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Lemur yoga: Fueling the capture of wild lemurs? (commentary)

  • In April, the BBC published a fawning article about an English hotel that is offering lemur yoga classes featuring endangered ring-tailed lemurs. Knowing full well that this media coverage would negatively impact lemurs living in the wild, we contacted the BBC, hoping to mitigate the damage.
  • In today’s digital age, every lemur kept in captivity, either in Madagascar or abroad, is fueling — directly and indirectly — the illegal extraction of lemurs from the wild.
  • Not a week goes by without more news of the precipitous decline of Madagascar’s biodiversity. And while it will take tens of millions of dollars to protect what is left, refusing to engage in exploitative encounters and sharing your lemur selfie online is a good place to start.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In April, the BBC — whose website is visited by 13.2 million people in the UK every day — published a fawning article about an English hotel that, in collaboration with the Lake District Wildlife Park, is offering lemur yoga classes featuring endangered ring-tailed lemurs. Knowing full well that this media coverage would negatively impact lemurs living in the wild, we contacted the BBC and The Guardian, hoping to mitigate the damage. Neither media company responded to our emails or tweets, and as of yesterday, there are more than 100,000 Google search results for the words “lemur yoga bbc.” The story has now been featured in the Guardian, New York Post, and This Morning, among many other outlets.

Lemurs, which include 113 different species of primate, are found only on the island of Madagascar. All but four of these species are at risk of extinction. We found that, over a six-month period of time, more than 30,000 lemurs will be kept as illegal pets in Malagasy households. Although there are likely over a million lemurs still living in the wild across the country, most lemurs extracted for the pet trade are from a few key species popular with tourists and able to survive in captivity. Of these, ring-tailed lemurs are the most popular pet: in 12 towns within and near the species’ range, more than 3,000 individuals were kept as pets by households in the six months prior to one of our surveys.

For context, in 2016, we estimated that only about 2,220 individuals could be found at 32 locations in the wild (though the range of ring-tailed lemurs is much larger than these 32 locations, and more individuals than were counted were likely present). A recent study we performed showed that, on top of the other threats facing ring-tailed lemurs — which already include habitat degradation and hunting — their extraction for the pet trade cannot be considered sustainable. Exacerbating this is the fact that, in Madagascar, many lemurs are not successfully kept as pets for more than a few months and at least one-third of attempts at owning a pet lemur end with the death of the animal. In addition, once lemurs are kept as pets, it is practically impossible to return them to the wild.

Mouse lemur on the premises of a tourism facility in Madagascar. Courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey

The reasons why lemurs are being illegally extracted from the wild are straightforward. Approximately half of all lemurs kept as pets in Madagascar are kept in private households, having been extracted from the wild in order to show social status, to ‘save’ the lemur from being killed for bushmeat, or because of personal preference. The tourism industry accounts for the remaining lemurs extracted from the wild in Madagascar, including formal and informal tourist-facing businesses, which have surely noted the unending demand from both Malagasy and foreign tourists for lemur selfies or encounters. In the face of the government’s ongoing unwillingness and inability to address this problem, businesses publicly advertise their illegal pet lemurs not just in their communities but online as well. Breaking the law pays off: hotels showing photographs of captive lemurs on their websites or social media charge $25 more per night than hotels that do not. For comparison, 78 percent of the Malagasy population lives on less than $1.90 per day.

In this narrative, it is too easy and too convenient to simply blame the Malagasy people. It’s easy to forget that even if all private ownership of lemurs ceased immediately, tens of thousands of lemurs per year would continue to be extracted to meet the demands of the tourism industry.

It’s not surprising, then, that a common critique of our work from those living in Madagascar is to ask why the Malagasy don’t have the right to their own cultural heritage, wherein endemic wildlife can be captured and kept without social or legal repercussions, when the internet is littered with examples of foreigners doing seemingly the same thing. From Richard Branson on Necker Island to the regular but bizarre stories about escaped pet lemurs wreaking havoc in the United States, these incidents are widely shared by the Malagasy on social media with interest, humor, curiosity, disgust, and anger. It is irrelevant to these commentators that the lemurs kept as pets outside of Madagascar are descendants of captive-bred populations (and therefore have not been taken from the wild). The point is that those with privilege get to interact with lemurs – both abroad and at expensive tourism locations in Madagascar — while those with less privilege might never get the chance to see a live lemur in their lifetimes.

Juvenile ring-tailed lemur interacting with a foreigner in Madagascar. Juveniles often have high mortality rates because they are often not weaned when they are taken from the wild. Courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey.

Underlying these online interactions are the impacts that social media and online imagery can have on people’s perceptions of endangered animals. We know that when ring-tailed lemurs were pictured in non-natural settings, people surveyed in the United States were more likely to want one as a pet and less likely to believe they were threatened by extinction. As another example, when a video went viral a few years ago of a habituated ring-tailed lemur ‘asking’ for back scratches from two Malagasy boys, we saw an increase in the number of people tweeting about wanting one as a pet. Though we haven’t studied the impacts of social media on Malagasy pet lemur ownership explicitly, we believe this is happening in Madagascar as well.

In other words, in today’s digital age, every lemur kept in captivity, either in Madagascar or abroad, is fueling — directly and indirectly — the illegal extraction of lemurs from the wild.

People who see human-lemur or other human-wildlife interactions online often fail to distinguish between staged or artificial wildlife encounters, such as lemur yoga, and the types of behavior that are appropriate or possible with animals in the wild. Moreover, those who go on to travel to Madagascar and seek out wildlife encounters often engage in exploitative lemur experiences so that they can have photogenic encounters comparable to ‘lemur yoga.’ It is known that tourists often rely on information given to them by destination guides and wrongly assume that regulating bodies are overseeing wildlife interactions, but that is not the case in Madagascar.

Caged ring-tailed lemur on the premises of a restaurant in Madagascar targeting foreigners. As social animals, solitary individuals, especially those in cages, can often show atypical behavior. Courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey.

Today, people with power — be it tourists with the financial power to visit Madagascar, international media companies with a reach larger than some countries, and those with influence and celebrity — must take responsibility for the second and third-order impacts of their actions.

It is no longer acceptable for National Geographic, one of our donors, to publish puff pieces about a foreign journalist visiting high-end hotels in Madagascar to feed presumably confiscated lemurs with bananas (the journalist never apparently questioning whether the hotel-supplied narrative is completely true and failing to mention the context of the pet trade entirely).

It is no longer acceptable for well-known scientists from powerful NGOs to pose for photos with lemurs (both in and out of Madagascar), as if to show proof that they are bona fide researchers.

Ring-tailed lemur on the premises of a tourism facility in Madagascar. Courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey.

It’s not acceptable for zoos to allow for human-lemur contact and to promote direct encounter exhibits, as these generate thousands of photos that can easily be taken out of context and shape people’s expectations of wildlife in unrealistic ways. (To their credit, some zoos, like The Lincoln Park Zoo, are taking a stand in this regard.)

And, as the most egregious example we’ve seen to date, it’s not acceptable for a wildlife park to sanction yoga with lemurs in England, as we know it is just a matter of time before we see copycat operations pop up in Madagascar itself. In fact, in response to the lemur yoga news coverage, we have already been made aware of a Malagasy person who wrote on social media that they intend to keep a lemur as a pet in the future, out of anger that foreigners could do something that was so strictly forbidden to the Malagasy themselves.

Looking forward, we ask media companies to think twice before sharing and publicizing imagery of lemurs that are cute, cuddly, or picturing human-lemur contact. We ask for zoos and the public to discourage promoting or engaging in human-lemur contact and, when it does occur, to limit online coverage of such events. Finally, we implore tourists visiting Madagascar not to touch or interact with lemurs in non-natural settings, opting instead to see lemurs in the wild.

Not a week goes by without more news of the precipitous decline of Madagascar’s biodiversity. And while it will take tens of millions of dollars to protect what is left, refusing to engage in exploitative encounters and sharing your lemur selfie online is a good place to start.

A ring-tailed lemur at a tourist-facing facility in Madagascar. Courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey.

CITATIONS

• Clarke, T. A., Reuter, K. E., LaFleur, M., & Schaefer, M. S. (2019). A viral video and pet lemurs on Twitter. PloS one, 14(1), e0208577. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0208577

• Jones et al. (2019). Last chance for Madagascar’s biodiversity. Nature Sustainability 2, doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0288-0

• LaFleur, M., Clarke, T. A., Reuter, K., & Schaeffer, T. (2016). Rapid decrease in populations of wild ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) in Madagascar. Folia Primatologica, 87(5), 320-330. doi:10.1159/000455121

• LaFleur, M., Clarke, T. A., Reuter, K. E., & Schaefer, M. S. (2019). Illegal Trade of Wild-Captured Lemur catta within Madagascar. Folia Primatologica, 90(4), 199-214. doi:10.1159/000496970

• Leighty, K. A., Valuska, A. J., Grand, A. P., Bettinger, T. L., Mellen, J. D., Ross, S. R., … & Ogden, J. J. (2015). Impact of visual context on public perceptions of non-human primate performers. PloS one, 10(2), e0118487. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118487

• Moorhouse, T. P., Balaskas, M., D’Cruze, N. C., & Macdonald, D. W. (2017). Information could reduce consumer demand for exotic pets. Conservation Letters, 10(3), 337-345. doi:10.1111/conl.12270

• Reuter, K. E., & Schaefer, M. S. (2017). Motivations for the ownership of captive lemurs in Madagascar. Anthrozoös, 30(1), 33-46. doi:10.1080/08927936.2017.1270589

• Reuter, K. E., Clarke, T. A., LaFleur, M., Ratsimbazafy, J., Kjeldgaard, F. H., Rodriguez, L., … & Schaefer, M. S. (2018). Exploring the role of wealth and religion on the ownership of captive lemurs in Madagascar using qualitative and quantitative data. Folia Primatologica, 89(1), 81-96. doi:10.1159/000477400

• Reuter, K. E., LaFleur, M., Clarke, T. A., Kjeldgaard, F. H., Ramanantenasoa, I., Ratolojanahary, T., … & Schaefer, M. S. (2019). A national survey of household pet lemur ownership in Madagascar. PloS one, 14(5), e0216593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0216593

Dr. Kim Reuter is the Chief Executive Officer of Franklin Scholars, a social enterprise that uses peer mentoring relationships to strengthen social and emotional skills in young people across England. She is an expert in the wildlife trade of animals in Madagascar and is the author of more than 30 peer-reviewed articles. She is a founder of the Lemur Conservation Network and a member of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group.

Dr. Marni LaFleur is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego as well as the Founder and Executive Director of Lemur Love, a non-profit organisation that works to protect lemurs, empower women, and further science. She is a member of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group and passionate about training the next generation of lemur scientists and conservationists.

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