Shocking new proof of an emerging trade in lemur bushmeat in Madagascar (see http://tinyurl.com/mqsx7w) is refocusing attention on the conservation and health challenges in one of the world's most important biodiversity hotspots.
The growth of this market, in which lemurs are sold as a delicacy to luxury consumers, could mean extinction for already-endangered lemur species, which are found only in Madagascar. Furthermore, as in other countries, bushmeat hunting carries serious risks to public health by fostering emergence of disease.
Madagascar has experienced an upsurge in environmental crime since its political upheaval in March this year. Increasing illegal harvesting of precious hardwoods and animal trafficking bodes poorly for the future of Madagascar's already-degraded environment, where 90% of its original forest cover has been lost. Political chaos and the withdrawal of foreign aid mean that these environmental crimes have continued almost unchecked.
Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, has warned that certain lemur species, such as the golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli), could vanish as a result of hunting for the new market. There may be as many as 99 lemur species in Madagascar (R. A. Mittermeier et al. Intl. J. Primatol. 29, 1607–1656; 2008). Wiping out any of these would disrupt the ecological balance and undermine the country's ecotourism industry.
Some 75% of emerging diseases have zoonotic origins (L. H. Taylor et al. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 356, 983–989; 2001). Ebola and simian foamy virus outbreaks, for example, as well as HIV, have been traced to bushmeat hunting and butchering. The increase in human–wildlife contact in Madagascar's degraded forests, along with its extreme biodiversity and wide distribution of domestic animals, could enhance the risk of disease emergence and spread, potentially to a global level.
The country's interim government has responded to the crisis by firing several forestry officials, but more cohesive enforcement is needed. Mittermeier has urged the international community to reinstate conservation funding to Madagascar, in order to save this pinnacle of biodiversity. With 20% of the world's primate species in peril, and with increased risks of disease emergence, an integrated solution must and can be achieved by conservation, public health and development interests.
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Barrett, M., Ratsimbazafy, J. Luxury bushmeat trade threatens lemur conservation. Nature 461, 470 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461470a
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