In response to a recent PLoS ONE article (R.K.B. Jenkins et al., ) pertaining to the consumption of endangered species in Eastern Madagascar as bushmeat, there have been a few shoddy popular press articles (BBC and NYT). The original article and several secondary pieces suggest that the taboo surrounding the hunting of the indri has eroded and this has resulted in increased bushmeat consumption. But first, lets talk about the indri.
The indri is the one of the largest living lemurs (along with the diademed sifaka) and it is known to the people of Madagascar as “babakoto”. The adult indri is nearly 4 feet tall with its legs fully extended and weighs 6-10 kg. They form long-term monogamous pairs and reach sexual maturity at 7-9 years. They only reproduce every 2-3 years because gestation is 5 months and the nearly always single offspring takes about 2 years to become fully independent.
They live in family groups in the montane forests of Eastern Madagascar and together they sing beautiful, but sad sounding songs that can be heard for up to 2km. They are absolutely magnificent.
There are several myths and legends associated with this revered animal. The most widespread is that a small boy was up in a tree getting honey from a hive and fell tumbling to the ground through branches when the babakoto caught him. Another myth tells the tale of two brothers who were living in the forest together and one left to cultivate the land. The brother cultivating the land became man and his brother in the forest became babakoto and sings his sad song for the loss of his brother.
Daily life in Madagascar is regulated by “fady” or taboos. This may mean not wearing certain colors on certain days, sitting in the doorway while rice is sprouting or eating certain foods. Fady differs according to region, but all of these taboos are honored to respect the ancestors. It is fady to kill the indri and several other endangered species.
Indris are endangered primarily because of habitat fragmentation and are very sensitive to small population changes because of their slow generation time.
The PLoS ONE study examined numerous households over several socioeconomic variables to ascertain taste preferences, the presence of fady and diet composition. The majority of people prefer domestic livestock and fish to bushmeat, but unfortunately these are often difficult and expensive to obtain so some resort to eating bushmeat.
They found that a high percentage of people reported the killing of indri as taboo and very few reported eating it. However, reports of the presence of bushmeat as hunted from the forest tells quite a different story with a high number of indri being killed and sold for food. The authors suggest “this may be because the area is undergoing rapid social change, affecting the power of traditional taboos to control hunting.” The paper also continues to suggest that nearly all of the indris were killed by just a few people with guns and the intent to sell. This fact alone may mean that harsher penalties for hunting would alleviate this problem.
The conclusion that the indri is being hunting for bushmeat as a result of eroding taboos is not supported by the data. There were several towns and villages that had a substantial number of hunted indris, but they failed to link this to the belief in taboos.
Finally, some believe that while it is fady to hunt and kill the indri, it is not fady to consume it. This would clearly explain why a few are hunting for several to buy the bushmeat.
The indri is one of the most remarkable animals out there. They have never been able to reproduce in captivity so these populations are most likely the last hope for species preservation. The problems in Madagascar are vast and it seems heartbreaking that an endangered species is being hunted for food because a country is so poor that there are no alternatives.