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Right Now | Wild Harvest

A Taste for Extinction

July-August 2005

The island nation of Madagascar boasts not only one of the highest levels of species diversity on earth, but also unparalleled rates of endemism: approximately 84 percent of its plants and animals are unique. And none of its primates—69 types in all—occur naturally off-island. The implications for biodiversity protection are huge. Yet in the 2,000 years since the first humans arrived on Madagascar, its natural habitat has shrunk to a mere 10 percent of what researchers estimate existed originally. Slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal production, mining, and timber exploitation have decimated the country’s forests.

Now an additional menace, “bushmeat” hunting—the killing of wild forest animals for human consumption—is threatening some of Madagascar’s most vulnerable species, particularly lemurs, bats, and rare carnivores. Christopher Golden ’05 spent three months on the island last summer, investigating the causes and frequency of such killings for a senior thesis in his special concentration, environmental conservation. His paper (which won two University prizes for its scholarship) is the first systematic study of the problem.

Golden, who first visited Madagascar as a 16-year-old Earthwatch volunteer, did his research in the remote reaches of the Makira rainforest, in the northeastern corner of the country. Accompanied by a local project assistant, a cook, and a porter from a nearby town, he traveled to 15 villages and interviewed more than 200 households about their diet, income, and hunting practices. His fluency in Malagasy, combined with his youth and enthusiasm, earned him the local people’s confidence and enabled him to gain information about wildlife hunting in the Makira that past researchers in other parts of the island had failed to uncover.

Golden’s data revealed that five of six mammalian species for which sufficient life-history data exist are being hunted at unsustainable rates. Near the top of the endangered list are a number of large primates, most notably the indri, Madagascar’s largest lemur, and a carnivore called the fosa, which resembles a low-slung puma. Golden also discovered that the price of wild meats rises the greater one’s distance from the forest, confirming the existence of a bushmeat trade. “His findings are groundbreaking,” says Russell Mittermeier, Ph.D. ’77, director of Conservation International. “[Golden] has changed our attitude about the impact of hunting in Madagascar. He has alerted us to the fact that the bushmeat problem is doing far more damage to the country’s wildlife than anyone had thought.”

Conservationists had believed that Madagascar’s forest species were largely protected from human hunting by local taboo systems, so Golden translated some 30 cultural stories and taboos, known as fady, relating to animals in the Makira forest. He found that some taboos which traditionally proscribed the killing of certain species have begun to break down. In particular, the fady against killing the indri—a primate considered sacred because it was believed to be the people’s “ancestor”—is no longer consistently observed; in many communities, villagers now eat indris as a sign of prestige. At the same time, superstitious beliefs encourage the killing of animals that are considered malevolent, such as the fosa (the island’s largest predator) and the aye-aye, an unusually frightening-looking lemur considered a harbinger of evil for children and the elderly. “Whenever either of these animals enters a village, they get hacked to ward off danger,” Golden explains. “And then the villagers usually eat them.”

But the major causes of bushmeat hunting in the Makira are tied to local conditions of poverty and poor diet. Those Malagasy living in and adjacent to the region are among the country’s poorest people; they have limited access to sustainable livestock, few sources of income, and a Spartan subsistence diet. Because wild meats are cheaper than domesticated meats, especially in the immediate area of the forest, poor households rely on bushmeat as an inexpensive and readily available source of protein. At the same time, hunters can sell the better-tasting species of lemurs to consumers farther away from the forest, where bushmeat prices are higher.

Trade in bushmeat is a major problem in much of western and sub-Saharan Africa; in Central Africa, for example, the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force reported in 2003 that “as much as 50 percent of daily protein intake for rural and urban families” was derived from bushmeat. Task-force members worry that the African situation may become as bad as that in parts of Asia, where many species have been hunted to extinction. And there is another reason for concern. Primates—typically the next group targeted once species like antelope have been overharvested—are the most likely group of animals to be sources of zoonoses: diseases of animals communicable to humans, such as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, herpes B, and AIDS.

In the Makira, Golden says, any solution to the hunting crisis demands a combined focus on development and conservation. The first step is to provide a cheap and efficient source of livestock, to reduce villagers’ dependence on bushmeat. (He found that villagers living within or near the forest were less satisfied with their food than those living in coastal areas, where domestic animals are more common.) He suggests that a sustainable, cost-effective system for raising poultry, combined with the raising of tenrecs—hedgehog-like, insectivorous mammals that are indigenous to the island, extremely fecund, and already part of the local diet—would provide viable alternatives to bushmeat. He adds that government and conservation agencies must also improve legislation and monitor hunting to reduce the killings of more sought-after lemurs for outside markets.

The timing of his research may prove critical. “Golden’s findings,” says Moore professor of biological anthropology Richard Wrangham, his concentration adviser, “are revolutionizing the approach to protecting the precious lemurs in Madagascar’s larger remaining forests.”

~Ashley Pettus

Bushmeat website:

Christopher Golden e-mail address: [email protected]