Caged _lemur _2014_01_06
This is one of an estimated 28,000 lemurs that have been illegally held captive as a pet in Madagascar. Illegally keeping lemurs as pets may threaten conservation efforts, as well as the survival of the species. Image: Kim Reuter/Temple University

Over the past three years, an estimated 28,000 lemurs (yes, 28,000!) have been illegally kept as pets in urban areas across Madagascar. These are the same animals whose survival in the wild is already imperilled by hunting and rampant habitat loss, leading experts to describe them as “the most threatened mammal group on earth”. Now, researchers from Temple University in Pennsylvania have turned the spotlight on another menace: illegal pet ownership within Madagascar.

An extensive study conducted by Temple University biology doctoral student Kim Reuter has found that conservation projects focused on the preservation of lemurs have been seriously hampered because they have yet to include the threat that lemur pet ownership poses. "We've been spending millions of dollars on lemur conservation in Madagascar, but despite spending all this money, no one has ever quantified the threat from the in-country pet lemur trade," said Reuter. She warns that millions in conservation funds will be wasted unless the seriousness of the threat is recognised.

The scale of the problem is vast. "We estimated that over 28,000 are kept illegally as pets in Malagasy cities over the last three years alone," says Reuter. That number looks especially grim when juxtaposed with the number of lemurs remaining in the wild. Of the island’s 101 known lemur species, 90 are considered threatened with extinction, with the populations of some species dwindling to fewer than 1,000 individuals. At least 14 lemur species have populations numbering below 10,000. 

Owning a lemur and treating it as a pet is illegal in Madagascar, but as is the case in many other African countries when it comes to wildlife crime, there is little legal follow-through. What's more, aside from the lack of effective law enforcement, “even government officials and the people who are supposed to be enforcing the ban on pet lemurs own them”, according to Reuter.

In recent years, the damaging ecological and animal welfare effects of the exotic pet trade have been felt well beyond Madagascar's shores too, as demand for everything from sloths to slow lorises fuels an increasingly lucrative black market.  

For Reuter, curbing illegal pet ownership is essential in order to save lemurs from extinction. "Now that we know that lemur pet ownership is happening, and happening at this scale, it's an issue that we can't ignore anymore," she warns.

Top header image: Michael Bentley, Flickr