Madagascar: can finding food alternatives save the endangered lemur?

·3-min read

Anthropologists studying endangered lemurs in Madagascar are working with local communities to support the farming of alternative proteins -- as a study shows families hunt on average one lemur per year.

Lemurs are small furry primates with long or very short tails and mouse or fox-like faces that occur naturally only in Madagascar, where there are high levels of hunger. There are 107 lemur species still in existence. But 103 of those species are threatened with extinction. Some of those species have only a few thousand left.

The study, published in the International Journal of Primatology, was carried out near 10 key protected sites across the Indian Ocean island between 2009-2019.

While an average figure for lemurs hunted each year across the whole of Madagascar was not obtained (since researchers have not yet surveyed the south of the island), the study shows that more than 350,000 were killed for food in one year alone in the 10 sites included.

Reliant on biodiversity

“Madagascar is one of the world's least food secure and most biodiverse places on earth -- it makes sense that people rely on this biodiversity to meet their needs,” lead author Cortni Borgerson told RFI.

The Montclair State University anthropology professor and her team interviewed members of more than 4,200 households in 172 communities located near the 10 protected areas.

These included the Masoala National Park in the north-east, the Mantadia National Park in the east and the Menabe Antimena Protected Area located in the south-west of the country where nearby communities are estimated to eat more than 50,000 lemurs per year.

Food insecurity

Averaged out, about one lemur is eaten per family per year. But hunting figures at each of the 10 sites vary greatly.

Human diets within the communities surveyed during the study were found to lack fat that might otherwise be obtained mostly from cooking oil or meat from livestock. These are expensive or in short supply. Two of the most commonly eaten lemurs, the white-fronted lemur and Geoffroy's dwarf lemur are targeted when they are carrying seasonal deposits of fat, Borgerson explained.

Hunters set snare traps near fruiting trees or along aerial pathways connecting forest fragments to trap lemurs, or killed them using slingshots or dogs.

Borgerson said species like the indri and the greater bamboo lemur, in the country's north and east, and the Verreaux’s sifaka in the south and west are especially vulnerable because they already suffer from low population densities, low reproductive rates and sensitivity to habitat loss caused by deforestation.

"Lemur hunting is primarily driven by food insecurity. This means we have a fantastic opportunity to work together to improve food security in Madagascar, and reduce not only child malnutrition, but also lemur hunting," she said.

Severe drought

Efforts are underway to support households to farm a native insect -- the sakondry -- that is a local delicacy and, when cooked, is said to taste like bacon. The insect is high in nutrients and could prove a viable alternative to lemur meat.

Other interventions include dosing chickens against Newcastle disease using eye drop vaccines that remain stable despite the island’s high temperatures. The vaccines boost the survival of chickens and their supply of meat and eggs to families.

Borgerson said she hopes to get her team to southern Madagascar as soon as possible to begin gathering data on lemur hunting and lemur population densities there, as well as helping communities improve food security. The region is home to the island's famous dry spiny forests and a quarter of Madagascar’s lemur species, but is suffering its worst drought in 40 years.

The UN's World Food Programme this week appealed for funds to supply emergency food aid to the region, where more than a million people are food insecure.

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