Don't eat me. The endangered indri is among the lemurs being hunted in Madagascar. A poster reads: “These animals are our wealth, not meat.”

Rhett A. Butler/; (inset) Courtesy of Julia Jones

Falling Taboos Put Lemurs on the Menu in Madagascar

At a recent ceremony in a small village in eastern Madagascar, a group of concerned elders presented a request to their ancestors. Would the ancestors please lift the taboo against hunting and eating lemurs? After all, a growing number of young people in their society were already flouting the traditional beliefs, illegally hunting endangered species such as the giant indri and eating their meat as a cheap bar snack. This breakdown of societal taboos against lemur hunting, a study now shows, combined with weak enforcement of wildlife laws, is contributing to a rise in illegal lemur poaching in the country.

Conservation scientist Julia Jones of Bangor University in the United Kingdom first became interested in the issue while working on wild game management in eastern Madagascar. She was "shocked" to find that many people in small towns and rural areas, who sometimes have difficulty raising farm animals, were turning to lemur meat as a protein substitute—despite the fact that killing lemurs is well known to be taboo. (It carries hefty fines as well.)

There are several stories about the taboo's origins. One says that a man who fell out of a tree while collecting honey was protected by a lemur; according to another, lemurs are human's ancestors. Even tourists, many of whom come to Madagascar just to see the unique, endangered species, hear that the Malagasy people won't kill the animals.

To discover the extent of the poaching, Jones' collaborators in Madagascar went door-to-door to 1154 households, presented residents with lists of 50 animals, and asked them to mark what they'd eaten in the past 3 days. Few people reported having recently eaten endangered lemurs—but that may be because most know that eating lemur is illegal, Jones says; when asked directly by the researchers, they said it was taboo. When the researchers instead asked people whether they had eaten any of the animals in their lifetime, 95% reported having eaten a protected species, the vast majority of which were lemurs, according to an analysis published online this week in PLoS ONE.

Still unsure of this survey's accuracy, the researchers tasked trusted local people in eight different areas to monitor how many dead lemurs, especially the endangered indri, were brought into the villages over a period of 2 years. The monitors reported the arrival of 233 dead indri and 121 diademed sifaka, another threatened species. Between villages, the reported numbers were highly variable, ranging from not a single dead indri in one village to 96 in another over a 21-month period, Jones says. The latter is "not a sustainable level of hunting," Jones says; the species, already threatened by habitat loss, is extremely slow to reproduce.

The researchers are now hoping to collect better data on how many indri live in the study areas—their number is believed to be very low—and what impact hunting is having on their population.

The team is also interested in studying why the taboos, which Jones says have helped save the lemur in decades past, are breaking down. "In some areas, there's rapid social change due to the rapid growth of illegal gold mining," Jones says; when one person, often an outsider, shoots a lemur and isn't harmed, others follow suit.

Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a primatologist at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Tananarive, Madagascar, believes the poaching problem has intensified since the country went through a political crisis in 2009 that eroded the central government's power and drew attention away from illegal logging and poaching. "There's no [enforcement] of the law in remote areas, control is not easy," he says, and villagers faced with armed poachers feel powerless to stop them.

Interestingly, Jones says, most people don't want to eat lemur; it ranks very low on preference lists for meat. The market for it is in small towns, mostly at bars and hotels, "where men who are gold mining go out in the evening and want some meat snacks with their beer," she says, and rural people eat a bit as well for protein. Improving farming and animal husbandry practices, she believes, might go a long way toward making lemur hunting unnecessary.

"It's very, very difficult to see really robust estimates of people's illegal behaviour, and they've done a great job in doing that," says E. J. Milner-Gulland, a conservation scientist at Imperial College London. "We can't stop people becoming more westernized, but we can work with traditional elders to emphasize the cultural value" of animals such as lemurs, she says.