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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.
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By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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