. Anthropologist Cortni Borgerson from Montclair State University hopes to take that further and has embarked on a three-year study to see if insect farming can provide enough food to reduce both malnutrition and the need to hunt wild meat.
"You can see that there is a clear correlation between malnourishment, food insecurity and lemur hunting," Borgerson told Mongabay. "But that also makes it very solvable: We just need to solve what you put on top of your rice. If we can fix this, people will shift off."
Another thing that may help: tourism. Recreational travel to Madagascar, which plunged during the country's recent political unrest, has soared in recent months, and vacation bookings for this summer at more than a third higher than they were at this time last year. This could bring much-needed income to the Malagasy people and provide an incentive to protect wild lemur populations for viewing by eco-tourists. (On the other hand, it also has the potential to further incentivize the lemur pet trade. Many hotels and restaurants have been known to display "cute" lemur in cages or on chains in order to attract tourists, who are unaware that the animals have been snatched from the wild and may not live long in captivity.)
Lemur at a hotel.
Leonora Enking / CC BY-SA 2.0
The tourism boom and the insect research remains in their early phases, but still, they represent progress for the world's eighth-poorest country, a land where at least 95 percent of lemur species are threatened with extinction and far too many people suffer in poverty. With those threats continuing to weigh heavily on both wildlife and people, every step forward is critical — both for humans and wildlife.
(An earlier version of this article was published by Scientific American.)
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
- Elephant Poaching Is on the Rise in Botswana, Study Confirms ... ›
- 95% of World's Lemur Population on Edge Of Extinction - EcoWatch ›
Ninety-five percent of Earth's lemur population is threatened, experts warned this week, underscoring their unfortunate position as the world's most endangered primates.
Of the planet's 111 known lemur species and subspecies, 105 can be provisionally evaluated as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, a group of primate specialists convened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined.
"This is, without a doubt, the highest percentage of threat for any large group of mammals and for any large group of vertebrates," Global Wildlife Conservation's chief conservation officer Russ Mittermeier, said in a press release.
Mittermeier also chaired the primate specialist group that assessed the lemur's conservation status for an update of the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.
The primates, which are unique to the island of Madagascar, are threatened due to habitat loss from agriculture, illegal logging, charcoal production and mining, according to the IUCN. What's more, this ongoing destruction impacts the nation's striking biodiversity as a whole, Mittermeier pointed out.
"This assessment not only highlights the very high extinction risk Madagascar's unique lemurs face, but it is indicative of the grave threats to Madagascar biodiversity as a whole," he said. "Madagascar's unique and wonderful species are its greatest asset, its most distinctive brand and the basis for a major ecotourism industry."
The experts provisionally classified 38 lemur species as critically endangered, 44 endangered and 23 vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. This represents an increase of 12 threatened species from the IUCN's last lemur population assessment in July 2012. The largest jump was seen in the critically endangered category, which rose from 24 species to 38.
Lemur species up-listed from endangered to critically endangered include the indri, the largest of the living lemurs, as well as Madame Berthe's mouse lemur, the world's smallest primate.
Other critically endangered species include the Blue-eyed Black Lemur, as seen in this tweet. It's one of the few primate species other than humans that has blue eyes.
Sounding The Alarm: Madagascar’s Weird And Wonderful Lemurs On The Brink https://t.co/lN8vtic8UH https://t.co/XLno3oNeFX— Global Wildlife Conservation (@Global Wildlife Conservation)1533174959.0
Besides habitat loss, hunting the animals for food and capturing them as pets has emerged as a new threat.
"This is very alarming, and we have noticed a particularly worrying increase in the level of hunting of lemurs taking place, including larger-scale commercial hunting, which is unlike anything we have seen before in Madagascar," said Bristol Zoological Society Conservation Director Christoph Schwitzer, who helped organize the assessment, in the press release.
Schwitzer continued, "We are investing a lot of time and resources into addressing these issues and will be implementing our Lemur Action Plan over the coming years, which we are confident will make a significant difference to the current situation."
- One of World's Most Endangered Wolf Species Could Go Extinct in 8 ... ›
- Endangered Species ›
- Missing Maki: Was Endangered Lemur Stolen From San Francisco Zoo? - EcoWatch ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.