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What conservation isn’t: Eating endangered lemurs to save them

  • Richard Bangs, Editor-at-Large for Expedia.com and a travel writer for the New York Times, Slate, and the Huffington Post, wrote a detailed account for the Huffington Post in which he described his quest to find and eat a Critically Endangered species, the red-ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra).
  • The wildlife trade represents the third-largest illegal trade in the world following the arms and drugs trades, and it threatens to wipe out numerous and diverse species across the globe.
  • Lemurs, endemic to Madagascar, now represent the most endangered group of mammals on Earth with more than 90 percent of the 113 species being threatened with extinction. Thus, lemurs are illegal to capture, kill, sell, or eat in Madagascar.

“I can get you a lemur if you want one,” said a sun-hardened Malagasy man after finishing up an interview, via translator, about his history of hunting lemurs. He could get us a dead crowned lemur in a week, tops. Shocked, we declined; there are less than 10,000 individuals of this species left in the wild.

Although we have each worked in Madagascar for years on various different projects that study aspects of the illegal trade of lemurs, we are constantly reminded of the fine line that divides those who collect data on the illegal wildlife trade to understand it, and those who collect data to expose it.

The wildlife trade represents the third-largest illegal trade in the world following the arms and drugs trades, and it threatens to wipe out numerous and diverse species across the globe. Combating the illegal trade of wildlife generally centers on three principles: 1) stop the killing, 2) stop the trafficking, and 3) stop the demand. In desperate attempts to slow down the trade, different organizations — and the people working for them — will try almost anything.

A couple weeks ago, Richard Bangs — known for serving as the Editor-at-Large for Expedia.com and as a travel writer for the New York Times, Slate, and the Huffington Post — gave his best shot at addressing the illegal bushmeat trade of Madagascar’s lemurs. Bangs, whose company organizes tours to Madagascar, wrote a detailed account for the Huffington Post in which he described his quest to find and eat a Critically Endangered species, the red-ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra).

Lemurs, endemic to Madagascar, now represent the most endangered group of mammals on Earth with more than 90 percent of the 113 species being threatened with extinction. Thus, lemurs are illegal to capture, kill, sell, or eat in Madagascar.

Bangs’ article elicited a strong response from both conservationists and the general public alike. The split between those that support Bangs’ actions and those that don’t has been reflected in the response that individuals had when reading his description of eating what may or may not have been a Critically Endangered red ruffed lemur. Bangs commented that “it tastes like tough beef, even smothered in sauce.” The very title of his article (“Sometimes you have to eat it to save it!”) seems to ignore the desperate appeals that conservationists have been making for the last few years as wild lemur populations dwindle and move ever closer to extinction.

Red-ruffed lemur. Photo by Mathias Appel.

In his search for a restaurant serving lemur meat, Bangs did nothing to prove the existence of an organized, thriving black market in lemur. Nor did he surprise us all by finding the one, single, famous restaurant selling lemur meat in Madagascar that no one seemed to have heard of but which he stated desperately needed to be shut down (the trade in lemurs is very informal and dispersed, rarely moving through established venues like the ones Bangs described).

Rather, Bangs demonstrated that some Malagasy people — like anywhere in the world — can be coerced into breaking the law for a price. In the article, he pays 12,000 Ariary or $4USD to eat lemur meat; this is the equivalent of two-days-worth of income for the average Malagasy citizen. Though that may not sound like much, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 70 percent of the population consuming insufficient calories every day. As such, low levels of compensation (at least by Western standards) — even a single cigarette — can influence individuals to provide information about the illegal wildlife trade, even when it may not be in their best interest. Likewise, low levels of compensation can often lead individuals to engage in illegal activities that they would otherwise avoid, like catering to foreigners interested in consuming Endangered animals.

Bangs’ actions did highlight the trade-offs in the three principles of combating the wildlife trade. In his aim to stop the trafficking of lemurs, he may have unintentionally (albeit temporarily) increased the killing of lemurs. Moreover, he may have increased the perception of demand for those he was interacting with. He describes a situation in which it is clear that a lemur is going to be killed specifically for him to consume (though he ends up eating meat which has apparently been kept frozen). In addition, he purposefully perpetuated the stereotype that foreigners like to eat Endangered animals by boasting that he was “well-connected back in the United States” and that he “could bring other connoisseurs who might enjoy the exotic tastes” of cooked lemurs to Madagascar. It has been documented several times that once animals are seen as a source of income from illegal capture or trade, it can take years for that association to be broken.

But for Bangs, the ends justify the means. For example, it is not clear what kinds of protection were offered to his Malagasy counterparts after he left the country. It appears that several years have passed since he visited Madagascar, but nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that the Malagasy persons named in the article were informed that their act of breaking national and international law would be detailed in an online travel narrative and be posted under the logo of a media company that has over one million comments on its site every month. It should be noted that Bangs wrote in an email that the names in the article have been changed to protect the identities of his Malagasy conspirators; this is not noted in the article itself.

Some would argue that Bangs did the conservation community a service by providing a high-profile platform for this issue and doing much-needed fact-finding for conservation NGOs with strapped resources. Others would argue that if the issue of the illegal trade of lemurs could have been improved by having a well-meaning American travel blogger parachute into Madagascar on a pseudo-independent mission, then perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with the imminent extinction of several species.

Bangs’ actions, at least by his own reckoning, resulted in the closure of the restaurant in which he was able to eat lemur meat. When one of us emailed the Huffington Post with our concerns about the article in question, Bangs responded personally by offering to “shut down” restaurants “anywhere in the world” that “are illegally serving endangered species.” He did not respond specifically to concerns about the need to protect the anonymity of his Malagasy colleagues, though he noted that a famed primatologist, who passed away several years ago, had “sponsored” his search. Bangs offered no information as to why he waited potentially several years to write the story.

Red-ruffed lemur. Photo by Mathias Appel.

The article concludes with a neat and tidy ending: it is insinuated that the restaurant serving lemur meat has been reported to the authorities by the anonymous researcher and is “gone.” But is that what really happened? Simply shutting down the physical location of the restaurant in no way ensures that the proprietors aren’t serving Endangered animals at new or other locations. Moreover, it may not have been clear to them that serving Endangered wildlife was connected to the loss of their establishment. If the proprietors did link the negative experience of losing their restaurant to serving illegal bushmeat, they may, in the future, be more secretive about their illegal activities and thus make it more difficult for legitimate researchers or law enforcement entities to combat the illegal wildlife trade.

The illegal wildlife trade is rarely solved as easily as Bangs suggests, and the article says nothing about the communities in Madagascar that are poorer than most Westerners can ever imagine, that often have no choice but to continue to illegally extract the natural resources around them, that have been historically repressed and don’t trust Westerners. It says nothing about the fact that enforcement in Madagascar is painfully bad, with law-breakers bribing their way out of trouble. It says nothing to frame the context of the problem, which is that only two percent of individuals in urban areas of Madagascar purchase lemur meat from restaurants and the average Malagasy individual last ate lemur meat 11 years ago. It doesn’t touch on the fact that the most common method of procurement of lemur meat is a consumer hunting the lemur him/herself, often because they have no other choice.

To be clear, the illegal wildlife trade must be dealt with and we are in full support of a continued ban on hunting and extraction of lemurs in Madagascar. However, we are of the opinion that an approach like Bangs’ does not work, at least in isolation; there are excellent groups that work both together and independently of government agencies to investigate the illegal wildlife trade and disrupt trade networks using sting operations. These groups are critical to combating the wildlife trade and their interventions are typically planned to ensure they have the desired direct and indirect impacts on illegal trade. Bangs wrote in his article that he would “gladly supply the match” to burn down the restaurant that he himself had visited. Yet, his actions – which took place years ago and were only just reported online – did not move the needle on illegal wildlife trade issues in Madagascar. If it had, the illegal hunting of lemurs in Madagascar wouldn’t continue to be reported again and again and again as an issue that needs to be tackled.

This is an issue that requires coordinated, targeted, thoughtful, and sustained action. It also requires a deep understanding of local cultural norms, traditions, and potential consequences to one’s actions. We would wager a guess that consuming lemurs to save them does not meet these criteria.

About the authors:

Kim Reuter, PhD, is the Natural Capital Accounting Director in the Africa & Madagascar Field Division at Conservation International in Nairobi, Kenya; she also studies the in-country ownership of pet lemurs in Madagascar via the Pet Lemur Survey Project. Tara Clarke, PhD, is a co-director of Lemur Love, Inc. and Visiting Assistant Professor in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, United States. Marni LaFleur, PhD, is the founder and co-director of Lemur Love, Inc., an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, United States, and an IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group Member.